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What are the stages of Learning?

The Fitts and Posner Model divides the learning process into 3 different phases according to a great number of variables related to the athlete’s performance and to the effort that needs to be put into the execution of the task/exercise. The phases are the following:

The Cognitive Phase:

  • Moment where the player will acquire the basic theoretical requirements needed for the proper execution of the task/exercise

  • The player will struggle in the execution of the task -> High rate of mistakes and inconsistency, even when it´s carried in a simplified manner

  • The performance of the exercise will have a high cognitive component -> Lots of focus and attention needed in order to carry out the task

  • Some coaching techniques that are useful in this phase: video analysis, slow motion drills, guidance and augmented feedback

  • Good coaching is absolutely essential in this stage, because if the beginner player doesn´t learn the fundamentals of tennis he won´t be able to progress to the next phases with the expected level of task-dominance

  • At the end of this phase, the athlete should know "What to do" regarding his/hers performance on court

The Associative Phase:

  • In this stage the player will begin to apply the theoretical principles learnt in the previous stage to the pratical side of the sport

  • The player will now be able to perform the task with a decent level of proficiency in training environment

  • Most of the work done in this stage is related to gains in movement adjusting and details regarding the task in hand

  • The ability of decision making related to the exercise is not yet fully developed

  • The cognitive component needed to perform the exercise it´s till high, but not as high as in the previous stage

  • This is the stage where the athlete must be able to translate what he knows into "how to do it"

The Autonomous/Automatic Phase:

  • The player will now be able to execute the task in a automatic way

  • The number of cognitive process needed for the performance of the exercise is exceptionally low -> Execution even in very chaotic environments

  • It corresponds to the moment of total acquisition of the task

  • Typically, it´s the longest phase of the learning process and is where the elite atheletes are when it comes to learning and performing a task, as it may take several years to be able to perform the task is a largely automatic manner, where cognitive processing demans are minimal and athletes are capable of attending to and processing other information, such as the position of the opponent, tactical strategy and movement quality in seconds

  • However, there is one downside, as many top players may become confortable and accustomed with their way of performing a task, even if it is incorrect. Therefore, we cant conclude that just because a motor movement can be performed automatically doesn´t mean the movement is correct or worthy of being mantained. Moreover, as soon as athletes stop thinking about the new movement during the first two stages, they are likely to respond automatically, thereby reverting to the old and incorrect movement pattern. Coaches must be able to recognize this situation and make an effort, along with the player himself, to prevent this from happening and maintaining the player drive to keep improving and being on the top of it´s game.

All of the information mentioned above is summarised below:


[1] - Latash M. et al. (2010). "Motor Control Theories and Their Applications"

[2] - Shumway-Cook A. et al. (2012). "Motor Control: Translating Research Into Clinical Practice". Wolters Kruwer, 5th Edition.

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