One of my most popular lectures, and one I drill home before a trainer takes his or her first client, is the 3-Stage Model of Learning. Being an effective teacher requires more than a solid knowledge base. You must be able to communicate complex information effectively and efficiently while reinforcing your students’ efforts to learn. Inefficient skill coaching habits can lead to a frustrating, even demoralizing experience.
A good teacher, however, can change the way an athlete sees himself and his potential. The 3-Stage Model proposes that, for optimal skill acquisition, the type of feedback you give to an athlete should be based on the stage of learning he or she is in.
Say you have a new athlete learning a tennis swing for the first time. The last thing you want to do is frustrate the athlete with instructions he or she can’t yet internalize. Conversely, focusing on remedial skills in a veteran athlete may both waste time and cause the athlete’s performance to slip.
Below I’ve outlined the stages of learning and the feedback that’s most relevant for each stage. Feedback that doesn’t fit a particular stage will prove frustrating for both the coach and the athlete.
More intricate and complex skills may require more time to teach and master, whereas a simple movement such as a Bicep Curl may only take 3 or 4 sets before it can be done autonomously.
1. Cognitive Stage
This stage is characterized by a large number of gross errors and variability. Performing a tennis swing for the first time would fit this stage. The athlete may completely miss the ball on one try and then knock it over the fence on the next.
In this stage, athletes need to learn everything about the tasks in front of them, from proper stance to how to hold the racket. Feedback should focus on demonstrating specific and sequenced tasks, such as foot placement, grip, racquet level and so on. The learner is processing far more information than simple verbal cues, so small and specific tasks reign supreme.
Because this initial stage is tough, I always offer strong motivational reinforcement. This is also when a coach establishes a relationship with the athlete. Building trust is always a primary theme with new athletes.
2. Associative Stage
This stage is characterized by more specific, recurring errors and deficiencies. Athletes piece together the skills they have learned in an attempt to refine a broader movement pattern. They have the knowledge. Now they repetitively refine the skills.
Offer feedback in the specific deficiencies. Assess why the deficiency is happening (ball falling short or being hit too far) and offer clear, pointed instructions on how to fix the errors. Here we also see a lot of speed and accuracy trade-offs.
In this stage, the coach has a lot of gray area for designing practices and sharing techniques that address individual deficiencies.
3. Autonomous Stage
This stage is characterized by the athlete’s high level of skill and efficiency. The athlete has high power and speed without sacrificing accuracy. Elite D-I and professional athletes are in this stage. They are beyond the instructional feedback that is so valuable in Stages 1 and 2.
Coaches may prioritize different types of feedback for these athletes, often calling for support from specialists. Sport psychologists, nutritionists and other niche practitioners often come together to enhance an athlete’s skill set once the athlete has become “autonomous.” An important takeaway for this athlete is not that coaching is less important, but that the coaching should be more specific and intricate, almost to the point of mathematical (timing of plays is a great example). Athletes in this stage may be overzealous rather than under-motivated, making it important to set training parameters.
Team coaches may focus on “X-factors” like refining the systematic game plan while referring the athlete to specialists for any specific needs or deficiencies. Some may not be easily seen, such as emotional or nutritional deficiencies. Again, the coach’s relationships with specialists could be very valuable with this group of athletes.
This 3 Stage Model gives us great direction to streamline our efforts, focus our critiques and direct our feedback—especially with new athletes with whom we haven’t yet developed a rapport.
Huber, J. J. (2013). Applying Educational Psychology in Coaching Athletes.Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Wuest, D. A. & Fisette, J. L. (2012). Foundations of Physical Education, Exercise Science, and Sport. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.