The skill acquisition process in martial arts is an incredibly complicated topic with multiple competing theories, each with its own body of research backing them. A simple way to look at this process describes three separate stages of skill acquisition (Cognitive, Associative & Autonomous). Here I will briefly describe them and how they relate to learning martial arts.
Cognitive Stage Of Skill Acquisition
The first stage a beginner will encounter is the cognitive stage. The cognitive stage will occur when someone is facing a new skill for the first time, and they have to put a lot of concentration and thought process behind grasping whatever new movement they are tasked with performing.
It’s important to remember that everyone will have gone through the cognitive stage at some point in their journey on martial arts. Even the expert black belts will have had to think and mentally process a lot of the new information the first time it was presented to them.
At this stage, the learner sometimes draws on prior experience in different sports or other movement skills to process the new techniques. This is where someone with experience in the sport ten more rapidly incorporates new movements into the game and why athletes who have experience in other sports and movement skills may find learning a new martial art easier.
But suppose someone doesn’t have any prior movement skills that they can draw upon. In that case, they may face difficulties and find themselves feeling uncoordinated and lacking confidence in performing the techniques. It’s important to know that this can be expected of the learner and keep in mind that this is a normal part of the process if you are the learner.
If you are the coach that it’s important to give constructive feedback to correct errors, keep the learner positive, make sure that they are aware that what they are experienced in is normal, and help guide them on the process to Mastery.
Associative Stage Of Skill Acquisition
The next stage is known as the associative stage, and it’s when the beginner has progressed beyond the cognitive stage to a point with a can execute a technique at a basic level and understand the difference between proper and incorrect technique. At this stage, they should look to refine the skill through repetition, live drills, situational work, games and use in open sparring.
An indicator that the learner has reached this stage is if they can perform the technique while drilling on a partner with no resistance. That is a sure sign that they understand the movement required and the correct application in the situation. But just because they can perform the technique in a drill, the associative stage means that they may not be quite able to complete the technique in a sparring situation.
Taking the technique from a drill setting to a sparring situation can be difficult for the learner to achieve. There are many more variables that they are not in control of to perform the technique correctly. Of obvious the will, but through practice on multiple attempts, they can work on developing the timing and positional control to execute a technique correctly.
A coach’s role should be to help a learner pass through the associative stage in the most efficient way possible, including not spending too much time drilling against unresisting opponents. Instead, the process should involve incorporating different ways to help bridge the gap between drilling and sparring situations while increasing difficulty levels and feedback.
Autonomous Stage Of Skill Acquisition
The autonomous stage is the closest age to Mastery of a skill described in this simple three-stage model of skill acquisition. It’s defined by a learner being able to perform an entire sequence of a technique without the need to think about it and with the ability to remain precise and accurate.
Part of the autonomous state is the ability to identify their errors in the technique’s performance and then correct them on the fly without the need for any external feedback from coaches or other training partners.
Once they have reached the autonomous skill stage, they can execute the technique in various pressure situations with many distracting factors that will not inhibit their ability to perform the correct movements, and it will take place in a matter of seconds.
The autonomous stage is where the athlete can be put in high-stress situations and still perform the technique because they don’t have to think about what they’re doing because it just happens for them automatically. Once a skill has reached this stage, it could be close to what many we consider mastery.
Still, we have to keep in mind that it’s always possible for someone to perform an incorrect technique autonomously, and that’s where a coach will always have to be monitoring their students to give them feedback if that’s the case.
The autonomous stage can also explain why some high-level competitors do not always make the best coaches, as they may not have the cognitive understanding of the technique to break it down for students who need it.
Application For Martial Arts
Also, in martial arts, the correct technique in a competition scene may change as different strategies and tactics become successful by exploiting weaknesses in the current strategy and tactics used. Continual refinement with the constant evolution of techniques is where mastery must take place and where you can begin to fall in love with Jiu-Jitsu’s continual process of training.
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