Stages of Skill Acquisition

Critical question 4: How does the acquisition of skill affect performance?
Stages of Skill Acquisition

To understand the different stages of skill acquisition it is necessary to examine the processes involved in learning a new skill, like juggling or throwing with the non-dominant arm.


Stages of Skill Acquisition

There are three stages of skill acquisition which detail the progressive steps an individual must go through before they can perform at an elite level.

Cognitive Stage: The cognitive stage is the beginner’s level of skill acquisition. This stage is appropriately named as the focus is on mental concentration and the thought processed involved in understanding and processing new information, before a new skill can even be attempted. Something as simple as catching a ball must be clearly explained, broken down and demonstrated; simply throwing the ball at an individual and hoping they will catch it is not an effective strategy.

During the cognitive stage, an athlete might also rely on their prior experience, transferring their knowledge of other sports to the process of understanding and learning new skills. People at this stage are likely to perform poorly; they require regular encouragement and feedback to ensure they progress and learn from their mistakes.

At this stage the execution of the skill will be uncoordinated and inconsistent. Individuals may lack confidence and many people find learning a new skill to be very frustrating. It is important that coaches or trainers give regular, positive and constructive feedback when the learner does something correctly. Comments must be as specific as possible to help the learner understand what they have done correctly and where they need to improve.

Cognitive learners cannot self-assess what they are doing wrong and rely on external feedback to correct errors. The aim of a cognitive learner is to execute the skill to a basic level and to have a rough idea of the proper technique. Depending on the complexity, some skills will take longer to learn than others.


Associative Stage: Once an individual can execute a skill to a basic level and understand proper technique, instruction can progress to the associative stage. The main focus here is on refining the skill through repetition and rehearsal. During this process, errors will still occur, although they should not be as significant or as frequent as those in the cognitive stage. With increased practice, errors will become less common. When individuals practice they develop their ability to identify and self-correct errors as they refine their kinaesthetic sense (special awareness of body parts).

When execution of the skill becomes highly successful in a closed environment (where the learner is in full control), coaches and trainers will encourage the learner to perform the skill in an open ended environment. This involves applying the skill within a specific sporting context, like a drill or mock game.

Progressing from a closed setting to an open one can be difficult because instead of being in control, the individual is exposed unpredictable environment and must focus on many more variables, like opposition players, positional play and timing whilst also executing the skill accurately. As the individual becomes more confident and successful, the difficulty of the training drills should increase to further challenge and refine the learner’s ability. However, if a learner struggles in an open skilled environment, they may need to go back down to the cognitive stage again before they can progress further.

Some learners may take weeks, months or years to progress from the associative stage. It is not uncommon for individuals to plateau, due to the high difficulty of the skill or the lack of frequency with which they practice.


Autonomous: The autonomous stage is achieved when the learner has mastered all sub parts of a skill and are able to combine them to perform the whole sequence automatically with precision. This means they are able to perform with full kinaesthetic awareness while also identifying and correcting any errors quickly and independently. They can also easily process and adapt to external feedback.

A person at the autonomous stage can confidently execute a skill whilst focusing on multiple factors at the same time. A rugby player passing the ball in gameplay is a prime example. Not only do they have to receive the ball, they need to also be spatially aware of the location of opposition players trying to tackle them, their own support players and decide who to pass to, while still throwing the ball with accuracy, perfect timing and optimal tactical advantage. This scenario may take place in just 2 to 3 seconds. When a sportsperson can execute a skill effortlessly without stress, they are most likely at the autonomous stage.

While elite athletes at the autonomous stage are able to perform skills automatically, they will still need to practice these skills indirectly. Practice during this stage is usually comprises of a real time game based scenario drill which challenges the individual by forcing them to multi-task. If the drill becomes too easy, the coach or trainer can increase the difficulty by adding more opposition players, speeding up the drill or having the individual to perform the skills in the drill under greater fatigue.

One potential issue for individuals who have reached the autonomous stage is that it can be very difficult to alter their technique if it occurs automatically. This will require the individual to breakdown the technique adjustment and practice it until it once again becomes autonomous. For example, the rule change in professional golf has forced Adam Scott to alter his now banned technique of pressing his long putter against his body for extra support in the putting motion.