Basics of Skill Acquisition: How To Learn Anything

Learning how to mountaineer without dying up in the beautiful British Columbia. PSA: Do not drop your phone down on hard packed ice on a steep incline…

Learning how to mountaineer without dying up in the beautiful British Columbia. PSA: Do not drop your phone down on hard packed ice on a steep incline…

WARNING: The article is lengthy and wordy, but if all else fails: watch the 73 second uber-motivational video at the end.

Mastering A Skill: A Very Unscientific Flow Chart
A while back on the wide plains of Internet somewhere this great progression of mastering any skill was found:

Can't → Suck → Below Average → Average → Above Average → Good → Great

However, after working with hundreds (thousands?) of people/athletes for over a decade, frequently there’s an incorrect expectation in their heads when learning something new that runs like this:

Can’t do → Can do → Greatness! (some steps are missing, huh?)

So today we’re not going to talk about how to get 100 Double Unders in a row, perfect Snatch, Strict Muscle Up to Ring Handstand Push-up or any kind of Muscle Up for that matter.

Instead we’re going to step back and glance over the concepts of learning & understanding of how to deal with oneself (and others - “when one teaches - two learn” - ancient saying). Hopefully some of this will help learn new skills in the world of fitness and outside of it easier, faster & with less head banging on the wall.

We’ll keep the tone light & not scientific - The Overheard Press (RIP) had a great article on this recently that’s quite excellent (I much prefer simple talk at my gym as well)

- Chad: “Establish and maintain spinal integrity throughout the entirety of this movement archetype”
- English: “Keep your back straight.”

Basics of Skill Aquisition
As one learns a new task – all those multiple stages of “Can’t -> Suck …-> Great” will have to be stepped through. Sometimes you get an easy start and it gets harder later, at other times the opposite happens. One might learn quicker, while others might struggle. The important part is that with new task you have to go through the same progression.

I often compare developing a skill to great American pasttime - BBQ’ing: It takes as long as it takes, depends on many factors (age/physical condition/coach/background/stress level or in case of BBQ - temperature, wind, thickness, charcoal etc). It’s never quick & you can’t rush the process. If you’re patient however & follow the proper steps - the reward is waiting for you on the other side. Mmm-mmm!



My other passion outside of exercising, videogames & Pinterest

Carryover from one skill to the other may happen, but don’t count on it: the Snatch helps Clean & Jerk (especially the Clean) tremendously, while the reverse doesn’t quite work. And Single Unders do very little for Double Unders, other than being a very very basic pre-requisite.

To make things more challenging, as life usually will have it, everyone also has an Achilles heel (physical or mental) that will be more stubborn and slow to progress than just about every other skill combined. If you don’t have one - just give it time. Mine are handstand push-ups & people.

Understanding how we learn and acquire skills is crucial to long term development & success. So let’s dig in!

Starting them early

Starting them early

Stepping It Up a Notch

In psychology, according to the resource of most Modern Truths – Wikipedia, there is a learning model of progressing from incompetence to competence. In a nutshell it's a more scientific version of the “Suck → Average → Good...” model outlined earlier.

The four stages are as follows:

1. Unconscious incompetence also known as “You don't know what you don't know”

The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognize their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.

2. Conscious incompetence or “You know you don't know”

Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.

3. Conscious competence as in “Competent at a skill/task”

The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.

4. Unconscious competence - “Mastery”

The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become "second nature" and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.

Look back at any task you're good at and realize that you went through those steps. Some took longer, some you were more natural at and breezed through.

Often we realize that it's just not interesting or important to spend enough time & attention to develop tasks. I’d bet a $100 that 99% of us are in Stage 1 of “Speed Knitting” and are perfectly okay staying there. Actually it’d be stage 2 now, since it’s brought to attention…


So what about the skills we actually do want to add to our repertoire?

Bigger Picture
Partial goal of this article is for you to be able to look at a task with relaxed state of mind instead of that needing/wanting/striving/grinding mindset doesn't affect the steps necessary to acquire said task, but does make the process more enjoyable and usually quicker. Also to teach such mindset to your athletes/kids/coworkers/anyone willing to learn.

There's also value of acquiring some tasks just to practice – juggling, handstands, kip ups (Basic Ninjility 101), cooking on charcoal… even if you’re not really planning on using often (except for Handstands and BBQ, of course).

It's a bit like school & college – it's just as important, if not more so, to learn how to LEARN, socialize, develop people skills as it is to get through the subjects themselves. The more things you learn - the easier it gets: not because you’re learning easier stuff, rather due to a more systematic approach and familiarity with process of learning.

Recently I picked up a dremel and it was a breeze to use - knowing how to use a pen, willingness to ruin a bit of plywood and a bit of free time was all it took. Also I learned that I didn’t enjoy it that much and prefer to jigsaw stuff out instead.

Think of something you’ve ever learned how to do & regretted having the skill set now even if not used…

In terms of CrossFit - think of an exercise you couldn’t do and now can - would you want to go back to exercising without Rope Climbs or Power Cleans? It’s the same way with the rest - personally, I can’t imagine doing CrossFit and not doing Snatches, Muscle Ups or Double Unders.

Get off the Struggle Bus and hit the Easy Button!

The Pitfall of Success
You worked diligently for months & did your first <instert exercise here>. Congratulations!

However as we progress through the 4 stages mental brakes frequently get automatically put on the 3rd stage – Competence in the skill, because the unconditioned mind thinks that we have arrived. “Woo-hoo! I got that Muscle Up finally! SUCK IT!”

But it’s too soon, of course. The work is not done yet unless you want to keep on struggling. The definition of the 3rd Stage: “The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.”

From the original Fast and Furious. Stuff of legends.

From the original Fast and Furious. Stuff of legends.

When was the last time you practiced to ride a bike? How about walking?

This is why I'm bringing up the 4 stages – to become aware of them and once learning – to spend the time & take it all the way to Stage 4 instead of bumbling about on the doorstep of it, as it so frequently happens. Don’t get a 5 Double Unders in a row - get 50. Don’t stop the drills at a sloppy 5 foot Handstand Walk - hold it for a full minute instead.

A child or a puppy learning how to walk does it by simply attempting a task over and over extremely frequently and thus succeeds. Frequently & easily (may be with occasional cry here and there). And we continue walking until it becomes like breathing – intuitive and automatic (even if later you learn breathing techniques, but that'd be a whole different story).


Wrapping It Up.
Next time you catch yourself wanting/learning/practicing/performing any skill - step back and assess where you are on either the scientific “Four Stage” or the much less scientific, but no-less-helpful “Suck -> Great” chart and figure out:
A: where you’re heading
B: how you got where you are
C: how to connect the dots of the above two while avoiding self-created problems: going too hard/easy. too many things, not frequently enough, skill above paygrade etc...

And if the skill you’re working on acquiring is worth it to you - take it all the way to the finish line where you can do it with your eyes closed while smiling (unless you’re working with power tools - don’t close your eyes and wear protective gear).

And here’s an inspirational video of perseverance, failure, strength, success, great dancing, elegance, poetry in motion etc etc and Soc taking a nap: