The Three Stages Of Learning in Sport

Stages of Learning Cognitive Stage of Learning Associative Stage of Learning Autonomous Stage of Learning

What are the three different stages of learning?

In this post, we explain the three main stages/phases of learning as well as explain how understanding these different phases can help sports coaches and leaders.

Stages of learning diagram Sports coaching PE Cognitive stage of learning associative stage of learning autonomous stage

Fitts and Posner (1967) studied how people progress when learning a skill and came up with the three phases of learning. When you practice and learn skills, you begin to move through the phases of learning. Sports leaders and coaches can then plan to add further skills and techniques. Enabling athletes to progress and become even more skilled.

Our article on the different methods of training is also worth reading after this post. We also recommend our articles on what are the best apps for sports coaches as well as our downloadable tournament planning templates.

What are the phases of learning?

There are three stages of learning:

  • Cognitive Stage of Learning
  • Associative Stage of Learning
  • Autonomous Stage of Learning

The Cognitive Stage of Learning

The cognitive stage of learning is the first stage of learning when a person is setting out to learn a new skill or technique. This is known as the thinking stage. An example of this could be an athlete learning how to perform a serve in tennis. Firstly, the athlete needs to understand how to take a serve.

During this stage, athletes need feedback from their coaches to understand what they are doing wrong and will need visual images and demonstrations to move forward.

The Associative Stage of Learning

The associative stage of learning is the next phase an athlete goes through when learning a new skill. This is known as the practice phase and athletes begin to learn what errors they are making and will continue to practice how to serve in tennis. During this phase, the athletes will notice they are beginning to make progress.

Athletes will still need demonstrations from their sports coaches however they will begin to relate to the demonstrations you are showing them and will use this image to help them practice. The associative stage of learning is the longest stage of learning before they begin to master the skill.

The Autonomous Stage of Learning

This is the final stage of learning and is when a skill has been overlearned and is now automatically recalled when needed. Athletes can now also begin to concentrate on other tasks. For example, the athlete who was learning how to serve in tennis can now begin to learn how to apply spin to their serve.

The athlete is able to recognise when they are performing the skill incorrectly and should be able to state what went wrong (Kinaesthetic feedback).

Stages of Learning Cognitive Stage of Learning Associative Stage of Learning Autonomous Stage of Learning

How can understanding this help sports coaches and leaders?

By understanding the different phases of learning, sports coaches and leaders should be able to observe which stage of learning their athletes are in and determine their coaching planning as well as monitoring the progress of their athletes/players.

Our meet the coach series provides an insight into the minds of professional sport coaches and why understanding your athletes is so important.

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New to sports coaching? Then you may want to check out our guide to sports coaching. Here you will be able to learn techniques and strategies that will excel your coaching career. Topics include Stages of LearningMethods of Training and Leadership Styles.

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2 thoughts on “The Three Stages Of Learning in Sport”

  1. the three stages of learning are cognitive associative and autonomous. The first stage cognitive is the stage of initial learning of a new skill where you need feedback from others and a visual image of the execution of the skill. Examples of this is a coach critique your passing in soccer and showing you how to dribble properly. associative is the stage where you start practising and trying to master the skill. It involves repetition at this point you can critique your own performance For example you start practising ladder in soccer to improve your footwork and critique what you did wrong. The final stage is autonomous which is where you execute the skill accurately and frequently without thinking about it to hard.and start to critique your own performance rarely. An example is doing through balls consistently and scoring goals accurately you basically become a master at doing it due to practice.

  2. It’s very interesting to know how you acquire skills in learning sports and how coaches need to understand this to be able to create an appropriate athlete program. I am looking this up since my kids are wanting to take tennis lessons. It would be great if we can get into a program that considers these learning patterns in children.

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