by Chad Englehart
Many athletes today have the desire to reach a higher level of athletics. Whether it is an athlete going from Jr. High to High School, or an athlete making the transition from high school to college athletics and the big one college to professional athletics. All throughout America, young athletes have dreams to make it to the top of their sport; many try only a few succeed.
To make it to the professional level it takes all the intangibles of practice, hard work, heart, desire, skill, strength, speed, etc; but, one of the most important traits is a simple word and it is genetics. Some athletes can top out their genetic potential only running a 4.97second 40 yard dash or topping out their fast ball at 78mph and that is ok, but ask yourself as a parent or an ex athlete, did I max out my potential? When did I start really training and being educated by my coach on how to and why? Did my coach teach me the right way to train and perform the different tasks, drills, or tests?
Like many of today's strength and speed specialists, we have all heard of the NFL Combine and different combines being held around the nation that tests the athletic ability of the athlete. One of the questions in football is how fast the athlete's 40 yard dash is, in baseball it is how fast the athlete can run a 30 or 60 yard dash. Some athletes are born with being able to run a 4.23 second 40 yard dash or other talented gifts such as being able to throw a baseball 98mph at only 18 years old but how about the athletes who are not blessed with these abilities and genetics. I am a speed and strength professional and I am going to tell you these things can be taught. In theory, can every athlete train and run a 4.2 second 40 yard dash or throw 98mph NO but if coached properly and if an athlete starts early enough in their life to program their body then they can get the most out their genetic make-up. In an athlete's life they will be timed by a scout or coach to see how fast they are. Keep in mind, this does not tell the coaches or scouts how talented the athlete is at the particular sport but just their speed. Therefore, this is just a test and should be treated like a test which means being educated and studying for the test. This brings me to Fitts and Posner Three Stage model of learning a motor skill.
1st Stage of Learning
Paul Fitts and Michael Posner presented their three stage learning model in 1967 and to this day considered applicable in the motor learning world. The first stage called the cognitive stage of learning is when the beginner focuses on cognitively oriented problems (Magill 265). This is when the beginners try to answer questions such as: What is the objective of the 40 yard sprint? Where should my hand be on the line coming out of a three-point stance? How and where do I place my feet? How is the weight distributed? There are many questions that an athlete has when they first try to learn a three point stance for the 40 yard dash. And surprisingly the older the athlete, the harder it is to teach the proper mechanics of the start. This is because they have been doing it their way most of their life. Remember it is easier to teach new habits than to try to fix bad habits. Fitts and Posner explain the learner must engage in cognitive activity as he or she listens to instructions and receive feedback from the instructor (Magill 265). Of course during the first stage the learner or athlete is going to make many errors and the errors they make have a tendency to be large. The learners or athletes in this stage are conscious incompetent. This is when the athlete realizes that they not as skilled as perhaps they thought they were or thought they could be. One of the ways to help the athlete through this first stage and show their mistakes is through video analysis. From experience, once the learner or athlete can watch their errors they tend to correct them at a faster rate.
2nd Stage of Learning
The second stage of learning in the Fitts and Posner model is called the associative stage of learning. The transition into this stage occurs after an unspecified amount of practice and performance improvement (Magill 265). The learner or athlete reaches this stage when they have developed the knowledge of what, how and when to do the different tasks in a sprint to achieve the goal of the skill. Of course the athlete makes fewer mistakes in this stage and is more consistent with the different stages of the 40 yard dash. The athlete now understands how to start, how to load the arm and legs in a three-point stance, how to breathe, when to breathe, arm placement, etc. In the associative stage, the athlete is going through conscious competence. The learner or athlete knows how to do something; but, in spite of this, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires a great deal of consciousness or concentration. This great deal of consciousness and concentration usually makes the athlete tense or disturbs breathing which could inhibit the athletes' sprint performance.
3rd Stage of Learning
The third and final stage is called the autonomous stage of learning. In this stage the skill has become almost automatic or habitual (Magill 265). Learners or athletes' in this stage do not think about all the steps required to run a fast time, the athlete just performs and runs. In this stage as a coach we like to call it unconscious competence. The learner or athlete has had so much practice with a skill that it becomes "second nature" and can be performed easily with only little thinking. During this stage the learner or athlete can go up to the line knowing all the answers he or she was asking, thinking, and being coached on during the cognitive and associative stage.
In closing, Fitts and Posner's Three Stage Model of learning can be used in any athletic drill or movement. Of course, there are other different theories of learning but with the Fitts and Posner model it is simple and it works. As a coach you can use this model with all of your athletes learning a new skill or movement. Remember coaching means teaching, of course it is easy to go out and train a bunch of athletes just running them into the ground and many coaches still do that because they think the harder the better. To be a great coach remember sometimes less is more. This means that sometimes less work and more coaching towards the athletes' can be more beneficial. Finally, in motor learning and motor control the whole basis is being able to program your body to learn and do different things. The earlier you start programming the correct way to do specific movements, like run, jump, throw, lift, etc. the better student or athlete you will be. The important aspect is learning the proper technique sooner because the longer an athlete waits there is a greater chance of the athlete picking up bad habits. That is why it is so important to find a qualified, educated coach or teacher who can show and teach and explain why the proper techniques of training.
Magill RA. Motor Learning and Control: Concepts and Applications. 8th ed. New Your, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2007