The 4 Stages of Skill Acquisition - Part 2
By Latif Thomas

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!


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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 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.



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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 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 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 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.

Athletes' Acceleration, founded by Latif Thomas and Patrick Beith, combines over 25 years of athletic and coaching experience to bring you the very best in speed development, strength and conditioning programs for coaches and athletes. Get the FREE Complete Speed Training Newsletter now at http://www.athletesacceleration.com.


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