I first became aware of the 4 Levels or States of Competence model from a motivational speaker about 20 years ago. He was applying the model to how we develop business acumen, but as he was speaking, I thought that this concept applied beautifully to what I was doing in teaching people movement. I believed I was really on to something unique and began using it when working with all of my clients, but then many years later I’m at a workshop with Gray Cook and he references it. Then just last year, Eric Cressey used the model in a seminar I took with him. Two pretty smart dudes, so we must be on to something.
Initially known as the “four stages for learning any new skill,” the 4 States of competence was a learning model originally introduced by Noel Burch, an employee of Gordon Training International. First drafted in the 1970s, this “conscious competence” learning model is described as the psychological states that are involved in transforming skill incompetence to competence or outright mastery.
How it applies to training and movement is as follows:
Level 1: Unconscious Incompetence
You’re screwed up and/or extremely lacking and don’t even know it!
This wall comes down very quickly during someone’s initial assessment, when they come in apparently “healthy” only to find that they can’t touch their toes, have poor core control and/or less than expected strength.
Level 2: Conscious Incompetence
OK, I know I’m screwed up , what do I do about it???
Unfortunately this is where a lot of western medical models leave you off. They label you with having some type of “-itis” or other scary sounding pathology, but don’t shed any insight as to how this came to be or what to do about it
Level 3: Conscious Competence
I can get this right, but I really have to think about it…
The best example here is working with someone on their postural awareness. If you teach them cues for proper positioning, they can get there, but as soon as they move on to another task they lose it and need to be reminded again.
Level 4: Unconscious Competence
I corrected the issue and don’t have to even think about it now, it just happens!
This is the apex or “kwan” of training. Now we can begin to layer other skills or challenges on top of the foundation we have built. As an athlete, you can’t be thinking about your posture or what muscles are firing in the middle of competition, it needs to just happen reflexively. The first step to acquiring this level of competency is when self awareness heightens and the person can begin to recognize and self correct.
For any trainers or coaches out there, you can appreciate it this way – Have you ever been working with someone and you’re about to correct something that they are doing wrong and you take one step towards them and before you say anything or provide any cues, they automatically fix themselves? That’s when you know you are on the right path.