Unconscious Competence & The Elite Athlete

What is one of the biggest things that separates the very best in the world from everyone else? Unconscious competence. This term comes from something called "The Conscious Competence Ladder." It has to do with how we learn and apply skills at every level. 

  1. Unconsciously unskilled – we don't know that we don't have this skill, or that we need to learn it. 
  2. Consciously unskilled – we know that we don't have this skill.
  3. Consciously skilled– we know that we have this skill.
  4. Unconsciously skilled – we don't know that we have this skill (it just seems easy).

Now the best of the best must be at #4 at all times of competition. The amount of focus our brains are able to have is a finite amount of space. In an idea competition scenario, your brain is not analyzing how you move or how you play the game but rather the current strategy needed to win. The biggest difference between some of elite versus everyone else is they seem to completely skip steps one through three. Check out Aries Merritt, the current World Record Holder & Olympic Gold Medalist in the 110m Hurdles as he works on acceleration drills. 

Now this probably just looks like a guy sprinting, but there are a ton of small intricacies that make this great, and all are happening s subconsciously Check out the photo below:

Things to look at. First and most rarely seen is proper arm and hand positioning. Whenever the arm comes forward, there is a certain pattern it is supposed to follow, shoulder flexion + external rotation of the shoulder + supination of the hand = perfect shoulder flexion pattern. Conversely, as the shoulder extends you should see internal rotation and pronation. The next rare thing to notice is the dorsiflexion (blue circle).

Just as the shoulder has an ideal flexion pattern, so does the hip. What we see here is hip flexion, knee flexion, and proper dorsiflexion patterning. Most runners may dorsiflex, but also invert their foot. Meaning that the outside of their foot is closer to the ground than the inside. Here wee see the foot level to the ground. This proper contralateral flexion pattern p prepares his body to accelerate his foot into the ground correctly with maximal force and co-contraction of all necessary muscles.

The fact that he does all of this this means he is outputting and ideal contralateral (opposite arm and leg) motor pattern. What is often times lost is that not only does this proper patterning allow the athlete to avoid injury but also to output maximal power. 

Now back to The Conscious Competence Ladder, this athlete is doing all of this subconsciously. There isn't a coach behind the camera screaming all of these motor patterning cues, his brain outputs these innate, genetically hardwired motor patterns all without conscious effort. 

This doesn't mean that this level of athleticism can't be learned, but it certainly helps when your brain outputs the correct pattern automatically. Remember, there is an ideal/normal movement pattern for everything your musculoskelatal body does and the more you stray away from it the less power and strength you will have on top of the fact that you will be steering directly towards injury. Red flags are chronic soreness in one spot, tendonitis, anything that you might not categorize as an "injury" is your body screaming at you to pay attention to it. Pain is the only way your mu musculoskelatal system can protect itself. You eat something bad, you throw it up. You move poorly, you probably have pain. DO NOT IGNORE IT!