Over the years as an instructor/coach/teacher I’ve noticed a particular phenomenon where some very experienced students begin to lose confidence in their skill sets although it’s clear that they’ve come along way and accomplished a great deal while novice students are typically over-confident despite their relative lack of skill.  I’ve seen it time and time again where people who are objectively much better than they have been in the past perceive they are no good or getting worse. The perception of getting worse or better at a skill is often a matter of choosing your perspective and  objectively tracking your progress.  If you’re not tracking your workouts and objectively measuring progress, then the only standard you are judging yourself against is perfection and you’ll never measure up.

Consider the 4-stages of competence:

1. Unconscious Incompetence.
When you are completely unaware that you could perform a skill any better you are unconsciously incompetent / blissfully ignorant.

2. Conscious Incompetence.
When your awareness or understanding of a skill is greater than your ability to perform that skill you are consciously incompetent. As this point you can choose to either be frustrated or excited about the opportunity to improve.

3. Conscious Competence.
When your ability to perform a skill matches your understanding of that skill you become consciously competent. At this point you can choose to be happy with where you are or seek deeper mastery.  Consider a child who has learned some cool new move in his sport and thinks he’s awesome, compared to a professional athlete at the highest level of the game.  The child is consciously competent at technique X but unconsciously incompetent and unaware of the higher level skills he hasn’t experienced yet.

4. Unconscious Competence.
When your ability to perform that skill at a high level requires no thought and seems reflexive or you think “what’s the big deal?” you are unconsciously competent. At this point you can choose to seek deeper understanding or be content with your abilities.

If you continue to learn and pursue deeper understanding, there will eventually come a time when it becomes harder and harder for your physical progress to keep pace with your growth in terms of understanding and awareness.  At this point you have returned full-circle to the stage of being consciously incompetent. You feel like there’s so much more to learn because there is. You feel like you can do so much better because you can. Suddenly you view the performance of others and your own through a different filter and you see everything with a higher level of detail and scrutiny and every performance gets graded against a higher standard.

Instead of becoming frustrated that you’re no longer as amazing (relative to perfection) as you once thought you were, remind yourself that this is part of the journey to mastery. Now that your understanding has improved, it’s time to become excited again about the opportunity to bring your physical skills up to your new understanding of excellence.

  • Make comparing yourself to others secondary to comparing yourself to where you were in the past.
  • Excellence and Mastery are relative.
  • Keep a training journal to remind yourself of all the progress you’ve made.
  • Remember when teaching a student to not overwhelm them with small details, allow them to experience a sense of competence and even mastery before providing more information. The best teachers know how to say less, not more and know when it’s time provide the next challenge.
  • Remember that having more to accomplish and room for improvement is often what motivates us early on, why should it be any different as we approach mastery?

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