"Youth Fitness"
The 3 Stages of Learning

The 3 Stages of Learning

At a recent training certification on a “physical skill” a large percentage of the time was spent discussing the different ways that athletes (and individuals) learn. While some in attendance found this discussion of learning to be less than enthralling. It got me to thinking about the athletes I encounter on a day to day basis.

Athletes come in with a lot of nerves and little clue what I am going to ask them to do on that day. Weeks or months later they know that “Monday is a squat day” or “Friday is a clean day.”

Athletes go from asking what a squat is, to wanting to know what the most anyone has ever squatted in the gym. So what is happening with these athletes.

At the seminar we talked extensively about 3 stages of learning (there is a similar 4 stage matrix which is equally useful) and I found it very useful to think of my athletes in the light of these 3 stages.

Cognitive Stage

Athletes in the cognitive stage of learning are typically unaware of what they should do. They must think about how to move every part of their body to get the desired result. You are teaching these athletes “what to do”.

Many young athletes are in this stage throughout the first several months of training. Each movement or drill that you introduce to them is completely new and entirely foreign.

During this stage it would be fruitless to use things like internal cueing (manipulation of body parts) to complete tasks. Athletes in this stage have little awareness of the gross motor patterns which are to be completed, let alone their “lack of external rotation of the humerus.”

Advanced athletes can also be in the associative stage when you introduce new movements to them. A very advanced high school athlete, could be in the cognitive stage of learning the first time you teach them the barbell snatch.

For athletes in this stage use external cues, (those that refer to the external world or the result of the movement), to make big changes in a small amount of time. For instance, you could teach an athlete to deadlift by cueing them to “Slam the car door with their hips and pick up the groceries.”

Associative Stage

Athletes in the associative stage have awareness of what they should do, but are in a stage of refinement. They are aware of the movement, but are trying to do it better. You are teaching athletes in the associative stage “how to do” a movement.

Most of the young athletes that I work with (and likely you too) are in the associative stage. Athletes in this stage need refinement of movement, they know how to squat, but they would like to know how to squat better. One could go so far as to say that most athletes that we work with will almost always be in the associative stage of learning. Advancement to the final stage of learning requires a level of expertise and amount of practice that most athletes will never accomplish.

For athletes in the associative stage a mixture of external cues, and internal cues can be used to refine movements. Back to our deadlift example we could coach athletes to “push their knees into their elbows” to create external rotation and stability at the hip while in the floor position, or we could directly coach them to “externally rotate the hip.” Choose well for each athlete but both types of cues work well.

Autonomous Stage

Athletes in the autonomous stage of learning have nearly complete mastery of the movement they are trying to complete. The movements they are trying to complete do not require thought, but rather are a matter of habit.

Athletes in this stage have such well refined movement patterns that making changes to the patterns can take much more time. Their movements are ingrained and consistent.

Considering the limited time that we usually spend with most athletes, it is rare to find an athlete in the autonomous stage of movement. Coaches of sports teams are more likely to work with athletes in this stage, a basketball player for instance, needs little to no thought about how to dribble a basketball at the high school level (although, for me, going left will always require some serious thought!)


We will encounter athletes across the spectrum of learning, we must be prepared to coach each of them along the way. Work to identify your go to cues for athletes in each stage for the movements that you coach most often, and place the highest importance upon in your program.