The four stages of competence is a theory that was originally introduced in the 1970’s, but has since been reproduced in many forms and under many names. No matter what the name or form, the key points remain the same. Let us delve into the basics of the theory and its application within the shooting sports.
The first stage is often referred to as “unconscious incompetence,” and this stage applies to someone who doesn’t know they are lacking a skill or skillset. They may not even acknowledge the usefulness of the skill. Until this person acknowledges that they are lacking and need to learn this skill, they will not be able to reach the next stage.
I can absolutely recall spending far more time than I should have languishing in this stage. The reason for my lack of advancement was plain old pride. I thought that I simply needed to apply more effort to what I was doing, when what I needed to do was something completely different. I see this quite often amongst newer shooters, and unfortunately, some experienced shooters as well. They think, much like I did, that in order to finish a stage as fast as the top competitors, you simply needed to step harder on the accelerator. Unfortunately, for most shooters in this stage of development, they simply don’t have a strong enough foundation in the fundamentals to push that hard, and the inevitable result is that the proverbial “wheels fall off.” However, once the shooter decides that what they are doing is simply not achieving the results they’re after, they may finally choose to make a change and start asking the right questions.
The second stage of competence is often referred to as “conscious incompetence”. This stage applies to someone who understands they are deficient in a skill. Although they are deficient, they acknowledge the value of the skill and a desire to acquire it. This can be a very frustrating stage because making mistakes is an inherent part of acquiring a skill.
For a shooter to change their methods to achieve their goals, it means setting their pride aside. Once a shooter begins to train without their pride, true growth can occur. Sure, the process may still be frustrating as it will be fraught with mistakes, but the end result is extremely rewarding.
The third stage of competence is “conscious competence”. This refers to an individual who has acquired a new skill, but has to focus in order to accomplish the skill. Often times, in order to achieve the skill or task, it must be broken down into steps.
As a shooter, this stage can be rewarding and frustrating. It’s great to achieve goals and acquire new skills. However, it can be frustrating to compete against other shooters who have acquired those same skills, and have reached the next level of competence with them. If a shooter doesn’t let those small frustrations deter them, they will reach the fourth, and final, level of competence.
The final level of competence is “unconscious competence”. The fourth level is often described using several other terms, such as “second nature” or “muscle memory”. Everyone can think of some task they can perform without thinking about it, and even while they are performing another task.
To find success in the shooting sports, a shooter must reach the fourth level of competence in multiple tasks. In order for a skill to become “second nature,” it must be trained and retrained. There are some who believe it takes 3,000 to 5,000 repetitions in order to reach this level of competence in a skill. In 3-gun, the best shooters can load their shotgun while navigating the stage without thinking about it. Successful pistol shooters find the front sight fast while transitioning between targets and positions because they have trained it over and over. In 3-gun, the shooters must have “unconscious competence” in many skills in order to compete with the best in the sport. While talent will help, success in the shooting sports almost always comes down to who can consistently replicate the fundamentals at speed, while performing other tasks.
So, now that we’ve defined and addressed the four levels of competence and how they apply to the shooting sports, please remember that even the best among us are still trying to achieve the fourth level in some skill. Being honest with yourself as a shooter, addressing your weaknesses, and turning deficiencies into strengths is half of becoming the shooter you want to be. The other half of that is being disciplined enough to avoid the temptation to only train the things you enjoy and the things in which you’ve already reached the final level of competence. Good luck with your training and I’ll see you on the range.