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Accelerating Your BJJ with the Conscious Competency Model
The conscious competence learning model is a great way to approach learning any skill, including Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ). This model is based on four stages that a learner progresses through as they gain mastery over a skill or subject. By understanding these stages and where you are within them, you can apply the model to your Brazilian jiu-jitsu training to ensure you are learning effectively and efficiently.
This article will look at this learning model and consider how to apply it successfully when learning a new martial art like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. While we will use learning BJJ in examples of applying this model, it can be similarly applied to other martial arts or combat sports.
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It is much easier to establish a good practice than to try to break a bad habit.
The four stages of competence is a psychological theory first introduced by psychologist Noel Burch in the 1970s and has since been widely used in education, training, and personal development.
The four stages of competence are:
Unconscious incompetence: At this stage, individuals are unaware of their lack of knowledge or skills in a particular area. They don't know what they don't know and may not even realize there is something to learn.
Conscious incompetence: At this stage, individuals become aware of their lack of knowledge or skills in a particular area. They often feel frustrated or overwhelmed by their inability to perform tasks or complete activities successfully due to the recognition of their limitations.
Conscious competence: At this stage, individuals have developed enough knowledge and skills to successfully perform tasks or complete activities. However, they still need to think about and focus on what they are doing.
Unconscious competence: At this stage, individuals have mastered the knowledge and skills necessary to perform tasks or complete activities successfully and can do so without consciously thinking about it.
According to the psychological theories surrounding the competence model, individuals must progress through each stage to fully master a particular skill or knowledge area. Therefore, individuals need to recognize where they are in the learning process to take the necessary steps to move through the stages and achieve mastery.
When it comes to jiu-jitsu, self-realization of where you are in your training will help you achieve the next level. People who try to rush through or skip stages will find they progress slower than those who look to adopt learning strategies and set goals to master the level they are on before moving forward.
To apply this model, start by becoming aware of the four stages and then use the model to track your progress across various aspects of your jiu-jitsu. With consistent practice and dedication, you will be able to reach the highest level of mastery.
It is essential to understand that due to the complexities of BJJ, you will be at different competency levels for different techniques and pieces of your jiu-jitsu. For instance, someone may find that they have achieved conscious competence for Closed Guard techniques but have conscious incompetence regarding the De La Riva guard. Perhaps the same person never trains 10th Planet techniques, so they may have unconscious incompetence in relation to many techniques in that style.
Let's take a look at each level in detail and see how it can improve learning BJJ.
In this stage, you are unaware of your lack of skill and knowledge. You don't realize what you don't know. In terms of general Brazilian jiu-jitsu, someone who has never seen or heard of BJJ is at this stage. White belts spend most of their initial training sessions in this stage regarding most techniques.
Recognizing someone else's unconscious incompetence is relatively easy for topics you are conscious of. When a new student steps on the mat and hears an instructor say, "put your partner in side control," you can tell who is conscious of what side control is and who is not.
When learning BJJ, being open to the idea that there are things you don't know is the first step in conquering this stage. Going to classes, watching instructionals, asking questions, and using resources like Perpertually Sore are all great ways to become aware of what you don't know. As you become exposed to new elements of jiu jitsu, you will be able to select techniques and topics to focus on, moving you into the next stage for those areas.
Advanced students may find themselves unconsciously incompetent regarding specific jiu jitsu aspects. There will almost always be techniques you have never seen, concepts you haven't learned, or micro-adjustments you haven't discovered or been made aware of. This is normal and not something to be frustrated or worried about. Taking up BJJ requires acceptance that there will always be something new to learn.
The critical element to move from this stage to the next level is that the student not only needs to register the existence of something new, like the term "side control," but they must also purposefully decide to learn about it. The acknowledgment of a new technique, concept, or subject to learn, and the decision to understand it, initiates the move to the next level.
This is the stage where you have become aware of what you don't know. You start to recognize your lack of skill and knowledge and prioritize the need to learn and understand new things.
Often, you move into this stage when your instructor shares a new technique or concept with you. Awareness of the existence of the method makes you "conscious:" of it. However, without putting time in for studying and practicing it, you will be "incompetent" at recalling and executing it.
Being at this stage often presents itself as a student's awareness that something can be done, but they do not know what to do or how to do it.
The shift from incompetence to competence comes through study and practice. To get to the next level, you need not master understanding or executing all pieces of what you are learning, but you need to know the key elements of what needs to be done, even if you are unable to do it.
Most BJJ learning occurs through instructor-led explanation and demonstration of a technique. This is step one of becoming conscious of new techniques. After being shown the technique, you should work with a partner to try to execute the technique yourself. This will help you engrain the knowledge in hopes of being able to recall it later.
Moving to the next competency level occurs when you can recognize what needs to be done, including recalling the major elements of the technique or move. For instance, if you are underneath someone who has secured a top-mount position, recognizing that you need to escape alone is not a sign of conscious incompetence. Suppose you find yourself in that position and remember your instructor teaching you an escape, but you can't effectively execute the move. In that case, you have conscious incompetence and can move into becoming competent in performing it.
This is the stage where you are able to perform the techniques and drills, but you still need to think about them and are conscious of the movements. In Brazilian jiu jitsu, this is generally the point where you can recall and execute techniques, but you need time to think about when and how to do them.
At this stage, it is perfectly normal to make mistakes, such as moving in the wrong direction or forgetting a detail. The more time you spend at this stage, the better your eventual execution of what you are learning will be. It is highly suggested not to rush your learning at this level, as bad habits picked up or not addressed at this level will be present at the next level. Now is the time to ensure you have techniques down correctly, as it is much easier to establish a good practice than to try to break a bad habit.
This tends to be the most frustrating stage for people learning BJJ. Students will find themselves in poor positions during a roll and may recognize when to apply specific techniques but are unable to quickly recall and execute the steps in time to perform the move in real-time.
Many students will find that on the drive home from training or while lying in bed at night, they suddenly realize the counter or technique for a position they were in during a roll. This is a sign of being at the beginning of the conscious competence stage. As the student improves, their recall of what to do and how will occur faster, with the goal being to eventually recognize what needs to be done at the moment it is required.
Moving from conscious incompetence to competence comes through practice, repetition, drilling, and live application of techniques (rolling). For some, becoming competent may go quickly, and for others, it may take a long time. This isn't a reflection of the student's intelligence or "natural ability," as becoming consciously competent is based on many factors.
Accelerating your effectiveness and efficiency of learning at this level is the goal of most BJJ practitioners. With time and experience, you will naturally take less time to pick up new techniques. The key to getting through this stage is generally "practice, practice, practice."
Seeing as individuals can learn in multiple ways, knowing which are most effective for you, and applying them to BJJ, can help. Some people learn best by drilling over and over. Others learn faster by breaking down the mechanical steps of a technique into the concepts that help them realize why those steps work. Whatever style works best for you should be applied to your studies and practice at this level.
When you reach the point when executing a technique becomes "natural" or "instinctive," that signifies when you have moved to the next and final level of mastery.
This is the final stage of the model, and the ultimate goal, where you have mastered the technique and can perform it without having to think about it. In Brazilian jiu jitsu, this could be where you can execute a move like an armbar without having to think about each step – you've become so familiar with the technique that it becomes second nature.
Once you have achieved this level, it is important to realize you need to maintain your proficiency by regularly applying the knowledge. It is possible to move back to earlier stages of the model if your unconscious competence fades due to a lack of using your skills.
As noted earlier, you also need to be careful of bringing bad habits into your unconscious execution of techniques. Perhaps you regularly left a step out of the move when drilling, and your partners let you get away with it, or they weren't advanced enough for it to change the outcome when you used it on them. This can be a problem at this stage if your unconscious execution fails against more advanced opponents.
If this occurs, you need to identify what is causing the issue. If you don't know what you are doing wrong, you fall back to "unconscious incompetence" and need to identify the missing pieces and move forward. If you know what you are doing wrong, revert to the stage necessary to address it and build back up to this level without missing pieces or bad habits.
It is important to understand that BJJ is an evolving martial art, and even those with mastery over a wide range of jiu jitsu techniques will find themselves entering the unconscious incompetence phase for certain things, even when they have a black belt around their waist. For some, this may be frustrating. However, most people who have committed themselves to BJJ do so as they embrace and are driven by the need and opportunities to learn continuously.
As you progress through your jiu jitsu journey, make time to assess where you are by using this model, especially if you find your progress slowing. By recognizing where you are, you can select goals, objectives, and tools to move you forward.
If you have any insights regarding this model from your own learning or have questions on how to apply this to eliminate roadblocks in your way, let us know!
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