The 4 Stages of Learning

In a time when information is readily available at the tips of our fingers, the expectation is that all answers to questions we have will be provided almost instantly. This is evident with golf lessons, where the expectation is that within a 30 minute lesson all the barriers that are hindering performance, strike or ball flight control will be corrected. If you have read my last blog “performing or learning” you should have realised that it is not that simple. If I was to list out all the actual factors that affect performance, the blog would very quickly become a book containing all aspects that contribute to balance.

When we are tasked with a new motor skill, the fastest form of learning is through experience. Generally, language is the weakest form of communication due to the manner in which people use language. The instruction is not specific enough and to the point that the person understands in-depth, what is it you are instructing them to do. The body understands how something feels but struggles with the translation of an instruction in order to experience that feeling.

The 4 stages of learning applies to every motor skill that we have to learn for the first time or if we are building a new book for a movement we already have been doing. The best way to make it contextual and relational is to use an example which most of us would have experienced. The easiest way of thinking of it is to split yourself into 2 parts, your conscious mind (conscious) and your physical body (subconscious/unconscious).

As an example, we will apply the stages to learning to driving a car.

Firstly, the 4 stages of learning are:

1. Unconscious incompetence

2. Conscious incompetence

3. Conscious competence

4. Unconscious competence

1. Unconscious incompetence is that you don’t know what you don’t know. You do not know what is involved in doing the new skill and your body does not know how to move in order to be efficient at doing it. Think back to when you first were learning to drive, you sat in the car and turned the engine on but you consciously did not know how to move the car and your body did not know how to move or what it had to do in order to move the car.

2. Conscious incompetence is when you know what you have to do but your body has not learned the moving pattern in order to do it. When you are sitting in the car and you have been told what you have to do, the relationship with the steering wheel, handbrake, gears, clutch and accelerator pedals but your body still doesn’t know how to move in order to stop the car from cutting out. This takes practice to get the correct balance between the clutch and accelerator to avoid jolting with the engine cutting out or to the other extreme of wheel spinning.

3. Conscious competence is when you can think of doing what you want to do and your body has learned the skill, so when you are thinking of doing it you are able to do it but when there is a distraction you are unable to do it. After you have had a few lessons, your body has the understanding of the necessary movements to carry out the actions to drive the car and you are competent to drive as long as you are focused on the task. However, if you are stopped at a red light with a couple of your friends talking to you from the side of the road and the light suddenly turns green, your body will try to do the movements, but as you are consciously distracted and rushing, the movements become slightly out of sequence and the car jolts forward and cuts out.

4. Unconscious competence is the ability to carry out a movement pattern without having to consciously think of doing the movements. Your body knows the movements and how to do it better and faster than you can consciously think of doing the movements. Now your body knows how to drive the car better than you can think of driving the car which allows you to be able to look out the side windows, talk to passengers, set the heating and radio while driving and not have to worry about the engine cutting out. It is now your dominant habit where you are competent doing the movements without having to think about it. This is saved as your mobility skill under the heading of “driving mobility book”.  

Stage 4 is the level we all wish to obtain in everything we do. In golf, you can hear evidence of this in the interviews of the best players in the world with comments like, I just let it happen, I stayed out of my own way, it was like I was an observer and I was fully committed to every shot. This leads onto the different mind-sets and attitudes as the right attitude can excel where a negative attitude is a barrier. The next time you play, notice how you are doing the mobile sequence when you consciously try to do the movement and when you just let it happen. Notice how you are thinking and if there is any lack of commitment to hitting a shot. Awareness of these are a key to increased performance.


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