How Athletes Should Approach Learning A New Physical Skill

I once met a speech pathologist at a neighborhood barbeque. Fascinated by her line of work, I asked her which speech impediment is the hardest for her clients to overcome. She didn’t need to pause to think—“Stuttering,” she said immediately. “It’s hard to gauge a stutterer’s progress, because they might be totally fine in the office with you, but as soon as they leave and have to give a dinner order, that progress can evaporate.”

Unlike the simple act of learning a list of facts, learning a physical skill involves both cognitive understanding and consistent practice to carry it out. In this article, I am going to talk about how to balance cognitive learning with practice when learning a new physical skill.

In 1967, psychologists Fitts and Posner suggested a three stage model to describe the process of learning a new skill: the cognitive, associative, and autonomous stages.

Cognitive Phase

In the cognitive phase, the athlete starts to grasp the principles of the task. The learner will be able to repeat the directions back to the coach, and will be able to verbally describe the task at hand. At this phase, it’s important to instill a sense of what success looks like. The cognitive phase is the foundation for the other phases, since it is the period in which the goal is established.

Associative Phase

The associative phase is the time when ideas meet the real world. The young football player starts actually throwing the ball, the young basketball player starts learning how to dribble down the court, and so on. The key principle in this phase is that of connecting words to the world. The coach not only has to describe the skill – “Maintain control of the ball”—but has to show the learner what those words look like in the world. What physical acts do the words “maintain control of the ball” correspond to?

Autonomous Phase

By the autonomous phase, the athlete has mastered the balance of cognitive and physical skills. The athlete no longer has to think through the steps of the process using words, but has honed muscle memory so that they can perform the action automatically.

So how do you make sure that you balance all of these phases?

1. Don’t spend more time in the cognitive phase than you need to as a way to escape the practice needed in the associative and autonomous phases.

2. With that said, regularly revisit the cognitive phase to make sure that you’re not allowing bad technique to solidify.

3. Allow yourself to experiment. If you find a new way to reach the goal in the associative phase, allow yourself to play around with it.

4. Once you’ve figured out what components of the skill are difficult for you, find someone who can help you hone that particular sub-skill.

5. Work practicing sub-component skills into your day. Decide what skills you need to master, and find ways throughout the day to maintain those skills. Does your peripheral vision need work? Spend your commute focusing on that. Do you have weak ankles? Balance on one foot as often as possible.

The most important aspect of this three-stage model is the idea that ultimately, all of these stages produce one VERY strong skill and a better overall athlete.