CrossFit is not so much a skill as a broad collection of skills. And while it is true that everything we do draws from universal motor recruitment patterns, the snatch, double under and muscle up, are very different skills each requiring specific practice and study. For each one we must go through the stages of skill acquisition separately. Most sports or activities have a singular focus (running, rowing or throwing) and therefore require practitioners to only make a single journey through the stages of skill acquisition. In CrossFit we have to do it over and over again with each skill introduced. So here’s what the journey looks like:
1. Unconscious incompetence (Ignorance) 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 (Awareness) 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 (Learning) 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.
(Conscious competence theory of learning a new skill Credited to: Gordon Training International by its employee Noel Burch in the 1970s)
I recently got to watch my son go through these stages on his quest to get his driver’s license:
Unconscious Incompetence: You are unskilled and unaware of how unskilled you are. For example, you are 16 and have never driven a car but played lots of driving games or watched driving movies and you imagine you will be excellent behind the wheel. At this stage you are highly motivated to take on the new skill because the prospect of your success excites you. Your confidence is high.
Conscious Incompetence: You are now aware of your lack of skill. You are finally behind the wheel and your driving instructor asks you to parallel park for the first time. The dawning realization of how much there is to learn at this stage can be very daunting. You will probably make it through your driver’s ed because it is deemed a required skill but in a voluntary activity many will give up at this stage. Your confidence is shattered.
Conscious Competence: You now possess the basic skills but they require your focus and attention. You’re ready for your driver’s test but driving still requires 100% of your attention. This stage isn’t really as fun as you imagined it would be back at stage 1. Successful performance still requires a lot of effort. Your confidence is low.
Unconscious Competence: You can perform the skill effortlessly as a matter of habit. You’ve been driving for years. You can navigate traffic while holding a conversation. You operate on reflex reading the road and the traffic ahead of you, making accurate predictions and adjusting accordingly. At this stage you feel confident in your skill.
Whether you are learning to read and write, speak a new language or play an instrument, the process of getting through these stages to achieve competency can be frustrating. And mastery is a whole other level. In CrossFit this process can be protracted because we are chasing after so many disparate skills. This is why my coach told me to only practice split jerking on my strong side or else it would take me twice as long to get good at the split jerk. I of course ignored her and found she was absolutely correct, it took me about twice as long as my peers to develop a good split jerk (but now I can split jerk either side).
When people get stopped at stage 1 it is usually because they do not see the value of the skill. For example, many are turned off by the subtle nuances of the snatch and therefore refuse to really commit to its mastery thus prolonging the time they spend at the “Ignorant” stage of this lift. It reminds me of a bouncer I once worked with. After seeing me throw a few people on the job and after testing his boxing on me and finding himself quickly and easily subdued, he decided to come try out some Judo expecting he’d whoop some white belts with his toughness. Instead our beginners tossed him around. Afterwards he decided Judo wasn’t for him rationalizing to me that it wasn’t “real fighting”. In this way we can avoid a skill or remain in the first stage for prolonged periods.
When people get stopped in stage 2 it is due to frustration with making mistakes because mistakes are a necessary part of learning the skill. Falling on your ass when you miss a squat snatch is a great example. If you are going to develop competency in the squat snatch you are going to have to get okay with falling on your ass. A lot. Until you are okay with falling you will continue to power snatch and ride the bar down. My son is learning to drive standard and you have to stall the car a few times to learn how and when to use the clutch. For me, as a teenager, I quit Judo twice at this stage as I grew painfully aware of the errors I was making. But absent that awareness, corrections cannot be made. Mistakes are a necessary part of learning!
At stage 3 things can still get discouraging. That’s where I’d rate my current ,muscle up progress. I can do muscle ups. I’m strong enough. But I am using strength more than skill. I am not yet efficient. They are not effortless and I want them to be effortless. Until they are I cannot really progress this skill. It is easy to get trapped at this stage of “good enough” as in the rep counted even if it looked ugly. Many are content to hang out here. Heck I’ve been at this stage of muscle up progress for a long time because habits are hard to break and sometimes require undoing bad practices. Getting to mastery will require the patience to continuously refine a skill.
Stage 4 mastery is elusive in CrossFit because the demands are so diverse. This keeps most of us perpetually in the learning phase. This is not accidental. Studies in longevity and brain health point to continuous learning as one of the key factors, the only thing more important to brain health is exercise. Well, guess what? We get both in one package! We get to learn new skills while working out. You don’t need brain exercises and mental puzzles if you keep moving mindfully. Don’t just go through the motions in the WDO, try to improve your technique with every rep. You will get better, more efficient and your brain and body will benefit!
There is nothing easy about what we do so it is important to acknowledge where you are on the journey to mastery and commend yourself for the progress you’ve made so far. Olympians train just a single one of the dozens of skills you are faced with weekly. Naturally some skills will come to you more easily than others but that is part of the journey also. You will never have “arrived”, it is a never ending process. Enjoy how far you’ve come already and be excited by how much room there is to still improve.
And remember to have fun. Because learning should be fun!
Equipment: Barbell or substitute, PVC Pipe or substitute
1 min Hang Power Snatches
1 min Push Presses
1 min SDHP
1 min Front Squats
100 Hang Power Snatches
100 Push Presses
100 Front Squats
Shoulder Pass Throughs
PVC Pipe Forearm Stretch
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