It should be well understood that there is a process, and usually a long process we must follow in moving from a novice to an expert in the fundamental skills for an art or sport. There is a process or a path to follow, but there is not a single ‘recipe’ nor guaranteed time frame by which someone can arrive at this expert state. 

If swimming (or karate, or golf, or climbing) were easy and quickly, mastered, then not only would everyone be doing it, it wouldn’t be that interesting to do. The fact that it involves uncertainty, and takes time, effort, and method to acquire the skills to do what few others can do is what makes it both intrinsically and extrinsically rewarding.


What Is An Expert?

We start as a novice in the sport and work our way, over years, toward being a so-called ‘expert’. For the purposes of this essay I will define an expert as one who has:

  • all fundamental skills in place
  • those skills meeting a high standard of precision and consistency
  • those skills automated so they occur consistently without having to think about making them happen

The next level of expert would then have those skills operating automatically under high intensity, high stress, and highly distracting environments – basically, performing consistently well in a competitive game, a race or in an expedition situation.

It may be that you are new to the sport itself so in every category of skill and experience you are starting in the novice category and working your way toward expert.

Or you might be an experienced athlete in this sport and then discover you need to add a new skill or you need to make a major adjustment, like the examples of pro athletes who have decided to make major changes to their technique in some area – like a golf swing, or a basketball free throw shot. In this cases, for that particular skill, you may step back into the novice mode to take your body and brain through the process again. But you may not need to go back so far, nor take as long to work through that process and get back into whole motion practice and regular intensity training.


What Is The Process?

There is a process that we follow moving from novice to expert skill and scientists have been working on mapping this out for at least the last 50 years. Understanding is accelerating with the latest neuroscience technology and strong interest in enhancing sports performance. 

This process has stages to it, and there are different dimensions to this process corresponding to different parts of the brain are activated and to the different parts of the body being changed. Different theories on this process map out those different dimensions. It is exciting to see how different theories are coming together, refining one another and painting a more complex and amazing picture of how the human body works.

Without having to study all that complexity, just knowing what stage you are at for the skills you are training could help you set better expectations and become more patient and cooperative with what needs to occur in that stage of learning. So let me describe a couple of those dimensions below…


Stages Of Learning

In 1964 Paul Fitts proposed a theory for Stages Of Motor Learning and then wrote a book on it with Michael Posner (Fitts PM, Posner MI. Human Performance. Brooks/Cole Pub. Co; Belmont, CA: 1967) that has stood the test of time so far to become a classic model for scientists studying motor learning (neuromuscular skills) and designing training procedures for athletes and coaches. In this model there are three stages we go through on the way from novice to expert:

  1. the Cognitive Stage
  2. the Associative Stage
  3. the Autonomous Stage

[I’ve produced the following description with assistance from several sources, foremost from my private consultations with physical therapist and educator Mike Studer PT, MHS, NCS, CEEAA, CWT, CSST, and including the Perception & Action Podcast (start with #129) with Dr. Rob Gray, and in Dr. Gabriele Wulf’s textbook Attention and Motor Skill Learning, citing the original Fitts and Posner study and their book Human Performance (1967) which I do not have a copy of.]

Cognitive Stage

In the Cognitive Stage…

  • movements are slow,
  • movements are inconsistent,
  • movements are inefficient (takes more effort),
  • large parts of the movement are controlled consciously,
  • attention is largely on the body parts (performance-focused),
  • practice may involve a lot of drills, isolating certain parts of the body,
  • practice sessions are less variable,
  • practice uses clear mental images,
  • a great deal of direct, single-task-related attention is required

I want to list these out for you clearly because you need to expect your practice to feel this way when you are first learning a skill, or when an experienced athlete is making a major addition or overhaul. It will not initially feel easy or effective! Your body will necessarily stumble around as your brain is trying to figure out how to set up the new wiring for this movement pattern.

You may notice a lot of quick and dramatic improvements at this stage. Since everything is so new, new pieces of understanding, and subsequently, new pieces of skill may make things work so much better. This will initially be quite pleasing, even though it requires great attention to keep that skill in place.

Associative Stage

In the Associative Stage…

  • movements become more fluid,
  • movements become more reliable,
  • movements become more efficient,
  • some parts of the movement are controlled automatically,
  • attention is on the connection between body parts and results,
  • practice may involve a mixture of drills and whole stroke work,
  • practice conditions can be varied,
  • practice using clear mental images connected to accurate performance,
  • attention is still needed to keep the skill working, especially under training stress

Most studies have compared novice to expert, Cognitive to Autonomous, and this stage is the transition between the two. It seems that in the current scientific understanding, all that is happening in this stage is still not clearly mapped or understood. But by these observed characteristics, you can get a sense that you’ve moved beyond a beginner in the skill and into a more competent zone.

This is where it may be quite tempting to be impatient and decide the skill you’ve been working on is “good enough”, then jump into high intensity training. But you need to gradually ease into more intense training, to gradually impose greater stresses on that skill, so that it is strengthened and preferred under stress and fatigue rather than torn down and cast aside.

Autonomous Stage

In the Autonomous Stage…

  • movements are accurate,
  • movements are consistent,
  • movements are efficient,
  • movement is largely controlled automatically,
  • attention can be focused on adapting to novel situations,
  • practice sessions are more results oriented,
  • practices involve mostly whole stroke work, under race-like conditions,
  • practices may focus on greater range of motion, speed, acceleration
  • attention can be focused on other, non-related tasks

It is through this process of gradually imposing greater stress on the skill that the brain is provoked to move that skill from a consciously controlled arrangement in the brain to an unconsciously controlled arrangement in the brain.

You need to impose more challenge on that skill in order to make this shift. It has to be worked under more difficult situations. It will get stronger, and it will become automatic by being persistent with the training process. This means that under training (or racing) stress the skill keeps going without you having to think about it. You are able to focus on other things around you and rely on it to keep going on its own.


Why Aim For Expert?

In response to what I have been describing above I can hear some rebuttals already, “Why should I work that hard to become an ‘expert’ when I just want to swim (or run) for fun? I just want to do laps without struggle. I just want to do a short triathlon with friends or enjoy a swim holiday each year. Can’t I settle for ‘good enough’ after a few weeks without having to invest months in this?”

I do think that there is a point for most of us citizen athletes and fitness enthusiasts where the return-on-investment (of time and effort) becomes too low to justify working more on the skill. At some point too much time is required to extract smaller and smaller increases in performance. This acknowledges that you have limited time and energy to give to this sport and, once you’ve made your precious limited practice time as targeted and efficient for your goal as possible, you have to accept what you can get out of that time. There will likely be ways you can improve performance with tweaks to other areas of your lifestyle, so you might put more effort into improving those, which won’t require more time, just more attention.

However, with a lot of room for variance on this statement, we’re still talking months of persistent practice (with 15 practices a month or more) just to get to that ‘good enough’ stage for some of these fundamental skills.

But, despite these protests, I think you should keep working toward expert for these two reasons…

Safer, Stronger

Those that are truly expert skills, in terms of motor control, should be the safer and stronger movement patterns for your body. If you would like to keep doing this sport for as long as possible you need to make sure your body is moving in the safest and strongest patterns, to minimize risk of injury and premature wear-and-tear. Aiming for expert level technique and control is going to take you in that direction. And as you get older, improving motor control is possible unto your latest years and is your best (if not only) way of compensating for unavoidably diminishing strength.

Flow State Enjoyment

If you derive enjoyment from the process of working on your skills, if you love getting into flow state then continuing to work on finer details and continuing to subject those skills to incrementally greater challenges is going to feed that enjoyment. As you move toward expert, not only do your motor skills improve, your awareness and sensitivity increase as part of that package. That means you can zoom in (think ‘micro-scope’) to see more subtle details that matter, and you can zoom out (think ‘100 foot drone view of the situation’) to see how various details all work together to create a superior performance and better physical experience . This greater awareness and sensitivity increases your motivation for working on those finer details. The improvements may be smaller, but the satisfaction derived from them is larger. It is a positive feedback loop that keeps you going for decades.


You may view Part 1 and Part 2 and Part 3 of this series.


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