Do you get to nearly and stop too early?

Do you ever learn a skill in preparation for a competition, then afterwards, ‘forget” how to do it? Maybe you got your first muscle up or handstand walk, then stopped practicing and ceased being able to do it. Maybe you are stuck at the frustrating phase of being “nearly” able to do everything-  but not quite at flow with anything. Do you get to nearly and quit too early?

In this blog I talk about the 4 stages of learning. Take a look to see how you move through this process each time you learn something new. See where you’ve gotten stuck in the past (or regularly get stuck) and understand why you need to use your grit to dig in to embed your practice when you are “nearly there” to achieve mastery.

Just a quick explanation before we start, I’m referring to conscious as “being aware” and competence as “being knowledgeable” or “proficient” at something.

  1. Unconsciously incompetent. You don’t know what you don’t know. This is the beginning stage where everyone starts when learning a new skill. Unless it’s a basic instinct like breathing, at some point, you all have needed to learn a new skill. Taking an example from CrossFit, you had no idea how challenging it was to do a ring muscle up until you tried to hang on the rings and swing for the first time.
  2. Conscious Incompetence. Suddenly things can feel harder, you become aware of what you don’t know, where the gaps are, how far you have to go. Your thinking may be, “I don’t understand, it feels hard.” You look at others in awe. At this point you may decide, “I’ll never be able to do this” this can be an exit point from the cycle. Using the gymnastic ring muscle up example above, you might feel overwhelmed with all the phases and components which lead to a successful ring muscle up and how to put them together, you may not have the strength yet and can feel frustrated and impatient. You may feel fearful or worried about hurting yourself. Many people don’t have the grit and focus to keep going and quit at this point. Having a sensible plan of purposeful practice and being willing to practice is vital.
  3. Conscious Competence. This is the phase where you have learnt the skill, but it still requires a lot of effort and focus. Maybe you can only perform the ring muscle up on your best days, under certain conditions. Maybe your technique isn’t optimised, you’re fragile. When you get to this phase you need to keep practicing to embed your learning. Feedback is absolutely vital if you want to achieve mastery. Skilled coaching is invaluable.
  4. Unconscious competence. You’ve mastered it and you can do it with little thought. Flow is evident. It’s feels natural and easy. You almost take it for granted. Now is the time to increase the difficulty level or rep range to take your skills to the next level.

A common problem is that many people stop when they get to the conscious competence phase, they stop too early so their skills are decent, but not excellent. They don’t move into the automatic phase, so it still takes a lot of effort and energy to perform these skills. If your practice is too infrequent it feels tough and full of effort every time. This can be disheartening and it can feel like you’re not making progress. This can lead to unhelpful beliefs about yourself, which can manifest and affect motivation.

So, the key point here is to KEEP UP YOUR PRACTICE. Taking your foot off the pedal at stage 3 is such a waste. You may be post competition and fed up of practicing, but stop at your own peril! Don’t get distracted by other shiny things. Be disciplined, stay focused and you will reap the rewards of your long-term hard work and practice.

In terms of all the things we have to learn in Crossfit, and the limited time that most people are able to dedicate to training, In addition to your program, I would suggest having a primary focus skill which you practice 3 times per week until you nail it. Then reduce the practice to a maintenance level. Alternatively, keep on it and increase the difficulty level or add new stimuli. Now you are aware of these 4 stages of learning/ competence, you can apply it to train smarter and get better results.

Let me know how you get on 🙂

Function SFR Athlete and ever patient coach: Bill Carey

Photo Credit: Gar J Smith