The 4 Stages of Learning

By February 7, 2020 No Comments

Patience is a virtue. 

How many times have you heard that? You might even be a little peeved I started this way, because you don’t know where I’m going with this.

But, as usual, fear not! 

As a coach, I often find people giving up on learning new skills rather quickly because it seems to take forever. Or as a dear friend says, five-ever. 

But what we don’t realize is that the learning process can be broken down into 4 stages. And understanding these 4 stages and where we stand in the process for different skills can help us both as athletes and coaches to progress. And sure, we’re talking about the gym today, but this can also relate to basically any life skill.

When learning a new skill, here are the four basic stages:

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

Stage 1 – Unconscious Incompetence

Stage 1 is where everyone starts, regardless of what they are learning. And I will be the first to admit that from a coaching standpoint, I often see this step forgotten and coaches assume that someone is already at stage 2. But more on that later.

Here are some things that seperate “unconscious incompetence”:

  • The athlete is not aware of the existence or relevance of the skill.
  • The athlete is not aware that they are  deficient in the area concerned.
  • The athlete might not see the relevance or usefulness of the skill.
  • The skill can’t ultimately be learned because the athlete lacks awareness of their inability.

As a coach, my goal here is to help someone understand the importance and benefit of developing whatever skill is on the table. If someone doesn’t see the value of learning the skill and doesn’t know that they are deficient, they probably won’t put forth the effort towards learning the skill.

Stage 2 – Conscious Incompetence

This is the good stuff, where the real learning begins. Here are some things to know about stage 2:

  • The athlete becomes aware of the existence and relevance of the skill.
  • The athlete is now aware that they are lacking in this area.
  • The athlete now appreciates the value of learning the skill and also realizes that by getting better, their 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 next stage.

Stage 2 is pretty cool. Once the reality sets in (so to speak) for someone that they aren’t where they want to be in a certain area, they can set a course of action with themselves and their coach for improving. They can put measurable markers in place to check progress. On top of it, this is where you can start to get excited and celebrate improvement in the skill.

Stage 3 – Conscious Competence

Ok. Stage 3 is where most people give up. This is what most people consider to be the boring part. The stage of conscious competence is not sexy to say the least.

Here are some things to look for in for Stage 3:

  • The athlete can comfortably perform the skill at will, BUT the skill is still challenging without concentrating on  it.
  • The athlete can perform the skill without assistance.
  • The skill isn’t  “second nature” or “automatic” yet.
  • The athlete might not be able to teach it to another person yet.

So circling back, it isn’t sexy. This is the stage where if an athlete really wants to become proficient at a skill, they spend time drilling the movement. 

When I was learning to do butterfly pull-ups, I can’t tell you how many sessions were spent doing 10 sets of 6 with 2 minutes of rest. And when that was good, I didn’t graduate. I just moved to 10 sets of 7 reps. And so on. It means lots of time, potentially away from the class setting, watching the clock and focused. 

But if you make it through this, you can get to stage 4. *cue angels singing*

Stage 4 – Unconscious Competence

Stage 4 is where the skill has become “second nature”. Like walking (sober) it doesn’t require concentration.  Here are some things to note about stage 4:

  • The skill becomes so practiced that it enters the unconscious parts of the brain, muscle memory.
  • An athlete can start to perform the skill they have been working on while doing other tasks.
  • The athlete might now be able to teach others this skill.

“Unconscious competence”, doesn’t that sound fancy? But don’t get too complacent. If you don’t do the work necessary to maintain your brand new skills, you can take a couple steps backwards. 

What do you think? Where are you in the learning process? 

If it sounds like a lot more work than you thought it would be, I hate to say that you might be correct. But the great thing about this is that now you know. And knowing where you are in the learning process can help you either achieve the skill or it might make you notice that you really didn’t need to learn the skill to begin with.

And the more you know, the more you know.



Whether you are just starting your fitness journey or a seasoned pro looking for something new, we’d love to meet you!  And guess what? Your first class is on us. Click HERE to schedule your FREE Jumpstart Class and let us show you what makes Roux Fitness different!

Leave a Reply