Four Stages of Skill Acquisition

The following article originally appeared in Hard 2 Guard 2009 Player Development Newsletter Volume 3, Issue 37 and is included in Brian McCormick’s Player Development Newsletters, Volume 3.

While running a clinic for an organization last weekend, the head coach reminded the group (and me) of the four stages of skill acquisition:

* Unskilled, Unconscious
* Unskilled, Conscious
* Skilled, Conscious
* Skilled, Unconscious

The beginner player is unaware of his mistake and the proper execution. Next, he learns the proper execution, but he cannot consistently repeat the skill. For instance, many young players understand the basics of shooting – they can recite BEEF and show you where to start your shot, where to place your hand on the ball, etc. – but they cannot execute the skill perfectly and consistently.

Eventually, they execute with correct technique. However, they consciously control their shooting technique. When they step to the free throw line, they tell themselves to bend their knees. A lot of players get stuck in this stage where they mentally control their skill execution.

The final stage is to forget: the player masters the skill and forgets the technical instructions. He does not need to think about his foot placement, hand placement, etc. – he simply catches and shoots.

Many players waffle in-between the 3rd and final step. When things are good and they are thinking positively, they catch and shoot without any conscious control. However, when they miss a shot, feel fatigued, feel pressure, etc., their mind attempts to wrest control of the physical process. Once a player reaches the Skilled-Unconscious Stage, thinking interferes with skill execution.

Is there a way to go from Unskilled-Unconscious to Skilled-Unconscious? After all, if the goal is to return to unconscious skill execution, why add the conscious element? That is the basis for the school of thought which favors implicit learning:

Considerable evidence now exists in the scientific literature to show that excessive conscious control of one’s skills (reinvestment) is avoidable if the skills are learned implicitly, without recourse to hypothesis testing (e.g. bent knees = more power) or accumulation of explicit knowledge,” (Farrow, et. al).

How can a coach teach the required skills without explicit instructions? Many coaches already use many implicit learning techniques: (1) analogies; (2) errorless learning; (3) subliminal learning; and discovery learning/play.

Analogies can be used to present the key coaching points of a to-be learned skill as a simple biomechanical metaphor that can be reproduced by the learner without reference to, or manipulation of, large amounts of explicit knowledge (Farrow, et. al).

In 180 Shooter, I list several cues that I use with shooters that are similar to analogies. The most common basketball analogy is the “hand in the cookie jar.” This type of analogy allows “many bits of information about a skill to be presented to the learner in one manageable chunk,” (Farrow, et. al).

When I learned to swim last winter, I thought about one instruction – reaching on each stroke like I was reaching to touch the wall – and one image – the hull of a boat. In the Total Immersion philosophy, the goal is to be more efficient with each stroke, not to work harder. By reaching for the wall, you lengthen each stroke (made sense based on my rowing experience and the difference between stroke rate and stroke length), and by picturing the hull of the boat, I forced my head and chest down to create a more streamlined position. There were no details to remember about exact hand position or precise stroke length.

Errorless Learning
When I begin a shooting session, I start with form shooting close to the basket. This is a form of errorless learning. Rather than instruct step-by-step, the player shoots in an area where it is easy for him to make shots. He grooves his technique or gets a rhythm. Through the successful execution, he learns the right way to shoot with minimal instruction. The longer that I coach, the less that I say, especially in individual workouts because I want to minimize the thinking.

If the player starts in the right position and finishes in the right position, everything in between takes care of itself. While there are many details that one can teach, every detail gives the player another thing to analyze or another reason to think too much.

I show the right starting position and emphasize shooting the ball high: start small and finish tall. If there are mistakes that consistently result in missed shots, I tweak the technique and instruct as needed. However, when starting with the errorless learning and a basic picture of the goal, the need for detailed instructions lessens.

Subliminal Learning
In Developing Sport Expertise, Neil Craig, Head Coach of the Adelaide Crows Football Club, cites a study published in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink as provoking subliminal implicit learning. In the study, people memorized groups of words and then walked down a hallway. Those who memorized words subtly referencing old age – gray, Florida, old – walked with a stooped, slow fashion like an older person.

Craig puts posters on the wall which emphasize the importance of precise skill execution like focus, attention, concentration, etc. He figures that reading these words in the locker room on a daily basis contributes to subliminal learning.

Discovery Learning/Play
When I work with a new team, I present situations and allow the players to devise solutions rather than telling players exactly what to do. As I conducted several clinics last weekend, I realized that coaches skip over generalities and move straight to specifics – in a sense, they skip the perceptual and conceptual elements and move straight to movement.

I worked with a junior college coach once who moved straight into out of bounds plays – she never taught or challenged players to get open, use space appropriately or anything pertaining to spacing and getting open. Instead, it was straight to set plays. She wanted Skilled-Conscious players because she wanted to control their actions through her verbal instructions.

For instance, last night, my directions centered on this: Basketball is a game of time and space – the offense aims to create time and space and the defense attempts to take away time and space or to protect space. I did not tell the players how to play, where to go, what to do. I want to see how they learn and develop within general ideas.

Last night, we concentrated on 1v2 and 2v2 because most teams at this level press. Therefore, I want players who can handle the ball under pressure. We have no press break; there is no “right” way to get open. There is no rigid way to attack 2v1.

Instead, I aim to create challenges that give players an opportunity to discover the right play or the right decision. My job as a coach is to create the challenges and then offer occasional instruction based on the execution.

For instance, after watching several missed lay-ups, and remembering a study conducted by my friend Lindell, I stopped the game and taught a two-foot lay-up rather than the one-foot take-off which resulted in many missed lay-ups and off-balance shots.

The goal, then, is to move to a Skilled-Unconscious performer as quickly as possible. In a sense, coaches use set plays because it is quicker to memorize an A-B-C plan (set play) than to teach and develop players into Skilled-Unconscious players.

The goal is unconscious execution where players react immediately to defensive cues. My practices and clinics often look ugly because the players are not there yet. However, the ugliness precedes the Skilled-Unconscious level because too much instruction or structure inhibits the players’ learning.

Therefore, to move to the Skilled-Unconscious performer, coaches either need to give players more time and repetitions so they think about the right decisions and learn in the traditional four-step method, or they need to focus on implicit learning and developing players who move from Unskilled-Unconscious to Skilled-Unconscious.

Players need the time and opportunity to learn the game through exploration and discovery with minimal interference, as opposed to the constant structure and explicit instructions in today’s game.

By Brian McCormick
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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