Conscious Competence Learning Model and Grappling


In a recent blog post I addressed the issues of muscle memory and its importance in developing skills that can be used reliably in a dynamic environment. As I thought more about this issue the Conscious Competence Learning Model kept coming to mind. In this model the learning process is broken into four distinct subsets:  unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence, and lastly unconscious competence. When learning a new skill one will typically pass through each of the four stages respectively. An understanding of this process can be useful in evaluating individual progress as well as helping others identify stumbling blocks and remain motivated.  What’s interesting about this model is that there are periods where, as we improve, we are actually more critical of our abilities. This model is particularly useful in explaining the high drop-out rate amongst beginning and intermediate grapplers.  It also offers a more inclusive framework as it pertains to muscle memory, rehearsal of skills, and eventual mastery.

The Four Stages of Learning:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence:  In this stage the individual is unaware that they lack competence. Ignorance is bliss, so to speak, and as a result of being unaware morale is high.
  2. Conscious Incompetence: During this stage the individual becomes increasingly aware of their ineptitude.  Perhaps David Byrne said it best, “the more you know, the more you know you don’t know…” Here, though the individual has taken the first step towards mastery, he is apt to become self-critical. A critical outlook is important – it is the stimulus for improvement.  However, it is here also that motivation will be called into question, particularly for those prone to whim. This is where you say good-bye, at one time or another, to about 85% of the people who ever step onto the mat.
  3. Conscious Competence: Skill is developing and the individual knows it. He must try hard, however, to execute skills that he has learned. The skill is not yet engrained in the nervous system. Because the individual must focus conscious attention so heavily he is apt to miss other opportunities. He is like a person searching for something with a flashlight – only able to perceive and process a few variables at once.
  4. Unconscious Incompetence: The skill is now second nature.  The person sees with the floodlight not the flashlight. Individual skills are understood within the context of a much larger perspective. Requiring little conscious effort to execute a skill, the individual is like water in a barrel, which will flow without hesitation in any direction the instant a hole is pierced.  This person has mastered a skill.

Robert Burge, MA

Contributor Bio – Robert is a judo nidan, Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, and has a master’s in mental health counseling. He is the head instructor of the University of Kentucky judo club and an assistant instructor at Valhalla Grappling Academy.

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