The Four Stages of Learning
Written by Calvin Sun 

When learning how to learn a new skill, there are four basic stages:

  1. Unconscious incompetence
  2. Conscious incompetence
  3. Conscious competence
  4. Unconscious competence

Being aware of what stage you are in allows you to seek the proper coaching and internalize information in a way that will help you advance to the next stage of development and ultimately allow you to attain mastery of a skill.

A skilled coach is able to quickly identify where you stand as an athlete and knows exactly how to progress you to the next level.

Stage 1 Learning – Unconscious Incompetence

Stage 1 is where everyone starts, regardless of what skill they are learning. Unfortunately, many coaches teach assuming their athlete is already at stage 2, “conscious incompetence”, and waste time and energy trying to advance their athlete when really they are still stuck at the “unconscious incompetence” stage.

Here are some criteria that distinguish “unconscious incompetence”:

  • The athlete is not aware of the existence or relevance of the skill area.
  • The athlete is not aware that they have a particular deficiency in the area concerned.
  • The athlete might deny the relevance or usefulness of the new skill.
  • No development or learning of the skill can occur because the athlete lacks awareness of their inability.
  • The focus of the athlete and the coach is to move the athlete into the “conscious competence” stage by demonstrating the skill and the benefit that it will bring to the their game.

The goal of coaching at Stage 1 is to help the athlete understand the importance and benefit of developing the skill being taught. If the athlete does not see the value of learning the skill and isn’t aware that they are deficient, it is very unlikely the athlete will put any appreciable effort towards learning the skill.

For example, the basic squat is taught to beginners because it is a cornerstone movement and many more complex exercises build upon this one movement. It is the coach’s job to educate the novice athlete on why this movement is important to learn as well as show them where they are currently deficient. Stage 1 is not limited to novice athletes. Athletes who are considered “advanced” will likely start at Stage 1 with a new skill but quickly move to Stage 2.

Stage 2 Learning – Conscious Incompetence

Stage 2 is where the athlete begins to really learn the skill that is being taught. Some criteria that distinguish stage 2:

  • The athlete becomes aware of the existence and relevance of the skill.
  • The athlete is also aware of their deficiency in this area, typically by attempting or trying to perform the skill.
  • There is an appreciation for the value of learning the skill and the athlete realizes that by improving their skill or ability in this area their overall game will improve.
  • There is a measurable level of ability that is established and the goal is to progress to the level of skill required for the athlete to achieve competence.
  • The athlete makes a commitment to learn and practice the new skill and to move to the “conscious competence” stage.

Stage 2 is where reality sets in for the athlete. An athlete who once thought of himself as very strong and athletic is now humbled by a simple handstand. Or perhaps, someone who thought of herself as flexible now realizes that she struggles to perform a proper overhead squat due to poor mobility.

Progression to stage 3, “conscious competence”, usually occurs fairly quickly if the athlete is working with a skilled coach. Factors that may slow the progression include injury, lack of mobility, and lack of strength. The transition from Stage 2 to Stage 3 is obvious as the athlete will be able to perform the skill on command.

Stage 3 Learning – Conscious Competence

Stage 3 comprises the majority of an athlete’s training time in the pursuit of skill development. At this stage, the athlete can reliably perform the skill, but requires a great deal focus and concentration in order to perform. Here are some criteria for Stage 3:

  • The athlete can reliably perform the skill at will.
  • The skill is difficult, if not impossible, without concentrating and thinking about it.
  • The athlete can perform the skill without assistance.
  • The skill is not yet “second nature” or “automatic”.
  • The athlete might be able to demonstrate the skill, but is unlikely to be able to teach it well to another person.
  • Ideally, the athlete continuously practices the new skill and, if appropriate, commits to becoming “unconsciously competent” at the new skill.

For example, Olympic weightlifting is a common skill set where you will find that most athletes spend a great deal of time in the “conscious competence” stage. It takes years and years of focused practice to develop an instinctual ability to perform these lifts.

Frequent, deliberate practice is the most effective way to move from stage 3 to stage 4. Athletes who struggle to move to “unconscious competence” might be practicing the skill inconsistently or, in some cases, might need a new coach with a higher level of teaching ability to help them fine tune the skill and increase their understanding.

Stage 4 Learning – Unconscious Competence

Stage 4 is where the athlete has practiced and drilled the skill so much that it has now become “second nature”. There is little to no concentration required to perform the skill. For most adults, driving a car is a skill that is an example of Stage 4. Here are some distinguishing criteria:

  • The skill becomes so practiced that it enters the unconscious parts of the brain.
  • It can be possible to for a Stage 4 skill to be performed while performing another task. For example, talking to a passenger while driving a car or communicating with a teammate while performing kipping pull-ups.
  • The athlete might now be able to teach others in the skill, however they may experience difficulty in explaining how they do it as the movement is now largely instinctual.
  • Practice, or frequent exposure, is required to maintain this level of skill. Taking a prolonged break can result in regression to a lower stage.

“Unconscious competence” is the final stage of learning, though it can be a highly perishable stage depending on the type of skill that is being discussed. Another issue at Stage 4 is that the athlete can become somewhat complacent in their abilities. As new standards arise, the athlete and coach may need to revisit certain skills and determine if there might need to be some work done in order to improve the skill to meet new standards.

For CrossFit athletes, there can be dozens of skills to maintain in order to be an effective competitor.

A good coach will structure a program that progresses an athlete to “unconscious competence” in most skills without compromising other relevant skills and abilities.

For example, a coach should not focus their athlete’s training on improving Olympic weightlifting to the point where gymnastic skills, such as pull-ups and muscle-ups, are sacrificed and regress to a lower stage.

Just remember, the development of any skill set requires good coaching and lots of practice.


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