Has it occurred to you that if you’ve learned how to ride a bike, it is almost impossible to forget? When you are a kid, it’s a right of passage and freedom, especially once those training wheels are popped off. Throw a baseball card in the spokes, maybe some stickers, and even riding with one or no hands, bike riding was one of the main attractions as an adolescent. But now, can you even remember the last time you religiously took the time and pedaled around the neighborhood?
As our daily schedule filled through middle school and beyond, we exchanged what we spent our time on, and it’s only when you dust it off from the depths that you find the nostalgic feeling of childhood. So, you go ahead and pump up the tires, grease the chain, and get ready for a sore butt. Not before long, you take your first pedal out of the driveway and think to yourself, “Man, I hope I can still do this.”
Nearly without fail, you will be able to just get on the bike and go without having a mini panic attack that you are going to tip over and cut up your knee (literally, the worst feeling ever as an 8-year-old). It is as if you didn’t even need to think about how to do it, your body just seemed to remember how to move to keep your balance instantly.
If you are able to remember things like riding a bike, tying your shoes, reciting the alphabet, or snapping your fingers, why can’t you do this with other skills too?
How Do We Develop Skills?
It would be wrong of me to try and elaborate on perishable and non-perishable skills without really shedding light on how our fancy brains and bodies learn skills in the first place.
At the very root of understanding motor control and development in humans, the foundation is built upon the Conscious Competence Model. The Conscious Competence Model can be imagined as a ladder; it provides a way to measure how we move through the physical and emotional stages of learning a new skill or ability. Our consciousness (awareness) associated with our level of acquisition (competence). The four stages of this model are set out below.
1. Unconscious Incompetence
This is where the skill looks and feels like gibberish. You do not even know what you don’t know, and you aren’t even aware that you lack the necessary skills required to complete the task (bummer). When something seems impossible or totally foreign to you, the chances are this is the stage you are in as far as acquiring that skill goes. You are unconsciously incompetent in any area that you have no experience in at all (meaning, you unknowingly don’t even know what the skill requires you to do); that’s a good one for the brain to try and figure out.
In a fitness realm, that could be like attempting a single leg rotational medicine ball throw. It encompasses the skills of balance, body awareness in space, rotational coordination, and manipulating an external object all at once. If you haven’t yet reached a higher learning stage of any of the necessary qualities before attempting this, then you’re onto the next stage.
2. Conscious Incompetence
Alright, so in this stage, you have learned the premise of skill, enough where you recognize you don’t have the necessary prerequisites to execute. This can be through a sudden shock, or moment of reality, where the weak points of your armor show. This can be slightly uncomfortable both physically and mentally, but most heavily taxing on the ego. That discomfort is because you realize how little you actually knew (the transition from unconscious competence) and how much “work” it will take to progress to the next stage (being consciously aware).
This is the moment where the flight or fight can kick in, and where many “exercise dropout” decisions occur. This stage is a question of your being; are you ready to commit to the process? The process of developing skills and abilities which are not instantaneous or automatic, it will take some effort. You have begun to recognize that that vision you hold of yourself isn’t so perfect. Are you going to accept that? Or are you going to follow through with honoring the commitment to improving yourself? It could take a few weeks to advance, but it could just as easily take months or years. It is the moment to put the ego to rest and explore the possibilities to prepare yourself to grow.
3. Conscious Competence
Finally! At this point, we are finally able to learn or execute the skill more efficiently, but it does require our undivided attention and concentration to accomplish. The more complex the skill is, the longer you might hang out at this stage. Conscious Competence consistently requires persistence (jeez, say that five times fast). It is still a long way to mastery, but largely because you are constantly adjusting, shifting, or re-learning how you are doing the skill.
Have you ever seen children go through tasks like tying shoes, writing cursive, or sentence formation? That is the most focused and determined mind in the room, and they have directed maximal effort and brain power to recall information, implement, and execute each step of the way. It hasn’t become second nature to just make the loop-de-loop and pull yet, but with enough persistence, it will.
Most commonly as a coach, I see this in the form of a deadlift. In my year of professional experience, I’ve seen some lumbar spine explosions waiting to happen. You aim to just bend over and simply, pick it up. When delivering coaching cues such as “keep your spine neutral,” “drive your hips back,” “show me your shirt logo,” or “spread the floor and pack your shoulders back.” It’s as if I am speaking the most absurd language they’ve ever heard, and their facial expression says it all.
You might be able to do a great hip bridge and hold a bent over row position, but your body and mind cannot yet connect the dots to cohesively execute a loaded hip hinge (i.e. deadlift, KB swing, tire flip). Once the re-learning process begins, you will be focused on each aspect of the movement while trying to maintain the best alignment and body tension possible while still remaining fluid and relaxed.
4. Unconscious Competence
This is the apex. You have successfully become so proficient at a skill that you are naturally competent and the movement is almost second nature. The ability to continue to improve is totally still in effect, but you will continuously use much less mental power and effort in order to achieve the outcome.
Quantity does not always overrule quality, and the contrary as well. So by now, it doesn’t require as much mental focus to comprehend and go through that deadlift. But that doesn’t mean your brain can head out to lunch while you aim to attempt a near maximal load deadlift. If you’ve ever asked an airplane pilot, they will run through their same checklist before every single flight, regardless if it is their first time in the cockpit or their 1000th. Even if it feels automatic or, so simple to remember, how could you ever forget it? Why provide an opportunity for a weak point in your armor to be exposed?
So for that super simple deadlift, rather than just hoping the body can do everything it is supposed to, run through your body-scan checklist—chin tucked, shoulders packed, elbows long, grip strong, rib cage down, hips loaded back, feet spreading the floor and rooted, glutes ready to drive forward, exhale and engage my core, lift, then smile at the end.
Increase Your Capacity to Become Better
Just like climbing a real ladder, you can get stuck on one rung at times and it can be scary or frustrating. Most commonly, we can fit ourselves into all of these categories, depending on the task at hand. The conscious stages can be a bit tougher and uncomfortable, and that is where a large majority of our actions are. But it is important to not let difficulty overrule the potential to become great or reap the benefits of completing it. It is important to be honest and real with yourself about your experience and proficiency.
Ask for help when needed, take a step back and assess your dilemma, and don’t let your ego control your actions or attitudes. And as I always say in the face of adversity, “To see true lifestyle changes, the secret is to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.” The hardest behaviors to break are the ones that limit the true potential to personal fulfillment” (a quote from the coaches bio page at Orca Empire Fitness).
Whether you are a fitness newbie, experienced junkie, or somewhere in between, there is always the opportunity to increase your capacity to learn, perform, and enjoy the process of becoming a better human every day.
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