Levels of competence: the martial arts case

One of the models I used during my Professional Coaching Training describes competence in four broad steps or levels: I found this extremely useful and practical because it helps identifying very quickly at which stage a person is with her competence toward a certain subject.  I’ll add an example about driving a car that I hope can be useful for personal comparison: I apologise for those readers that never experienced what I am describing.

Unconscious Incompetence (UI)

This describes a natural status when we don’t know anything about a subject and to some extent we don’t care about it because we ignore it.  There are probably thousands of things in life that we won’t ever even know they exist.  If you are totally unaware about a subject it is unlikely you will realize how much you are missing and whether you care about it.  Imagine when you first were in a car, probably as a child, being driver around without realizing how it works.

Conscious Incompetence (CI)

Once you became aware of the existence of a subject you might enter your CI level, and acknowledge how much you don’t know: at that point you might also realize whether you like what you started learning and if you are interested in knowing more about it.  The  time you took your first few driving lessons you might have realized how many things you did not know about driving.

Conscious Competence (CC)

Building on the initial CI you learn about the subject, improve your competence about it and demonstrate it to some extent: at this stage your mind can access to some knowledge about the subject by using a conscious, often strong, effort.  When you passed your driving test and you were driving your first miles on your own you had to pay lot of attention to every single details involved in driving: how to use clutch, gear stick  and accelerator, how to turn, how to park, etc…

Unconscious Competence (UC)

At this stage you have a broad competence about the subject and you can access it unconsciously and without effort.   This is when, in this example, you can drive without paying too much attention to common details like accelerator, gear and so on: you seem like running on automatic pilot and you can simply concentrate on where you are going rather than how you are going.

Application of the 4 levels of competence to martial arts learning

If you think about it you can probably make many examples of the 4 levels of competence applied to your knowledge and your life.  When practicing martial art you start from a UI level when you barely know the name of a martial art or how it manifests itself.  If you attend a few classes you realize how much you don’t know: in fact the CI in martial arts is not limited to the knowledge about techniques themselves but also how to perform them.  A few months and many hours of practice later you might reach the CC level: you are aware of various techniques but you still spend much time thinking about how to perform them and you can still be somehow slow and partially unnatural.  When you achieve UC in martial arts (see also this article about martial arts and the subconscious) you can perform effortlessly and your conscious mind can be concentrated on broad strategic thinking rather than the minute details.

Once achieved UC if you are attacked by somebody your reaction is natural and immediate, without hesitation: if you practice a sports fighting style the UC is when you can spar by simply thinking to the broad strategy because you can access the whole knowledge about your techniques naturally and without effort.


The 4 levels of competence can a great help when you are assessing your own knowledge about a certain subject, understanding how and why you are experiencing certain situations.  I would be curious to have some comments regarding how you have  experienced the 4 levels of competence applied to martial arts.

Footwork: the difference between good and bad techniques

In life like in martial arts timing is everything: correctly timed footwork allows you to be in the right place at the right time to either strike, block or avoid an attack putting the basis for your next move.

A punch, like a kick or a throwing technique requires by definition correct footwork to maximize its potential.  At the same time correct footwork allows the following crucial actions:

  • align yourself toward the opponent in order to offer a correct posture, stance and weight distribution, suitable for the situation you are in and the strategy you would like to implement
  • shift your weight in the correct way and direction according to the technique you are performing
  • deliver maximum power with every technique by directing appropriately your momentum

I’ll use an example that can be applied to virtually any technique, even when the movements follow a circular line rather than a straight one:

  1. Imagine, as matter of example, to be throwing a straight punch just by simply extending your arm toward your target.  Depending on how strong you are the punch will have a certain level of power.
  2. Now imagine of having your arm already fully extended as in a punching position and you being on a train, travelling at 200 mph: even if you arm doesn’t move your whole body is moving very fast and the impact will be disastrous.
  3. Now, going back to our punch, if you are using a correct step of even a couple of inches in the same direction of your punch and you add this to the correct, well timed, extension of your arm your punch will deliver the sum of the momentum built by the same movement in point 1, together with the extra momentum created by the step.

Different martial arts are some times based on footwork that is so different from each other to look illogical.  Nonetheless when used with their context they work and deliver the desired effect: enhancing the basic movement and delivering unexpected power by making a correct use of our bodies.