The Learning Process  
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  Acquiring Sports Skills

Different models illustrate how learning occurs
      There are several academic models in use to describe learning stages. However, there is no definitive about the point at which an athlete transitions from one stage into another stage. It is helpful to be very familiar with the descriptions/concepts of the stages so a coach can place the athlete on a chart with their existing level of skills and use the information to assess their progress.

      Two-stage models distinguish only between when the athlete gets the idea and begins to progress from the basic fundamentals phase to begin refining their skill development. Key points from 3-stage approach are presented in model below.

A Three Stage Psychological Model
Stages of Development


Mental Stage -

Skater is figuring out how to do the skill

Cognitive Stage or the Verbal motor Stage
The beginning athlete is attempting to understand the basic task.

Challenges include how to position the core body, place the feet, and the spatial boundaries.
Beginners are not always aware of what they did wrong, nor do they know how to correct errors.

They need basic, specific instruction and feedback during this phase.


Associative Stage

Classification of Sports Motor Skills
The athlete begins to under- stands the fundamentals of the skill and is in the process of refining the skill.

They experience fewer errors and can detect some of them on their own.

Performances are more consistent and learners begin to know what is relevant and what is not.
Athlete is starting to determine what is necessary to accomplish the objective of the skill.

Problem solving skills emerging.

They also begin to learn how to diversify responses for open skills.



Autonomous Stage

Training Variation of Sports
The skill has been acquired and moving towards being mastered.

The athlete perform the skill automatically without having to focus on execution.

The few errors that occur can be detected by the athletes and they know how to correct them.

They are able to concentrate more the aspects of a well balanced program.
Athletes transition from the goal of learning the skill to perfecting it, coaches can diversify instruction and practice conditions.

For closed skills, practices should be structured to match the conditions of competition.

For open skills, the coach must systematically vary the conditions under which the skill is being learned and performed in preparation for competition.

Four stage psychological model
     According to a classic psychological model of how individual learning occurs, before we acquire any skill we must go through four stages of learning or competence. A four stage model includes the following:

  • Unconscious Incompetence
  • This is the initial stage in which the individual is unaware of the problems or how to identify them. It is usually fairly obvious that something is not working; however, the solution or what and how to fix it is a mystery.

  • Conscious Incompetence
  • At this stage the individual has developed an awareness of most of the problems, but the knowledge to correct them is still not available. A feeling of being overwhelmed by how much there is to learn is quite common. 

  • Conscious Competence
  • In this stage there is an awareness of how to correct the problems, but also that it will take time, lots of patience, and considerable effort to accomplish. There still is the problem of applying the knowledge, but it is possible as long as you focus on the goal and concentrating on successfully completing each of the necessary steps. You may feel uncomfortable if this is not your normal way to work through the process of completing a project, task, or assignment.

    Don't allow yourself to become discouraged because you find you are outside of your comfort zone.  There is no other way to improve except by applying yourself to the tasks at hand. Learning anything that is worth doing will require time and energy to stretch your existing physical and mental limits. However, it is a necessary part of the process if you plan on taking on even greater challenges in the future.

  • Unconscious Competence
  • You have acquired the skills and no longer have to think about performing the skill or task because it's automatic and occurs at an unconsciously level.

    Acquiring new skills and modifying or changing existing skills is an ongoing process. Everyone strives to incorporate positive habits, thinking, and behaviors by utilizing this learning process to reduce the obstacles we struggle to deal with on a daily basis. Don't think in terms of obstacles, think in terms of opportunities and ways to improve yourself.

    Classifications of Motor Skills

    Precision of Movement:

    Gross movements are those that involve large muscle coordination such as jumping. 

    Fine movements involve precise control of small muscles such as ballet.

    The Environment or Competitive Situation:

    Open tasks are when the athlete has to react to their location on the ice surface. For example, running out of room to finish the MITF pattern or waiting too long to jump and hitting the barrier.

    Closed tasks does not require the skater to focus as much of their location on the ice.  For example, the choreography situates the spin in the center of the ice. The environment is stable, so the athlete can concentrate on executing the movement rather than worrying about being too close to the barrier.

    Beginning and Ending Points of a Skill:

    Discrete tasks have distinct beginning and ending points. A step or spiral sequence must have a recognizable starting and ending points.

    Serial skills consist of a string of discrete skills performed in sequence. A set of turns and/or steps that fulfill the footwork requirement before the execution of a specific jump in a short program.

    Continuous tasks have arbitrary beginning and end points. Free skating programs have a specific amount of time allocated for each event level. In higher events there are specific time constraints for  short and long programs with some differences for ladies and men's events. Endurance/stamina and a high aerobic capacity are very important to completing the last elements in a program with the emotional and physical energy matching the beginning of the program.

    Training Variations:
          Training variation of practice activities are varied by intensity and different levels of classes to promote learning and prevents staleness/learning plateaus.

          As athletes acquire the fundamental movements of a skill, the variation in practices helps expose them to performing under simulated test/competition conditions that require adjustments in the execution and context of the required test elements and elective elements for a competition.

          The following examples demonstrate ideas of how practice variation can be used in preparing for a test or competition:
    • Create practice conditions that match a variety of possible test/competitive conditions. For example, if the skater trains early in the morning, but the competition event will be held late in the evening, adjust practice schedules for one to two weeks prior to the test or competition.

    • Allow time to acclimate when there is a substantial change of altitudes prior to the competition.

    • Monitoring of varied practice sessions for beginners until they understand and can execute key movements of a skill.

    • Practice skills in different order. For example, start at the end of the MITF test rather than always starting with the first element. Practice your weaker side twice before skating your stronger side.

    • Vary the exercises, repetitions, sets, volume, recovery, and other aspects of the training activities. Training in phases with periodized cycles effectively builds keeps the athlete's interest positive.

    Recommended Reading List:

    Training Considerations


    4 Stages of Learning - Cooperative Learning  June 7, 2010   4 Stages of Learning. mcaers. Author: mcaers. There are 4 stages that everyone will pass through during the learning process.

    The Four Stages of Learning - Process Coaching  Understanding the four stages of learning a skill can help keep the learning process focused on learning to do something, and not feeling bad about ourselves.

    Conscious competence learning model matrix - four stage learning process model plus other free personal and organizational development tools, examples, templates, etc.

    Skill Development  Fitts and Posner (1967) suggested that the three phase learning process is sequential and that we move through specific phases as we learn.

    PDF Six Stages for Learning to Use Technology using a relevant activity combined with an understanding of stages a learner typically goes through during the learning process has not been considered.

    The five stages that learners go through in an e-learning program   UNIT 3: Gilly Salmon, Professor of E-learning and Learning Technologies at the University of Leicester, has identified five stages of online interaction. According to Salmon (2004), each stage requires different types of support from e-tutors. Gilly Salmon's s five stage model can be found on the web and in her book on E-moderating.    Stage 1 - Access & Motivation | Stage 2 - Socialisation |
     Stage 3 - Information Exchange |  |  Stage 4 - Knowledge Construction | Stage 5 - Development

    The following internet links have been gleaned from personal communications
    combined with information from public institutions and athletic organizations/
    associations that have a web presence with information concerning team and
    individual sports programs:
    All materials are copy protected. 
    The limited use of the materials for education purposes is allowed providing
    credit is given for the source of the materials.

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