The Four Stages of Learning
You’ve probably had the occasional student protest after a few lessons with a statement like, “I seem to hit the ball a lot better when I don’t think about the things you are teaching me!” I’ve had this happen many times, and at that point I usually take
a few minutes to explain about the process of learning a new technique.
It doesn’t seem to matter whether it is a sport, a new job function, or virtually any new activity. Change or learning can be difficult. The first thing I typically point out is that change, especially positive change, doesn’t happen without some thought! And, they probably wouldn’t be taking lessons unless they recognized they needed to make some changes. if their learning is successful, when they’re done they won’t have to think too much! here’s why:
STAGE 1: UNCONSCIOUS INCOMPETENCE
one day, you watch someone doing something, like golf, and think to yourself, “That sure looks like fun, i think i’ll give it a try.” at that point, you are in Stage one of learning the activity, which is called unconsciously incompetent. what happens? you typically discover that the activity is more difficult than it looks, and you fail to do it as well as you would like. you’ve found out that you’re not good at the activity, you just didn’t know it at that time!
STAGE 2: CONSCIOUS INCOMPETENCE
So, now you’ve given it a try, maybe several times, and you’ve become very aware that you aren’t all that good at it. This is the consciously incompetent stage, when you start to turn down invitations to participate in the activity to avoid embarrassment. For most people, this is the time they start to buy instruction books, tapes, and sign up for lessons.
This is the “thinking” time, when you start to learn techniques that will help you master the activity, and move you to the next stage.
STAGE 3: CONSCIOUS COMPETENCE
This is the stage of learning that is the toughest, because you have to be very aware of how you are executing the activity. it’s the time when practice is extremely important, as you train your body and mind to work together in new ways to produce the results you want. it’s also the stage where feedback, both positive and negative, is required to fine-tune the new techniques you are learning.
With lots of work, thinking, and refinement, you can reach Stage Three, being consciously competent in the new activity. as long as you take your time and think about it, you start feeling like, “I’m pretty good at this.” In golf, this is when we feel like we have to concentrate on 50 swing thoughts to execute an acceptable golf shot. however, our real goal is to get to Stage Four.
STAGE 4: UNCONSCIOUS COMPETENCE
Stage Three can be satisfying, but it can also be quite tiring, since we always seem to be “working on our game” instead of just enjoying it. people that are truly good at an activity spend most of their time in Stage Four, the unconsciously competent stage. This is especially true when they are competing, such as in a golf tournament. This ultimate stage of learning is when you can concentrate on the results of the activity, instead of the process of the activity.
For example, in golf, when you are playing well, you might focus on the target and selection of the proper club to reach the target, but you don’t think through the mechanics of the swing to produce the result. you’ve done that during practice in Stage Three, and now it “just happens” when you need it, without thinking it through in detail.
So, where do the better players spend their time? moving back and forth between Stage Three and Stage Four. when the pros are playing tournament golf, in what the commentators often refer to as “being in the zone,” they’re not thinking much about
technique or mechanics. They’re just playing the game as unconsciously competent professionals. however, almost all the touring pros have a “swing coach” that they trust, and may spend time with between tournaments. when they spend time with their coach working on their game, they are living in the consciously competent stage. They focus on implementing improvements or eliminating flaws, and practice with feedback from their coach so they can move back to Stage Four to compete. you’ve often heard the comment that they now “trust their new swing” when they are playing successfully with the changes they’ve implemented in Stage Three.
Learning a new activity or changing old habits is difficult. From my experience, golf is one of the toughest sports at which to become good. But, if you and your student are aware of where he or she is in the process of learning, you can help ease the frustration, and in turn increase the enjoyment of this great game. and, when you think about it, that’s the primary reason we all participate in this great profession.