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Paul Herbert 5th Dan
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The four stages of learning

By Simon Flint


You hear, often, how karate must become instinctual, automatic, and habitual so that if you ever had to use it in self-defence you would simply react. My instructors often tell me, when training in Kumite, not to think about what I’m doing, how I am going to block and which technique I am going to attack with. ‘To fight with a blank mind’ is something you might expect a Zen master to say and it seems a little ridiculous. If you’re in a fight, surely you want some tactics up your sleeve?

I then stumbled upon a business model, designed to help trainers get the most out of their training programmes, that made me see and understand what is meant by an empty fighting mind. The model in question is called the ‘conscious competence learning model’ and it explains how everyone learns new skills. I’m going to use karate examples to explain the model but also learning how to drive as an alternative example. The reason for this is because the stages in learning how to drive are clear and easy to see, where as karate is somewhat more complicated.


The basics of the model are this:

Unconscious incompetence → Conscious Incompetence → Conscious Competence → Unconscious Competence


The diagram is often shown as a staircase:


Unconscious Incompetence

So, when someone is learning a new skill, such as gyaku tsuki or how to drive, they begin at Unconscious Incompetence. They can’t perform gyaku tsuki to a satisfactory level or be able to pass their driving test (incompetence) but equally, they don’t even know that they can’t perform gyaku tsuki (unconscious). The new beginner has no idea what you mean if you ask them to punch gyaku tsuki and so they can’t begin to learn something that they do not know exists. However, there is another issue here. In order to move onto the next stage of learning, it is not simply enough that they know what the skill is that they are going to be learning, but that the skill is relevant to them. If they cannot see what the possible advantages are to learning how to drive, or performing a reverse punch, why would they learn the skill in the first place? All too often, an instructor will tell a student to perform a reverse punch but not provide any explanation as to why or how it would benefit the student. Why not just punch with the other arm, or kick your opponent? Before a student can proceed onto the next stage, they must become aware of why they should learn the new skill.

Conscious Incompetence

Conscious incompetence is the stage most instructors think their students are at. As we’ve discussed, they may well be stuck at stage one and unable to see why they should learn a certain technique, say gyaku tsuki. However, the instructor has explained that the balance offered by having the opposing leg forward to the punching arm allows for increased stability and extra movement in the hips. This provides an excellent platform for generating more power but at the cost of limited range. The student understands this and understands that gyaku tsuki is a reverse punch, where he must use hip rotation, hikite, straightening and bending of his back leg and pushing from the heel of his back foot, whilst keeping his front knee steady (I did say karate is more complicated than driving a car!) Although the student is aware of this (conscious) he is still not able to perform the skill correctly (incompetence). This is, perhaps, a common stage for kyu grades and shodans to be at. They make many of these mistakes and they know that they are making these mistakes. However, through guidance and practice these mistakes begin to become fewer and fewer until the student moves on to the next stage of learning.

Conscious Competence

Karate instructors are, on the whole, very good at getting students from stage two to stage three. One reason for this is because practice, practice and more practice ensures that the student moves into a situation when they can perform a technique competently. After many driving lessons, the student has reached the stage where she is ready to go for her test. She has learnt all the skills needed and if she performs up to her ability she will pass her test (competence). However, the student is tense, nervous and is concentrating very hard on what she is doing. Mirror, signal, manoeuvre is the mantra going through her mind at a rapid rate as she carefully watches her speed and looks out for hazards and obstructions (conscious). To go back to our karate analogy, the student is constantly thinking about keeping his knee still, or driving his hip into the technique. The result of this awareness and consciousness is that even though it is competent, the student is doing all the right things, it appears stiff and rigid. It looks slow and awkward as the student carefully analyses everything that is going on. You just want to say to them, relax – just let it happen naturally. The more they try and relax and do things naturally, the more it looks awkward. This is the common stage reached by brown belts, shodans, nidans and Sandans. It looks, almost, as if they are trying too hard. However, with regular training they move onto the final stage of learning.

Unconscious Competence

The holy grail of learning! The student passed her test and has been driving now for ten years. She jumps into her car for a journey and is thinking about her boyfriend, what she is having for dinner tonight, applying her lipstick and texting her friend (of course this is breaking the law). However, the one thing she is not doing is thinking about driving, or rather, she is not consciously thinking about driving (unconscious). However, she is not in the middle of having an accident and is driving sufficiently well on the road to avoid such a catastrophe (competence). Likewise, a senior black belt performs gyaku tsuki and he is not thinking about punching gyaku tsuki but rather, how to progress forward in a series of combinations in order to overpower his opponent, for example. The skill has now become second nature, automatic, and natural. The proponent can perform the skill on demand, with ease and confidence, without any hesitation or second thought. Reaching this level of competence is difficult and there are few skills that people are this competent at. Walking, talking and reading would be a few examples. There is no secret to reaching this level, no special formula or method. Practice, practice and practice are the key ingredients. Some people appear to have a natural talent for certain skills and if this is the case, they will proceed to this level at a faster rate. The instructor’s involvement, however, is only in the first three stages; to make the student aware of the technique and why it would benefit them; to point out when the student makes mistakes; and to recognise when they have achieved a satisfactory level. The fourth stage will happen of its own accord and there is little you can do as an instructor to hasten the arrival of the student to that stage apart from asking them to perform the technique over, and over, and over again.


How many times do we see a senior instructor make a fundamental mistake? The one that I see most often is lifting the heel up when performing oi tsuki. The senior instructor will dismiss the issue by saying something along the lines of ‘when you get to a higher grade you can generate the same amount of power with your heel up as you can with your heel down.’ Rubbish. The senior instructor has relapsed to stage two (conscious incompetence – he knows that he’s doing it wrong) or possibly even stage one (unconscious incompetence – he doesn’t understand why he should keep his heel down at his grade!) There are many reasons why this can happen but for karate I believe the explanation is that the unconscious mind is lazy. If it can find an easier way to do something, it slowly slides into that way without the conscious mind realising. As a lower grade you always have an instructor watching over you and will immediately identify your ‘bad habits’ creeping in and so moves your relapsed learning from stage one (you didn’t realise your incompetence) to stage two (you’re consciously aware of your incompetence). You should then immediately move to stage three (you correct the problem but you must now be consciously thinking about it to ensure that you don’t repeat your mistake) and then you arrive back at stage four (the mistake is corrected and you forget all about it). For senior instructors, there is often no one to tell them of their mistakes, either because the lower grades feel that it is not their place to criticise their senior instructor or that the lower grades simply do not know that their instructor is performing a technique incorrectly (stage one unconscious Incompetence).


I think that this learning model tells us two very important things about how we learn karate. Firstly, as an instructor you must ensure that your students get passed stage one; that they understand what it is they are learning and why they are learning it. Trying to progress a student from stage two to stage three, i.e. correcting their technical mistakes, without explaining why they should learn the technique in the first place is counterproductive and will lead to no progress. The second important lesson is that we will all, at times, relapse from stage four to an earlier stage and that we must constantly monitor our own techniques and not be frightened to highlight the mistakes in others – they may not be aware of their mistake and so they cannot correct what they don’t know is wrong. Whatever grade, whatever talent, we all learn following this same process.  

So, when you have achieved stage four, Kumite should become like driving a car. You don’t need to think to yourself ‘I’m going to punch gyaku tsuki by putting my left foot forward and thrusting my right arm forward whilst simultaneously rotating my hips anti-clockwise...’ You simply react, in a split second, to an opportunity that has presented itself and strike gyaku tsuki:

Waza-ari – awasete – Ippon!