The Four Stages of Competence

 © OutStyleHow can we develop and nurture skills in the students we teach?

This is actually a process which instructors and trainers need to understand if their training delivery is to be effective and beneficial to those who they are instructing, especially if this involves any form of personal safety or use of force-based physical skills development.

In order to do this, it’s necessary to understand the process by which human beings learn, adults in particular.

Basically – and as mentioned before in a previous video-post – our mind operates on two levels, System 1 and System 2: System 1 being essentially the fast-thinking and intuitive subconscious mind that makes decisions and works primarily on the emotional level, whilst System 2 is the slower, more analytical method of thinking that makes rules based on the mind-set and beliefs that run System 1.

When we learn a skill, the process that we use to learn and develop is the slower, more analytical System 2 that is effectively facilitating the learning process. This is a conscious process, and at this stage we are probably very much aware of our ‘incompetence’ in relation to the skill we’re learning – indeed, we may even question the value of it (which can be a major block to learning.)

However, as we proceed further into the learning process and start to develop and become more proficient with the skill, then we become more ‘competent’ and the practicing and use of the skill then starts to shift to the more intuitive and automatic approach – and which is therefore System 1 orientated.

Now, this is particularly important when learning physical skills such as physical intervention, restraint, self-defence or even martial arts skills because we want to be able to develop a level of competency in participants that will facilitate skill performance efficiently and quickly using the System 1 fast-thinking. This doesn’t just rest on the type of skill which is taught (and this, in itself, is important as this should be based on the concept known as Guthrie’s Law, which again will be the subject of a future video and/or post), but also on how we teach it.

So, for instructors and trainers in the field of Physical Skills, an understanding of the four stages of competence is essential when it comes to training participants, especially when motivating them to learn – and which can very often be an uphill task!

However, it doesn’t need to be, as we’ll see in a short while.

What are these stages? Well, these actually come from a theory largely developed by Noel Burch in the 1970s (although it has also been suggested that Abraham Maslow had a significant influence on the model) and they work as follows:

Unconscious Incompetence: this is the stage where the participant is at the beginning of the learning process and is intuitively System 1 incompetent in relation to the skill they need to learn. To be honest, they don’t know how to perform the task and are pretty clueless how this skill works. Indeed, they could be utterly resistant to the benefits of even learning it and may be even in denial – and this is certainly one that I’ve encountered over the years, such as the old line of ‘What can you teach me that I don’t already know?’ etc. etc. (If you’re an instructor like me, you’re probably familiar with that one and certainly it can be difficult to overcome this initial barrier. The skill of the instructor here is to find strategies to overcome this initial resistance in whatever form it appears.)

For example, one of the counters I often use to overcome the block of ‘what can you teach me?’ is ‘Well, I’m not here to teach you to suck eggs etc. etc.…but if I can teach you something new which can help you build on the experience you already have and be safer, more effective in your role etc., then my job is done.’ This helps to build rapport with the participants by using empathy, whilst also persuading them of the benefits of undertaking new skill learning from a personal as well as professional point of view. I’m sure you can think of other similar strategies to achieve the same goal, but, effectively, what we’re already attempting to change at this early stage is the System 1 belief system the participants have in place.

The next stage which we then move to is that of Conscious Incompetence. Now, this is the stage at which the participants are introduced to the skill and learn the mechanics of how it works. At this point, they are consciously aware that they are incompetent at performing the skill and are probably also starting to realise the need to learn it in order to improve their competence. As stated above, this part of the learning stage necessitates the use of System 2, which is the slower, conscious and more analytical method of thinking.

Now, in my experience, this slow method of thinking is essential at this stage, especially when participants are learning the principles and mechanics of the skill which should be broken down into sections (beginning, middle and end, as stated by Bruce Siddle in his book, ‘Sharpening the Warrior’s Edge’, which I spoke about in a previous video-post.) This is certainly the approach that I’ve seen used in Systema, and has been very effectively demonstrated by my instructor, Andy Travis (of Russian Martial Art GB), when I’ve attended his sessions in the past (I’ve mentioned Andy in some of my previous video-post which you can check out here and here.)

The reason why it’s important to utilise this slow method of thinking and learning is that it’s very easy to lose your participants at this stage if you go too quick – and if they fail to understand the principles behind a skill then they are certainly not going to learn it and will most likely give up. Instructors therefore need to be aware of this, especially as people learn at different rates. Some people can pick up things quicker than others, especially if they are fortunate to have previous relevant experience which can underpin and form a frame of reference to what they are learning (for instance, martial arts or physical training when learning physical intervention skills.)

Not only this, one of the most effective blocks to learning at this stage can be the mind-set that participants have in relation to the learning process – and this relates to how we learn from mistakes.

Now, this is something which actually lies at the very centre of the learning process, because we do learn from our mistakes. This is something which I picked up on recently from an excellent book I’ve been reading called ‘Psycho-Cybernetics’ by Maxwell Maltz MD (a book that’s been around for a good few years now and you which you can find out more about by clicking here.) The main thrust of the argument in the book is that the mind ideally operates like a ‘cybernetic system’ or computer when trying to move towards a goal which – like a guided missile heading towards its target – corrects itself to keep itself on course when it encounters errors or ‘mistakes’.

However, this depends on the mind-set in operation, which is very much like a ‘computer programme’. If we operate a positive mind-set that recognises errors as learning points, then it becomes easier to reach our goal. Unfortunately, we don’t all operate this programme, as many people often operate a ‘negative programme’ that sees errors as evidence of our inability to succeed. (It’s a great book, which I thoroughly recommend reading if you do get chance.)

And this is something that can easily happen with training participants at this stage, so it’s very much our job as instructor’s to ensure that we reframe the learning process for them so they see errors as an opportunity to move towards the target of mastering the skill, not as evidence that will undermine it. In this respect, we need to therefore utilise the thought processes that operates at this stage – slow, analytical thinking – by teaching in slow time.

However, we also need to recognise that we have to keep the participants focussed by not overloading them with too much information, otherwise they might fall foul of something called ‘ego depletion’, where System 2 effectively seizes up – and I’ve seen this happen time and again. We need to keep it simple, working in slow time, assist them with recognising and learning from their mistakes – possibly by getting them to approach the task in a different way – and build-up their confidence by encouraging them to practice through repetition, reinforced by praise and encouragement (again, these are things which I covered in a previous video-post on ‘Confidence in Training – and the link for that is here.)

Now this effectively brings us to the third stage, Conscious Competence. At this point, the participants understand the mechanics of the skill. However, we are still at the stage of using System 2 thinking, so we need to continue to teach in slow time. This might mean continuing to practice the skill in a staged process of beginning, middle and end. However, what should be happening at this stage is that the participants will be becoming more confident and proficient with the skill – providing we’ve done our jobs correctly as instructors, of course!

Now, at this stage practice and repetition are very much the key, as this enables neural pathways in the mind to become strengthened so that the skill eventually becomes second nature. To put it in simple terms, the brain is made up of billions of neurons which are linked into pathways that form memory patterns. These pathways are formed by electronic signals between the neurons and which are strengthen every time we perform an action. As the action is repeated, so the stronger the pathway becomes. This is how skills are learned, memorised and stored, so that the repetition eventually becomes automatic after they have been repeated a number of times.

This is what happens at this stage, and if facilitated correctly then the final goal of stage four can be achieved. Now, this doesn’t preclude the making of mistakes or errors. In fact, if they are made, they should still be very much be seen as correcting information that can bring us back on target as we perfect the skill. However, it should also be borne in mind that the simpler the skill, the quicker will it be learned and perfected. Also, and I found this on one previous course where a participant assisted herself to facilitate her own learning by using this principle, if we can bring in visualisation in to help delegates learn quicker, then this is a great addition to make at this stage – because if they can visualise what they need to do, then they can fix it their own minds what they need to be doing.

This brings us to the final stage as mentioned above: Unconscious Competence. At this point, the participant should be able to perform the skill proficiently without even having to think about it consciously. This is therefore using System 1, fast thinking, as the skill should be performed in quick time without even thinking about or being consciously aware of it. Indeed, it may be possible for this to be done whilst other cognitive processes are being performed.

Now, in terms of physical skills from a personal safety/physical intervention point of view, it’s essential that we as instructors have attempted to ensure that the participants have managed to reach this point because when they have to use these skills for real, they are going to be under stress, their arousal levels will increase and they may also find themselves losing cognitive functions in the process. Therefore, being able to perform the skills automatically and with confidence in a state of unconscious competence is effectively ‘the acme of skill’ (to borrow a phrase from Sun Tzu) of the instructor. Now, on many courses we might not always have the luxury of time to repeat everything for prolonged periods, hence the reason why it’s important to use techniques that are simple, easy to learn and easy to practice so that we can facilitate the four stage process when delivering physical skill training. Again, we’ll see more about this when I cover ‘Guthrie’s Law’.

Now, having covered all this from the point of view of facilitating learning in participants, it’s also worth mentioning that this is also indicative of how some-one can become an expert at something. Again, that’s another subject for a future post.

However, if you are interested in becoming an instructor in the field of physical intervention or self-defence yourself, then I could wholeheartedly recommend training with NFPS Ltd, whose advanced instructor training courses use exactly this approach (and which I can personally vouch for.) To find out more, click here or the banner below.

Again, if you have any questions about this, or any of the subjects covered in the other post here, then you’re very welcome to contact me on and I’ll try and answer them as best as I can (alternatively, you can leave me a comment below.)

Links and References:

Bruce Siddle – Sharpening the Warrior’s Edge (on Amazon)

Psycho-Cybernetics’ by Maxwell Maltz MD

Creating Confidence

Clear Thinking

(Advertisement feature)

Posted in Physical Skills, Training Tagged with: , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



N Davies Training on Facebook

Important video to be aware of: #NFPS ... See MoreSee Less

View on Facebook