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Consciousness and Competence

I’d like to take a different perspective on one of the commonly accepted paradigms in motor learning. If we’re going to be effective in helping swimmers learn skills that win races, it’s going to be important to examine the ideas that we’re using when working through the process of facilitating change. The models we use will influence our thought processes and our thought processes are going to influence our actions. Those actions are going to produce our results.

When discussing the learning of skill, the four stages of competence is often referred to. A lot of coaches will be familiar with it, and even if they’re not formally aware of it, they can recognize the dynamics that operate when learning a skill. It’s a fairly intuitive process that most can relate to when reflecting on their own learning and coaching experiences.

In this model, learners progress through the stages of unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence, and finally unconscious competence. The model proposes that learners progress through these stages in succession, though there is no indication as to how long each stage will be as it will depend very much on the individual and the skill that is being learned. Let’s take a quick look at each stage, as well as how it relates specifically to coaching and performance.

Unconscious Incompetence- A swimmer is bad at a skill and they don’t even know they’re bad. There is zero awareness of how bad it is. If you ask them what they’re doing with that skill, they’ll just look at you confused.

Depending on how important the skill, it can be very valuable to REMAIN in a state of unconscious incompetence. If the skill is not critical, or it’s not critical right now, swimmers are better off NOT knowing that they’re no good at it.

Conscious Incompetence- Now there is awareness. Swimmers can feel or see the problem, but they are helpless to do anything about it. This often breeds a lot of frustration. Swimmers are trying to execute a skill and they just can’t do it. Depending on the swimmer and the effectiveness of the coach, this phase can be shorter or longer.

The biggest mistake coaches make is moving swimmers from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence. This mistake is compounded when there is no plan to get them out of conscious incompetence. They simply point out a swimmer’s errors without providing opportunities to learn the skill. You are simply informing them of one more aspect of their inadequacy. It’s not great for self-efficacy or self-confidence. We don’t need to be aware of our flaws if we’re not going to be able to influence them.

Conscious Competence- In this stage of learning, swimmers can now execute skills in the desired manner. However, they have to consciously monitor or manipulate these skills to make sure they’re performed correctly. They have to THINK. What’s the best way to ruin a race? Thinking! The more cognitive investment that’s required, the greater the likelihood that these skills will degrade in competition

Unconscious Competence- This is where swimmers want to be. They can execute their skills in an effective manner with very little attention. It’s on autopilot. From a competition standpoint, they’re free to race without inhibition. Whenever an individual performs at or near their current potential, they’re performing in conditions of unconscious competence. As coaches, we want to help swimmers get here as FAST as possible.

This is a nice little model that seems to resonate well with our experience, both in learning skills ourselves and while working as coaches. At first, we have no clue, then we struggle to change, then we can change with a lot of thought, then it’s automatic. It’s pretty much how it went when learning to drive a car or ride a bike. It feels really straight forward. However, when we start to work with the model in a performance context as complex as swimming, problems start to emerge.

The Problems

This feels like a really long process. What do you do when there are multiple skills that need to be learned? What if they need to be learned in sequence in that they build upon each other? How do you know how long the process will take? Some coaches try to avoid some of these problems by starting the change process really early in the season. However, this doesn’t address the problem of needing to learn multiple skills. It also doesn’t help if the process takes longer than expected.

A second issue is that of training. There is a definite link between physiological capacities and technical skill. They are intertwined. You need physical abilities to execute skills and you need technical skills to develop physical abilities. Developing physical abilities requires fatigue and pressure, and this pressure is going to interfere with skills during the conscious stage of learning. These complementary processes are supposed to work in concert, yet this model places them in opposition.

Conscious attention is exhausting. It is really challenging to constantly monitor all of our movements. There is also the issue of quantity. Swimmers are only going to be able to focus on one skill at a time. What are swimmers going to do if they need to make multiple changes? How is that going to work? While we can take one skill at a time, this can become unrealistic unless swimmers can transition through these competency phases very quickly, which they typically can’t.

A final issue is that there is little control for the coach. The entire onus is on the swimmer to think. While swimmers ultimately need to take ownership and accountability for their swimming, they have coaches for a reason- to help them improve. It’s challenging for coaches to hold swimmers accountable to their thoughts, and consistently reminding swimmers to ‘think about X’ is extremely tedious for swimmers and coaches alike.

It starts to become apparent why many coaches believe that strokes can’t be changed. With this paradigm, the process takes forever, the time course is unpredictable, the number of changes is prohibitive, and the changes are unstable. Further, it invites swimmers to think, which is exactly what we don’t want them doing when they race.

Where Do You Want to Live?

If given the choice, we want to be either unconsciously incompetent or unconsciously competent. They want to race on autopilot. There is a real problem when swimmers are in the conscious stages of learning. Their ability to execute skills under pressure is compromised. They either will revert back to their unconscious habits, or overinvest and execute the skills well, but SLOWLY. This often looks like ‘trying too hard’. It’s tense and SLOW.

It’s easy to get frustrated when attempting to work through this model, especially when skills consistently regress under pressure. Some swimmers have a much better capacity to handle conscious awareness than others. Some can handle awareness, make changes, quickly, and the changes stick. Others are much more ‘fragile’ and struggle under pressure, whether physiological or psychological. For these individuals, it’s really important to minimize conscious investment.

Unconscious Incompetence

This is a great place for swimmers to remain because they don’t need to know what they don’t need to know. We DON’T want them to know what their flaws are. We don’t want them to know their limitations. This is all information that they can’t necessarily act on, and making it conscious won’t necessarily make it better. It will probably make it worse! Beyond the effects on actual technical skill, being aware of flaws is going to do nothing for their self-efficacy and self-confidence.

If you choose to move out of unconscious incompetence, there better be plan for how you’re going to improve after that. Simply putting it on the swimmer to figure it out is not a plan. It may feel like being useful. It’s not. It’s bad coaching, and it’s doing swimmers a disservice. As much as possible, we want to avoid bringing skills to conscious attention, only resorted to this strategy if all other options have failed. Even then, there are certain ways to communicate that minimize the potential problems of conscious awareness.

Unconscious Competence

This is obviously a great place to be. Swimmers don’t have to think about what they’re doing. They just DO IT. This is how you want to race. This is where peak performances live.

A really important point-

It doesn’t matter if swimmers don’t know HOW they’re executing a skill, as long as it’s effective.

There are plenty of great athletes that can just do it. That’s great because there is less chance that they can screw it up if they don’t know how they’re doing it in the first place! In almost all cases, this is preferred. If we can design learning opportunities that allow for swimmers to learn effective skills WITHOUT really understanding what they’re doing, it’s actually preferable. These skills will be much more robust and stable.

What’s the easiest way to get to unconscious competence? Help swimmers learn skills in a way that doesn’t require conscious awareness.

Skipping the Problem

The stages of conscious incompetence and conscious competence are both problematic in that there is a lot of cognitive engagement in managing tasks. This is not necessarily where you want to be when you need to perform. The more swimmers are aware of what they are doing, and trying to actively manage what they are doing, the more it will impair their ability to race. Cognitive investment has been directly linked to choking during performance. Not an outcome we’re looking for.

As I’ve discussed in the past, when confronted with problems, we don’t always have to solve these problems. We can simply skip them. By finding a solution that avoids the problem in the first place, we can get to where we want to go a lot more efficiently.

The model proposes that the learning process is a linear one that requires learners to progress through each stage in a successive manner. Why does this have to be the case?

Rather than dealing with the challenges of conscious incompetence and conscious competence, why don’t we just skip them? Rather than develop learning strategies that require conscious attention to specific acts of movement, wouldn’t it be more effective to design learning tasks that don’t require, or preferably greatly minimize, conscious involvement?

We’d get all the benefits, without any of the drawbacks.

What if the model is WRONG? What if we can skip the conscious stages of learning, or greatly minimize them? Well, then we’d have options.

How to Skip the Problem

To skip the problem, we need new strategies and a new way of approaching the problem of learning. As opposed to a coach-led, instruction-based, aesthetically-focused framework, we need to consider one that focuses on swimmers learning, the kinesthetics of movement, and movement outcomes as opposed to movement dynamics. For all of the categories below, click on the subtitle for articles that directly address these specific strategies in depth in more depth.

Focus on outcomes, not processes. As described in previously, focusing on specific outcomes places the emphasis on achieving a goal, and less on the strategies that are required to accomplish those goals. If we’re accomplishing our goals during the right tasks (see below), the specific strategies used are secondary. It is the EFFECT that matters more than the cause. Too often we coach causes as opposed to effects and this gets us in trouble. It really doesn’t matter what technique looks like. It matters what it accomplishes.

Focus on feel. Instead of focusing on mechanical changes, focus on making kinesthetic changes. If swimmers learn to FEEL their strokes differently, it’s much less of a cognitive process. They’re focusing on feeling their movement versus controlling it. While the distinction may seem semantic, the differences are really in application. Swimmers move and learn by feel. It is a much more natural way of processing skills. The more we can communicate in these terms, the more effective learners will be able to process skills WITHOUT much direct conscious and cognitive load.

Use constraints. How we move is modified by the constraints that are placed by the environment (it includes culture!), the task, and the individual. We can directly influence how skills are performed by changing the task, the environment, and the individual WITHOUT requiring any instruction. It simply happens.

These ideas are also explored practically here, as the better the tasks are we assign, the more effective the movement strategies swimmers select will be. This is a skill that takes time to develop. The more we understand how movement works, the constraints that affect movement, and how we can manipulate those constraints to alter movement, the better we can guide swimmers towards better skills without having to instruct.

A simple example is having swimmers swim with tennis balls. If FORCES them to use their forearms, with zero instruction or conscious engagement.

Use differential learning and introduce variability. Introducing variability, even random variability, helps expose swimmers to different learning opportunities and different FEELINGS. If we give swimmers a variety of similar, yet different tasks to accomplish, they can begin to subconsciously compare the differences between these tasks, and determine which skills work best in all situations.

This exposes the swimmers to a greater spectrum of kinesthetic information. Skills become difficult to change because the swimmer can’t FEEL the difference and they are exposed to the same feelings over and over again. Introducing forced variability requires swimmers to move differently and this movement exposes them to novel sensations. These contrasting sensations can help swimmers move in new ways.

As an example, we can perform the same series of repetition, but change the type of paddles used, which hand has a paddle, and different paddles at the same time to change the pressure sensations swimmers feel each repetition. Swimmers learn to subconsciously identify the commonalities between each situation, improving skills.

Communicate effectively. The words we use matter. How we choose to provide instruction and how we choose to provide feedback will affect what movement occurs, what level of cognition is engaged, and what type of learning occurs. By using analogy, external cues, and kinesthetic descriptions, we can steer swimmers toward movement solutions derived from sensation versus thought.

How we speak will affect how swimmers focus their attention. These strategies employed will greatly impact each of the strategies used above, making them more or less effective dependent on our skill in communication. It takes time and effort to learn how to speak differently. It’s a change that amplifies all of our other strategies.

Importantly, it is how ALL of these strategies are used in conjunction that makes the biggest difference. When used in isolation, each of these strategies are somewhat effective. However, when there is a total shift in the approach, real change becomes possible. These ideas are not magic tricks, they are part of an approach that works together to facilitate changes that stick.


Underlying the four stages of competence learning model is the idea that conscious investment is required for learners to learn. They have to cognitively struggle with detailed awareness of movement to affect lasting change. Fortunately, models can be wrong.

We don’t need to be restrained by the need for conscious engagement. It can be counter-productive. By using learning strategies that minimize or remove conscious investment, we help swimmers learn without the drawback that come with the model. Learning times can be shorter, learning is more robust, and learning is more individualized.

Coaches often complain that swimmers can’t learn new skills. I suggest that this is the case because the strategies we use are based upon outdated ideas of how learning works. They are simply ineffective. If we want to move towards effective learning that wins races, we need new approaches. Give the strategies I’ve outlined a chance. While it’s a new way of working that requires time to learn, the outcomes are worth it.

Swimmers can learn if coaches provide the right opportunities to do so.

Anyone can learn anything.

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