Regardless of preferred learning style, everyone goes through identifiable stages of learning a new skill (or behaviour, ability, technique, etc.). Some may progress faster than others, but everyone goes through them.

The concept is most commonly known as the ‘conscious competence learning model’, and it remains essentially a very simple and helpful explanation of how we learn, and also serves as a useful reminder of the need to train people in stages.

Put simply:

  • Learners begin at stage 1 - ‘unconscious incompetence’
  • They pass through stage 2 - ‘conscious incompetence’
  • Then through stage 3 - ‘conscious competence’
  • And ideally end at stage 4 - ‘unconscious competence’
Confusion about what stage a learner is at is perhaps the most fundamental reason for the failure of a lot of training and teaching. The difference between each stage can be illustrated by a competency learning matrix.
Importantly, the stage of learning is also contextual - a player may learn a skill in an uncontested activity at practice and progress to either stage 3 or 4 of competence. However, when it comes to performing the skill against contested pressure in a game they may be at a stage of incompetence.


Stage 1

Unconscious Incompetence

Stage 2

Conscious incompetence

  • learner is unaware of the existence or relevance of the skill
  • learner is unaware they have a particular deficiency in the area
  • learner might deny the relevance or usefulness of the new skill
  • learner must become conscious of their incompetence before development of the new skill or learning can begin
  • the aim of the learner and the coach is to move the learner into the ‘conscious competence’ stage, by demonstrating the skill or ability and the benefit that it will bring to the learner’s effectiveness
  • learner becomes aware of the existence and relevance of the skill
  • learner is also aware of their deficiency, ideally by attempting to use the skill
  • learner realises that by improving their skill in this area their effectiveness will improve
  • ideally the learner has a measure of the extent of their deficiency in the relevant skill, and a measure of what level of skill is required for their own competence
  • the learner ideally makes a commitment to learn and practice the new skill, and to move to the ‘conscious competence’ stage


Stage 3

Conscious competence

Stage 4

unConscious competence

  • learner needs to concentrate and think in order to perform the skill but can perform it without assistance
  • learner will not reliably perform the skill unless thinking about it - the skill is not yet ‘second nature’ or ‘automatic’
  • learner should be able to demonstrate the skill to another, but is unlikely to be able to teach it well to another person
  • learner should ideally continue to practise the new skill, and if appropriate commit to becoming ‘unconsciously competent’ at the new skill

NB: Practice (repetition) is the single most effective way to move from stage 3 to 4

  • the skill enters the unconscious parts of the brain - it is ‘second nature’
  • arguably the person is no longer
    a “learner”, although coaches must be cognisant of the difference between competence at practice and at games and various standards of competition
  • it becomes possible for certain skills to be performed while doing something else, for example, dribbling and “reading” the position of other players
  • the person might be able to teach the skill, although after some time of being unconsciously competent the person might actually have difficulty in explaining how they do it
  • this arguably gives rise to the need for long-standing unconscious competence to be checked periodically against new standards

Coaches should choose activities based upon the stage of learning their players demonstrate, and if they incorrectly assess that stage it can compromise the player’s learning – if activities are too easy, the player loses motivation. If they are too hard the player will become disenchanted.

For example, let us assume a coach wrongly thought players were at stage 2, but in fact the players are still at stage 1. The coach assumes the players are aware of the skill, and how it is to be performed and that they are aware of their deficiency in not being able to perform it.

In fact, the players are at stage 1 – unconscious incompetence – and have none of these things in place, and will not be able to address achieving conscious competence until they’ve become consciously and fully aware of their own incompetence.

Progressing from one stage to the next

The progression is linear and it is not possible to jump stages. For some skills, especially advanced ones, people can regress to previous stages, particularly from 4 to 3, or from 3 to 2, if they fail to practice and exercise their new skills. A person regressing from 4, back through 3, to 2, will need to develop again through 3 to achieve stage 4 – unconscious competence again.

Progression is also contextual, and a person may be at stage 4 in execution of a skill at training and without defence (e.g. catch and shoot) but be at an earlier level in regards to execution of the skill in a game.

Interestingly, progression from stage to stage is often accompanied by a feeling of awakening - ‘the penny drops’ or things ‘click’ into place for the player as they feel like they have made a big step forward, which of course they have.

A very clear and simple example of this effect is seen when a person learns to drive a car: the progression from stage 2 (conscious incompetence) to stage 3 (conscious competence) is obvious, as the learner becomes able to control the vehicle and signal at the same time; and the next progression from 3 to 4 (unconscious competence) is equally clear to the learner when they are able to hold a conversation while performing a complex manoeuvre such as reverse parking.

And since the conscious competence theory forces analysis at an individual level, the model encourages and assists individual assessment and development, which is easy to overlook when so much learning and development is delivered on a group basis.

We each possess natural strengths and preferences, and this affects our attitudes and commitments towards learning, as well as our ability to develop competence in different disciplines.

People begin to develop competence only after they recognise the relevance of their own incompetence in the skill concerned. Certain brain types and personalities prefer and possess certain aptitudes and skills. We each therefore experience different levels of challenge (to our attitudes and awareness in addition to pure capability) in progressing through the stages of learning, dependent on what is being learned. Some people may readily accept the need for development from 1 to 2, but may struggle to progress from 2 to 3 (becoming consciously competent) because the skill is not a natural personal strength or aptitude.

An example of this is learning to shoot a lay-up with the non-preferred hand. Coaches can magnify this effect if they penalize shots being missed as this will reinforce to players the need to perform the skill with their preferred hand (which has a higher rate of success). Instead, coaches should highlight attempting the shot with the non-preferred hand (regardless of whether or not it goes in) as “success”.

Some people may progress well to stage 3 but will struggle to reach stage 4 (unconscious competence), and then regress to stage 2 (conscious incompetence) again, simply through lack of practice.

Having a general understanding of the stages of learning can help players to cope with “failing” (being unable to perform the skill) because correctly seen, it is not failure, but simply the first step to learning the skill!