The Four Stages of Skill Acquisition For Young Athletes
By Latif Thomas
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 young 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 young 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 Latif, 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 young 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 young 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 Title based 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 flyruns, 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 why behind 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 young 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.
3. Conscious Competence
The athlete has developed the skill but cannot perform it automatically and mindlessly. In this stage, unconscious action returns one to previous bad habits.
In my experience this is the stage that athletes will spend the most time in, once (if) they finally reach it. How quickly they reach this stage is, in large part, dependent on the coach’s ability to get their message across and teach (and cue) the different stages of running fast.
I also find this stage to be the most frustrating for both the athlete and the coach.
Let’s use acceleration as the example. We’ll define acceleration as the moment the athlete begins moving until they reach top speed.
I’ll continue to use track sprinters as the example, but the rules are essentially the same if you work primarily with football players training for the 40 or baseball players training for the 60, etc.
When exiting the blocks we need to teach athletes they must reach triple extension with their front leg before the back leg touches the ground. This is best accomplished by driving the lead arm up and over the head and pushing fully and completely back into the block pedals.
To ensure athletes don’t ‘pop up’ right away and/or drop their hips immediately limiting their ability to accelerate effectively and reach their true top speed, the head should remain in line with the spine.
Ideally, the exit angle should be 45 degrees. As the back leg hits the ground, the athlete should drive the foot down into the ground like a piston. They should push the foot down into the ground fully, so they feel like they are leaving the foot on the ground *behind* them at toe off. Ground contact time should be longer than is comfortable as they attempt to overcome inertia and get moving. Heel recovery should be low, as if the athlete was ‘running on hot coals’.
Now these are just *some* of the things you must teach your athletes must to do in order to exit the blocks and set them up for a fast race.
And that only covers the first 2 steps.
So you can imagine that a young athlete will have a difficult time coordinating all of these movements correctly, in the right order, at the right time with an appropriate amount of explosiveness and power.
You can also understand why they spend so much time in the second stage!
After several months (and potentially years depending on your level of expectation) of trying to put the block exit together, and assuming they have the strength levels to even put themselves in such a position, athletes will develop the timing and coordination that puts them at an acceptable level of competence.
(What is acceptable is going to be different for each athlete and depends on their biological and training age, talent level, etc.)
When doing block work in practice, they will often get it right. And they will know the differnce between a good start and a poor one. They will be able to identify the positive (I got full extension, I was patient on the ground, My upper body unfolded naturally), as well as the negative (I didn’t get extension on my drive leg, I didn’t drive my lead arm, I was impatient off the ground so I was spinning my wheels).
And so you’ll both be confident that the next competition will bring great results.
However, since we’re dealing primarily with high school aged athletes and younger, what we see in practice and what we see in a meet are wildly different things.
In a meet your athlete is nervous and excited. They are worried about the competition and placing where they need to place. They want to run well and run correctly so as not to disappoint the coach, their parents, their teammates, themselves.
Since the newly acquired skill is not automatic, but requires complete focus to execute correctly, any distraction will cause the athlete to revert back to their old habits.
I have a talented 55m runner who can execute in practice sometimes (he’s still at the 2nd stage). He nods his head when I tell him what I want. He can identify good and bad efforts. But as soon as the gun goes off it all goes right out the window and he immediately goes back to running like a football player (because he is one). I call it ‘hacking’ – running as hard as possible with no particular attention to technique or
timing – just trying to catch up or make up for a bad start.
At our State Relay meet this past weekend my best female sprinter got the baton in second place, about 5 meters behind the leader. Because her only goal was to win the event, she gave no thought to technique or form and reverted right back to her old inefficient bad habits.
(I couldn’t complain much since she ran the girl down, the team placed 1st overall and only missed a school record by .05 in the first run of the season, but she wasn’t happy with her split and poor mechanics was the reason.)
My point? Just because it looks good in practice does not mean it will look good in a competition. Be prepared for it and try not to let your young athletes see your frustration. Because you will get frustrated because you’ll feel like your athletes just aren’t listening to anything you say. They are, it just takes time.
Getting frustrated with them will not help them figure it out quicker.
Here is the final stage of skill acquisition:
4. Unconscious Competence
The skill has become automatic and performed perfectly with no conscious effort. Attainment of this level takes not only practice, but mental imagery and rehearsal. It can take up to 500 hours of practice to achieve unconscious competence with a skill.
I won’t spend a lot of time covering this because it’s not likely your athletes will truly achieve this level of competence during the finite amount of time you have to work with them.
Such competence often comes at the higher end of the collegiate level and elite/professional levels.
But I will touch upon the importance of mental imagery and rehearsal.
When an athlete ‘hits a mark’, meaning they get one piece of the puzzle right during a run, I always review it with them.
I have them explain what they did, how it felt and why they think it was the correct action.
Then I tell them to ‘save the file’ in their head. I want them to continuously replay that file in their mind so they get mental reps of perfect technique.
This will increase the likelihood of getting it right the next time they physically execute the movement pattern.
Before they run it in practice and before a race, I tell them to visualize the perfect start, the perfect drive phase and transition (if you believe there is such a thing),etc. Have them feel the emotions they will feel when entering the blocks, feel their feet driving down into the track, feel the excitement and satisfaction of coming in first place. I want them to make the perfect race a reality in their mind before they run it.
Remember, the brain can not tell the difference between what is real and what is imagined. By telling yourself something over and over or imagining something over and over, it becomes a reality in your mind. So use this as an opportunity to practice perfection in the mind so it carries over into physical reality.
* * * * * * * *
These are the 4 stages young athletes go through when acquiring a new skill. They will spend most, if not all, of their careers in the second and third stages.
This assumes, of course, they have good enough coaching to even get them out of the first stage. Sadly, most athletes don’t even know that they don’t know what they are doing. They couldn’t explain, in detail, how to go from a standstill to full speed. At least not in a way that makes sense.
Use these stages as a guideline for developing your young athletes. Be patient, but set high standards for execution. You will see some incredible improvements.
If you aren’t 100% sure how to teach your young athletes how to run explosively and efficiently then you’re probably leading them down the wrong path.
But there is always time to step back and start doing it right.