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The 4 Stages of Skill Acquisition – Part 1

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We live in fast paced society full of impatient people who want results right now.

This same impatience holds true for uneducated athletes, coaches and parents who want to improve their own speed, their athletes' speed or their child's speed.

Lately I've seen quite a few colleagues continue to try and stress the fact that when it comes to athletic development in general and more specifically speed development (ultimately they are both the same) we must take a long term approach if your interest is truly to maximize the performance of your athletes, team and program.

When I say long term I mean you need to think in terms of many months and even years, not many weeks and even months.

I know what you're thinking…

'But, are you saying that you can't improve speed in a couple weeks or a month? But my son/daughter/team has a big competition that their life depends on in 3 weeks.'

I'm not saying you can't make improvements in a short period of time. And while it won't sell as many Complete Speed Training Programs to say this, such an *approach* won't lead to optimal or long term results.

Quick fixes are like cramming for an exam the night before the test. Sure you might remember the information the next day and even get a good grade. But a few days later you won't be able to recall much of the information.

The same applies to trying to get fast results (pun intended) in a very short time period. If someone tells you otherwise they're trying too hard to sell you something.

Ultimately there are 4 stages an athlete goes through when acquiring a new skill. This has been broken down in many ways and said in different formats. So I'm certainly not taking credit for 'inventing' these steps.


The fundamental principles of this version, as I came across them, were attributed to top level sprint coach Loren Seagrave. I will add my own experiences to expand his concepts.

I will go over them in respect to learning the skill of running fast, which I will refer to as sprinting. Primarily I will focus on sprinting in terms of acceleration development as acceleration is fundamental to success in pretty much every sport:

1. Unconscious Incompetence

The athletes are not thinking because they have never been told to think about anything. If they have been told to think anything, the advice was inconsistent, wrong or (more likely) both. Therefore the athletes are not very good at new skills.

Seagrave tells his athletes that it is better to look foolish in front of their teammates in practice and get better at the skills than to get embarrassed in front of an audience.

I wholeheartedly agree.

For further analysis of this concept, let's look at my current group of male and female high school track sprinters. This year the group is brand new to me so I have the opportunity to build these athletes from the ground up.

Because of the success of the program in general, I assumed that most of the upperclassmen would be beyond the level of unconscious incompetence. They would, at the very least, be at the second level of skill acquisition.

I was mistaken. In asking them simple, basic questions to assess their knowledge of sprinting (the act itself and the training process as a whole) I quickly realized from the blank stares and self conscious smiles that these athletes didn't know the first thing about running fast.

And that means their coaches are teaching them this stuff. And we shouldn't place the blame on the current coach in the current sport. Most athletes have been on many teams in many sports over many years of athletics. It's disappointing that most athletes have gone 0 for life when it comes to effective, modern speed training techniques (regardless of sport).

If you are new to the art of speed development, it is quite likely that the level of unconscious incompetence is where your athletes currently reside.

Either way it is critically important that you have a specific, pre-planned system for teaching, developing and progressing your athletes if you have any reasonable expectation of either short or long term results.

Depending on how effective your system of speed development is as well as your effectiveness at conveying these concepts to your athletes in a way that they can interpret and apply, they will eventually reach the second level of skill acquisition.

Keep in mind, athletes will reach this level at different times so you must always be testing new ways to improve the effectiveness of your program, progress fast learning athletes to more advanced levels of training, yet allow slower developing athletes to continue to progress at their own pace.

The second level of skill acquisition is:

2. Conscious Incompetence

The athlete is starting to understand the skill both conceptually and experientially. They try to execute it but are not very good at it yet.

This is the stage where I believe things get tricky. Seven weeks into working with this group and this is where most of my athletes are.

And I think this is where most coaches/trainers/parents make a mistake. Many of the athletes are 'tweeners'. That is, they are firmly entrenched in this second level of skill acquisition, yet they simultaneously display many of the characteristics of the third level.

The 'results now' coach would be tempted to take any signs of progress and continue on to more complicated and technical stages of training.

For example, we are 7 weeks into the season and beyond the halfway point for even the best athletes. (In fact many athletes will be done in 2 weeks.)

Yet I just introduced maximum velocity training (top speed training) this past Wednesday. And only to part of the group. Because I didn't think the group (or any of the individuals within the group) had become proficient in their acceleration development, I did not let them run at or develop their top speed on our speed days.

In effect, until this past week the athletes were not allowed to run more than 30 meters at any one time.

(I'm talking about during true speed workouts. Of course they ran longer during tempo and special endurance runs. These types of runs are submaximal and therefore do not develop faster speeds.)

For the non-track coach this isn't necessarily a big deal because you're going to spend the bulk of your time developing acceleration and multidirectional skills. What you should take from this is the fact that I am not in a rush to progress any athlete even the ones I believe will challenge for a State Titlebased on time of year. Instead all decisions are based on competence and execution.

For track coaches it may seem crazy that we have not progressed to doing fly runs, sprint-float-sprints or more traditional speed endurance runs. But the fact is they aren't ready. So adding that layer just sets them up to do it poorly and therefore underachieve over the long term.

So then what are the results of being patient?

All of my sprinters, top to bottom, ran their lifetime bests by the 4th week which was the second competition of the season.

Needless to say it has been exciting for me and for the athletes. Because they understand the whybehind everything we do, they know that they have a long (long) way to go before they can expect to meet their full potential.


Most of the group ran personal bests the very first meet. And the truth is none of them expected to (I didn't either because they were all over the place in practice) because they understood that they had no idea what they were doing.

We are now at the point where many of the athletes are starting to show glimpses of competence. Here and there they will run a repetition where they will execute to expectation for several strides or meters.

(Let's just say I have well above average standards for what qualifies as 'competent execution' of a particular skill or movement pattern.)

The most important element of this is the fact that they are able to identify those moments. Because they have been taught to assess their own running as well as their teammates, they know what to look for.

Because we break the process down into segments, they know what it should feel like.

That makes them excited to train because they aren't just 'running to run'. The athletes are now willing to work harder and stay later because they can see and feel specific improvements to their running ability.

Recently one of the coaches said to me 'Wow I can't believe you have them here at 5:30 on a Friday night and they're the ones asking to stay longer and do just one more start. Last year they would have been out of here by 4 o'clock.'

This is what happens when athletes buy into your coaching.

They take the initiative to get themselves to the next level without any prodding or pleading from you.

But it starts with establishing a foundation of development and basing your progressions on their level of competence and execution, not time of year or relation to major competitions.

If you are truly interested in maximizing the performance of your athletes, you will adopt this philosophy with your own coaching.







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