John Cleese graffiti in Lisbon, Portugal. Photograph by Adam Jones, Kelowna, BC, Canada

Unconscious Incompetence

John Cleese and Vince Lombardi on wearable sport coaching

In the last few weeks, I have joined most of Europe in the incredulity and audacity of Fox News first declaring Birmingham in the UK, and then almost 800 different areas of Paris, as “No Go Zones” for a majority of citizens.

If anyone is qualified to represent both nations in a moment of Entente Cordiale, it would be John Cleese. I encourage you to watch his succinct and hilarious summary here.

“If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent. […] the skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.”
— David Dunning, Professor of Psychology, Cornell University

In the midst of his takedown, Cleese manages to slip in a little research from Professor of Psychology at Cornell University, David Dunning. Intrigued, I followed the research, which very much outlines one of the core problems I am motivated to solve in helping others in pursuit of athletic excellence.

Whether one is trying to improve their yoga, pilates, archery, hurdling, rowing, karate or any other sport by watching video, by reading books, or by dedicated practice at home or before class, they are faced with the same challenge:

The skills they need to acquire, are the very same skills they need to recognize whether they are indeed acquiring them.

“Practice doesn’t make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect” — Vince Lombardi, Legendary NFL coach.

There is model of learning that captures 4 distinct stages, that I have often used myself in coaching individuals:

  • Unconscious incompetence would best describe the period where we are blissfully unaware of how bad we are at a particular skill. More broadly, it may describe a denial of the usefulness of a skill, but in my experience coaching sport, it is more specifically when a technique, or nuance of a technique, is beyond the observable skill of the athlete. They are unaware they are even making a mistake, and only a coach can start this journey of correction for them.
  • Conscious incompetence is a breakthrough phase of learning, where the athlete acknowledges that they are unable to do something, but through a process of making mistakes and being corrected, they are motivated to move from incompetence towards competence.
  • Conscious competence is a learning period with which we are all familiar. My analogy is often “learning to drive a car, just before we sit our test”. We have acquired the skill to an acceptable standard, but it takes focused concentration and attention for us to demonstrate the skill correctly.
  • Unconscious competence might be described as mastery. We have drilled and practiced the skill to such an extent it has become second nature, and can be performed seemingly without thinking, perhaps even at the same time as something else (“learning to walk and chew gum at the same time”). I often describe this as “attaching the technique to the body”

The Role and Value of Wearable Technology in Sport Coaching

So how did an observation by John Cleese that stupid people are too stupid to realize they are stupid lead me to David Dunning’s broader acknowledgement of the challenge of incompetence unobserved by competence, to Vince Lombardi’s doctrine of practice, to my current focus of wearable sport coaching?

Because as many are observing, wearable technology struggles to find long-term value when it is simply telling someone something about their body that they could already have discerned, if they knew how to listen and pay attention to their body.

“O wad some Power the giftie gie us, to see oursels as others see us”
— Robert Burns

This is where I see true value unlocked in wearable sport coaching — not in tracking, counting, spotting or collecting moneyball stats about how many steps or reps you performed — but in helping you to observe yourself as someone more expert would, so that you can move yourself through all 4 phases of athletic learning.

As Robert Burns said, the gift of seeing ourselves, as others see us.

The eyes of a coach, in the body of an athlete.

Illuminating the next step

First, a good coach brings the next lesson to you. They reveal to you something you are now ready to learn, bringing something from unconscious to conscious incompetence.

Their job is not to illuminate everything, but simply to illuminate the next thing.

Perfect Practice

Next, a good coach gives you the space to practice incorrectly, while helping you be mindful of the difference between good and bad. This is a process where real-time feedback is important, and where specific feedback is important. But not all the time, and not the same every time.

Knowing the basketball entered the basket at a 35 degree angle and maybe your elbow wasn’t lifted enough, isn’t good coaching. If your basketball coach was on a ladder at the basket with a protractor, you’d find another coach. One who loved basketball, not trigonometry.

Knowing that the golf club moved at 64 mph at the bottom of your swing and the face was open by 12 degrees for the 18th time in 20 is interesting, but it’s not useful. But knowing that if you insist on wearing your Air Jordan’s when you play golf, your feet are going to slip and you’ll inadvertently open the club face — that’s a good insight. A good athlete keeps their eye on the ball; a good coach has their eyes on the athlete.

Furthermore, this is where the experience and flexibility of teaching a coach exhibits really comes into play. If a coach only knows one way of explaining a technique or principle, you either get it or you don’t. Like watching a video, or reading a book. But give them the ability to observe, and alter and adjust how they’re teaching you, and progress quickens. Give them the ability to take you back a step so they can take you forward more quickly, or to make something more challenging and difficult when you embrace it — tuning the balance between challenge and success — and you will be more motivated in your learning.

In short, the more time a good coach has eyes on how you’re moving, and adjusting their teaching according to how well you’re embracing and exemplifying it, the quicker they can move you from conscious incompetence to conscious competence.

Designing asensei

I’m excited to share more about the work we’re doing at asensei in this coming year. These problems deeply motivate us — we are coaches bringing technology to athletes, more than we are technologists bringing technology to a market.

We started from this very challenge — how can we optimize how coaches and athlete work together, to transfer knowledge and skill from one to another, in both supervised and unsupervised practice?

How can we give athletes the ability to borrow the skill they need to separate how they see themselves from how they are? How can we augment their sense of proprioception? How can we shift the responsibility from a book or video to something that an athlete watches, to something that watches them?

“If you have a body, you’re an athlete.”
— Bill Bowerman, track and field coach and co-founder of Nike

We agree with Bill.

But we plan to upgrade that body of yours with a great coach.

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