4 Levels to Learning

What does it take to succeed?

For the sake of this conversation I’m referring to athletic performance but the same analogies would apply for success in weight loss, injury rehab or any other physical pursuit.

What does it take to be at that top level?

I like to refer to something we refer to as 4 Levels of Learning and here’s what is looks like.

Level 1 – Unconscious Incompetence

Don't waste your efforts going the wrong way

Don’t waste your efforts going the wrong way

Basically this means ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’. Someone is making mistake and spinning their wheels but has no idea this is happening.

For example, imagine if were in a running race and you made a wrong turn. So you are going in the exact opposite direction of the finish line. You run as hard as you can giving your best effort but are surprised when at the awards ceremony you aren’t on the podium receiving a medal.

You can’t understand it? You ran hard. You pushed yourself as much as the winners, if not more, yet you are not rewarded for your efforts.

Another way of thinking about this would be to watch someone in the weight-room with terrible technique performing some type of exercise.

Let’s use kettlebell swings as the example. The person doing the swings has heard all of the great benefits of swings yet continues to suffer injuries and doesn’t see any improvements in their performance.

Yet when any coach sees them swing they cringe and want to help them fix their technique.

In both these situations we have individuals who are making mistakes but don’t even know it. It’s this type of situation where people who do nothing may see better results due to the fact the efforts of the ones trying are full of errors.

Level 2 – Conscious Incompetence

For this level let’s continue with the example of the kettlebell swing. At some point a knowing coach will step in and let the individual know that you don’t want the wrists to break at the top of the swing, or that the bell should finish at eye level or that…(insert any other technique faults)

So the lifter now knows they have been making some mistakes. And they know their is a better way.But they don’t know what that better way is yet.

At this point there will be an emotional reaction. This could vary from:

‘Leave me alone, I know what I’m doing’ which isn’t all the far fetched when you consider the gym is the last place to give unsolicited advice,


frustration if the person has invested lots of time and energy doing things the wrong way,


hope when the person realizes they can improve, be pain free etc once they make a few changes.

But since they are only aware that they are the doing the wrong thing but don’t yet know that the right thing is they need to graduate to the next level.

Level 3 – Conscious Competance

Now we have someone who has been shown the correct way. And when they are focussed on the task they realize success.

Imagine a coach standing over a client and giving them cues as they perform a swing:

‘chin tucked’

‘the kettlebell is a continuation of the arms’

‘drive through the heels’

‘brace the core as the hips come through’

and many more.

Once the individual understands what these cues mean and why they matter the person will enjoy success with the task.

And this takes us to the next and final level.

Level 4 – Unconscious Competence

But what happens when the coach isn’t available for a workout?

Or the individual becomes fatigued?

Or they want to transfer the new skill to something more complex?

Or the individual enters a competition?

Now all of a sudden things change. Sports coaches see this all the time. An athlete that can do something in practice all the time struggles to do the same in a game.

Or the client that normally trains with a coach defaults to poor habits when left alone.

In order to be a Level 4 there is no room for conscious thought. This creates internal confusion for the individual and leads to poor movement.

You’ll sometimes here sport coaches say ‘play don’t think’. Because if a star player had to take time to think during a key point in a game they wouldn’t react quickly enough.

And this is part of the key of a Level 4 which is to make things reflexive and automatic. They happen without conscious consideration.


As you go forward in 2014 working towards your optimal health and performance think about what level you are.

And if you’re not sure then consider investing in a coach to get some feedback. Because there is nothing worse than putting in the time and effort to not realize all of your potential. Or worse to become injured.

Chris [fb-like]



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