In psychology, the four stages of competence, or the “conscious competence” learning model, relates to the psychological states involved in the process of progressing from incompetence to competence in a skill.
The Four Stages of Learning provides a model for learning. It suggests that individuals are initially unaware of how little they know, or unconscious of their incompetence. As they recognize their incompetence, they consciously acquire a skill, then consciously use it. Eventually, the skill can be utilized without it being consciously thought through: the individual is said to have then acquired unconscious competence.
The Four Stages of Competence
The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognize their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.
Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.
The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.
The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become “second nature” and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.
Applying to CrossFit
This model of learning is inherent in CrossFit training. The CrossFit coach is tasked with helping the athlete ‘know what they don’t know’ and create self-awareness. Then the coach and athlete work together to progress through the model until an athlete can perform a skill with unconscious competence. Not doing it right and making mistakes are vital steps in the learning process. And the entire learning process takes time, lots of time (10,000 hours some say). Understanding the four stages of learning a skill can help keep the learning process focused on learning to do something, and not feeling bad about ourselves for not already knowing how.
Using the example of learning how to back squat, as a person new to CrossFit and weight training I thought all I had to do was put the bar on my back, sit my butt down and stand up again. This was the happy stage of unconscious incompetence.
When I began learning how to back squat (low bar specifically), I realized there was a lot more to it and it was a little overwhelming. I had moved on to the stage of conscious incompetence. There were many different things to do and think about and I had some physical and neurological re-wiring that needed to be done. In this stage I made lots of mistakes, along with judgments against myself for not already knowing how to do it. No one likes being told they aren’t doing something correctly, but judgment release can be very helpful in this second stage of learning. Making mistakes are an integral part of the learning process. They’re necessary because learning is essentially experience-based trial and error. As long as the errors are addressed and fixed.
As I practiced (every Monday for at least a year), I got better and moved into the third stage of learning, conscious competence. I could back squat decently well, but still had to really focus on my body mechanics using a relatively light weight.
Finally, after enough practice, I have gotten to a place where I don’t have to think about every little thing that goes into a technically sound back squat. Now the focus is on increasing weight to build strength.
And a cool pair of lifting shoes never hurts.