How to Use the 4 Stages of Learning to Help You Achieve Your Fitness Goals

If you’re a soccer fan, you likely spent some time watching the World Cup these past couple of months. Even if you’re not too into soccer, you probably still found yourself delving into the event from time to time.

For those of us who aren’t soccer fans, our want to watch the World Cup doesn’t necessarily come from the same want as someone who loves soccer. If you love soccer, you probably have a favorite team or team, and you want your team to win.

On the other hand, if you’re not a soccer fanatic, you don’t really care who wins. What is likely attracting you, then, is your wonderment of how someone can so skillfully kick a ball around without tripping over their feet. I mean, really, how in world can someone so eloquently handle a ball with their feet, pass the ball to another player with such precision, but not feel the need to pick it up and run with it!?!

I digress…

To us mortals who don’t understand the possibilities of what a World Cup soccer player can do with their feet, it may seem like skills on that level must have been someone inherent to that person. Sort of like Tiger Woods in his prime. We watch in aww and say “he just has the talent”.

However, what we don’t see are the phases these professionals went through to get where they are. Psychologists would call these phases the 4 learning stages. And everybody goes through these learning stages at some point in their lives with everything they do. Some of us move faster through the stages than others. But we all learn in the same basic order.

So, what are the 4 stages of learning and how can you use them to achieve your health & fitness goals? That’s a great question, which we’re going to jump right into. Before we get there, I want you to be sure to set your ego aside. This information may challenge your beliefs about what’s possible. And, if it does, the best thing you can do is decide if you’re going to fight against it, or use it for good to help your progress in life.

The 4 Stages of Learning

I was never really a fan of golf growing up. As a matter of fact, I pretty much despised it for most of my youth. Looking back, it was probably because of my propensity to want to tackle and run into things that lead me to not like golf. I was a brute at heart and didn’t really understand how someone could enjoy hitting a tiny ball with a long stick.

There were times in high school that I would go to the country club with my friends who play golf to ride around in the golf cart with them. As I watched then swing the club I thought “there’s no way that could be that hard. I mean, how do you keep hitting the ball into the trees? All you have to do is hit it straight!”.

Unconscious Incompetence

Which brings us to our first stage of learning. Unconscious incompetence is the stage of learning where we aren’t yet aware of a skill deficit. Maybe it’s because we haven’t tried the skill. Or, maybe it’s because the skill isn’t even on our radar.

In my journey with golf, at this point I didn’t know my skill deficit because I had never swung a golf club. My ignorance (and, some would argue, arrogance) left me with a belief that I should be able to perform this skill without any issue.

When it comes to your fitness journey, this first stage of learning is the time period before you have that revelation that you need to make a change. For many people, this revelation is set off by an outside source. It could be a visit to the doctor or simply a caring friend who is concerned about your health.

Basically, you don’t know what you don’t know. Remember the saying “ignorance is bliss”? Well, that bliss would be this stage of learning.

Finding the Second Stage of Learning

Going back to my golfing story, it wasn’t until one of my friends challenged me to take a swing at a golf ball that I would enter the next stage of learning.

After having enough of my snarky remarks about his hooks and slices, one friend finally called me out to give it a try for myself. I resisted as hard as I could, of course. After all, I had to protect my pride. If I actually wasn’t good at hitting a golf ball, all of that jammering would be for nothing!

Well, reluctantly, I eventually accepted the challenge. Needless to say, a few curse words and thrown golf balls later, I had officially entered into the next stage of learning.

Conscious Incompetence

In conscious incompetence, we become aware of our lack skill. Whether that’s because we tried something and failed, or an outside source brought it to our attention, we now know (are conscious) about our incompetence in this area.

For me, this was the official realization that, in fact, I could not swing a golf club for the life of me and most definitely could not hit a ball down a fairway.

When it comes to health and fitness, many people are brought into this stage of learning through external forces. A doctor, for instances, may point out some unwanted numbers on a blood test, revealing a deficit in your health. Or maybe your dear Aunt Sallie, who likes to bring attention to any deficit she can find, is not-so-gently letting you know that your old shirt is looking a bit snug on you these days.

So now, at this stage, you know what you don’t know. A lot of people tend to veer away from the learning process around this point. It’s human nature to avoid things that make us uncomfortable. And feeling incompetent about something is definitely something that makes most of us uncomfortable.

Pushing to Stage 3 of Learning

Incompetent is surely what I felt after I had swung that golf club. And, had I been a diligent learner at the time, I would’ve pushed myself to pursue the next stage of learning. However, I was a teenage boy at the time, and there were much more important things to me than learning how to swing a golf club (although, I most definitely have an increased respect for golfers).

Conscious Competence

A proper pursuit of competence after such a revealing event could have gone like this: Once I noticed that I couldn’t swing a golf club, I would then go higher a coach to teach me how to properly hit a golf ball down the fairway. And, over time, I would eventually become more proficient, hitting straight shots more consistently, but still having to focus on the key points of what it takes to hit a straight shot.

This level of learning is known as conscious competence. This stage is the time period where we are aware of skill deficit and are actively pursuing its improvement. Maybe you’re trying to teach yourself through repetition and education, or maybe you’ve hired a coach or trainer to help get you to where you want to go.

Many people on their fitness journey will tend to take this stage on themselves. In other words, they decide to join a gym or read a book on better eating or buy P90X in hopes of achieving their fitness goals. However, improving your health can be one of the most difficult areas in your life to improve. Especially if you start seeking internet guidance. There is no lack of opinion on how to lose weight on the internet.

Another path you could take is by finding a coach or trainer to help guide you through your journey. What is important in this stage, though, is not just having someone to tell you WHAT to do. It is only important to know HOW and WHY you’re doing it.

For instance, we have a program at Thriveology called Project Recharge. It’s a 6 week, in-depth lifestyle development program. Over the course of the 6-weeks, you receive deep education and understanding on how to change your lifestyle and nutrition habits to help you achieve your fitness goals. We believe it’s imperative to back the “how” with the “why” so that you’re more empowered to make the changes to improve your health.

This stage of learning brings you to know what you know. This can take much longer for some skills than it can for others. However, it is an important phase to go through so that you can enter the final stage of learning.

Unconscious Competence

It’s amazing how professional athletes make things look so easy. An NBA who makes a move that defies gravity or a NFL quarterback who throws a pass to a precise location or a World Cup soccer player heading a ball to a teammate for a goal can all seem unreal to us mere mortals.

However, as we alluded to at the beginning of this conversation, what we don’t see is the effort that was put in to get those professionals to that level. That effort that we all missed fits into the previous level of learning, conscious competence.

What we see happening before our eyes when a player does something we can’t believe is the final stage of learning. This is unconscious competence. In this stage, the skills that you’ve developed are now part of your being. They’ve become “second nature”. It doesn’t even require you to think. You go to perform the task, and it just happens.

Your health is likely one area where this is not the case. Because of years of trying, you’ve probably developed more of a natural resistance to fitness than you have an unconscious ability. In truth, though, there is the opportunity to reach this level of learning with your fitness goals.

The problem is, it takes time. Which would be okay if we weren’t so awash with products and services that promise drastic short-term weight-loss and 6-pack abs in 2 weeks. Although these products mean well, they don’t reveal what’s true about health & fitness. And what’s true is, improving and maintaining your health is a long-term strategy. It’s not something that happens by taking pills or drinking cleanses for 2 weeks.

Just like it didn’t take Michael Jordan a month to become the best basketball player to ever live (sorry, there’s not much argument there), it won’t take you a month to achieve your fitness goals, much less maintain them.

Sorry for being so harsh and straight forward. But, to enter this final stage of learning takes time. And if you want to get there, patience is going to be your best friend.

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