Being the husband of a teacher, and more specifically a special education teacher, I am often picking up the various styles of learning that Katie uses in her classroom as she interacts with a myriad of students. Of course, having a background in exercise physiology, I often find myself pondering the implications concerning how we learn skills and movements in the gym. In today’s blog post, I first want to discuss the skills acquisition phases, then move onto the three predominant types of learning, and wrap it all up with how we can use this information to not only learn more appropriately, but also coach you more appropriately.
First, let’s discuss the phases involved in acquiring a new skills. A study conducted by Fitts and Postner (FITTS, P.M. and POSNER, M.I. (1967) Human performance. Oxford, England: Brooks and Cole) suggest that the learning process is sequential. The sequence is as follows: 1) cognitive phase, 2) associative phase, and 3) autonomous phase. In the cognitive phase we identify and develop the components of a skill – we take a mental picture, if you will. As we progress to the associative phase of skills acquisition, we begin to link the component parts of the skill into more seamless actions and movements. In this phase, we begin to practice the skill, and with feedback and coaching we begin to become more and more competent and efficient. Lastly, we enter into the autonomous phase. In this phase, the component skills become automatic, and it involves little to no conscious thought in performing the skill. So, in learning a new skill we must assemble the movement components, shape them through coaching and feedback, then polish them into a shiny automatic movement.
Take the snatch, for example. We first learn that the bar has to be picked up off the ground, jumped overhead, and be caught and stood up in a stable manner – this is the cognitive phase. We then realize that there is an order involved in that – first pull, scoop, second pull, transition (under the bar), and catch. We have now moved into associative phase as we label each component, receive feedback on how we are progressing through each component, and begin to alter our movements based on that feedback. We hopefully will then move into the final phase of learning, the autonomous phase, when we approach the bar and seamlessly hit that new PR that just “felt right”.
The reality for most of us is that for some skills, these phases happen quickly, but for other skills and lifts, we may never leave the associative phase. What does this mean for you? Be honest with yourself and know where you are in the process. It can be easy to become frustrated or disheartened with certain movements and skills. Embrace the process, trust the coaching – even the dumb simple cues you have heard a million times over – and keep plugging away. All the coaches desire mastery, but mastery takes hard work and time. Play the long game!
Let’s now talk about the types of learning. There are three predominant types of learning: auditory, visual, and kinesthetic. First, we have the auditory learner. This person learns by hearing something explained. If this is you, it is likely that the above mentioned snatch skill was acquired through first hearing the parts of the lift explained in great detail before moving on to watching and doing. You create an order of movement by hearing an explanation first. Second, we have the visual learner. This person must see it demonstrated, look at a poster or graphic explaining the movement, or even read about it. Again, take the example of a snatch; you want to see a well-executed lift to create your ordered movement before you try it out and hear about proper execution. The third type of learner is the kinesthetic learner. This person needs that “hands-on” experience. So, you want to get your hands on that barbell and learn to snatch by doing, and then process the information audibly and visually as you go. The reality is that most cognitively developed humans use all three of these types of learning to fully process new information, but we do have one predominant type. What does this mean for you? Know your predominant learning type! Tell your coach how you best learn. Ask them to explain their cues, or show you what they mean, or direct you to a resource where you can read about the skill. This is paramount in maximizing your potential at Ktown.
Lastly, let’s look a little closer at what this means for you in learning skills and movements. I hope by this point in time you know that we want you to be highly skilled, able-bodied bad aces. The above information in intended to be a guide for you during the journey to awesomeness. Your coach typically knows best, but doesn’t always know how to best disseminate his or her knowledge to you. This means that we need you to speak up. Don’t just hear us say something, yet stand there not really knowing what we just said. If you don’t understand a cue, or need it to be framed differently, just say so. However, this comes with a caveat: you cannot go from step A to C and skip part B. If you hear, “stay on your heels” over and over again, it probably means that in order for you to progress in said movement, you must first and foremost stay on your heels. In the same way that we process information in components, we execute skills in components. Most of the time, these components compound on one another, leading to a well-executed movement. As I mentioned above, there will at times be those skills which leave us stuck in the associative phase of learning. That is okay, but you have to know that mastery doesn’t skip steps. Again, be willing to play the long game!
My hope in writing this is that you actually consider how you learn. Not just the way we learn in general, but the way that you specifically learn best. In doing so, you are providing yourself and your coaches an opportunity to do what we want to do, coach you well. GI Joe had this one thing right, “Knowing is half the battle.”