Thursday, 17 December 2009

The Learning Ladder

Everyone has heard the expression “practice makes perfect”. The thing is, this isn’t strictly true – if we practice something incorrectly, all we get is very good at doing something wrong! For example, if you always perform (in other words practice) press ups with a sagging lower back; this is how you will always do them. It will become engrained and breaking this habit will be very difficult and time consuming – thus practice didn’t make perfect, it merely taught a bad habit. Really, the saying should be “perfect practice makes perfect” as it’s far better (and easier in the long run) to establish good habits in the first place, rather than have to unlearn bad habits before replacing them with better ones.

It’s sometimes quoted that (in terms of exercise performance) that it takes around 500 repetitions to learn a new technique and for it to become automatic but 5000 to unlearn an old one and that assumes that all 5000 are performed faultlessly! This is one of the reasons that at Solar Fitness Qualifications, we strive for good form in all our exercises from the very beginning of our courses. We know that, for every day we let our students perform exercises with poor form, there will be a whole lot of extra work required to prepare them for their assessment time both for the students, trainers and the assessors alike!

This leads nicely onto something called the “Learning Ladder” which describes the process we go through when learning a new habit or skill. The learning ladder can be applied to just about any behaviour but this article will focus on things health and fitness related...

Unconscious Incompetence
On this rung of the learning ladder, the individual doesn’t realise they have a negative habit. This could be a gym goer who always does lat pull downs behind the neck without realising the dangers to his or her shoulders or a dieter who skips meals to help them lose weight, not knowing that this behaviour could disrupt their metabolism and stall their fat loss. People who are Unconscious Incompetents would benefit from education and explanations to teach them why their behaviours are not the best way forward in achieving their goals.

Conscious Incompetence
“If at first you don’t succeed, try try and try again!” goes the old saying. This sums up the Conscious Incompetent. They know what they should be doing but often fall “off the wagon”. This could be the dieter who just can’t say no to cakes when it’s some ones birthday at work (and there are a lot of birthdays at their office!) despite the fact they know it will hinder their fat loss or the weight trainer who, more often than not, misses their Friday leg workout because the guys on the football team convince him to skip training and have a few beers down the pub instead, despite the fact he knows this will unbalance his weekly training programme. Conscious Incompetents need help with motivation and assurance that the new habits they are trying to develop will be of long term benefit. Tools such as goal setting and decision balance sheets can be very beneficial for this type of person.

Conscious Competence
To an outsider, those that have reached Conscious Competence may seem to have it easy but the reality is that, despite the fact they eat what they should and exercise regularly, it’s a struggle. They’d love to skip a workout or two or relax their diets and eat some junk food but they just won’t give in to temptation. Periodically the gravitational pull of the sofa, the lure of the pub or the thought of sugary foods can get to the point where they feel like it would be easier to just give up and indulge but they stay focused and stick with it - but it’s not always easy to do the right thing. For this person, positive affirmations can be very useful to help maintain focus and as a reminder that all the hard work is worth it.

Unconscious Competence
At this level, exercise and eating well are a part of everyday life. No external stimuli are necessary as habits are now just a fact of life and it would be unthinkable to not exercise regularly or eat well. For this type of person, adherence to regular exercise and good nutrition are easy which, ironically, can make them less than ideal as mentors to those people who find sticking to their new healthy lifestyle choices a struggle. It’s possible they may lack empathy as it’s been so long since they found exercising frequently and eating well a struggle. Ideally, we should all strive to reach this level of self-mastery but the reality is that very few do which is probably just as well or personal trainers and nutritionists the world over would soon be out of a job!

Regardless of your current level on the learning ladder, keep at it, and keep striving for improvements. It IS worth it in the long run. It’s not always an easy process and there will be times where you’d rather stay in front of the TV or buy a take away instead of cooking a healthy meal at home BUT...they payoff every time you resist temptation you will be one step closer to your health and fitness goals. And remember, perfect practice makes perfect!

Patrick Dale


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