Coaching Toolbox: How the way people learn new skill should affect our coaching - sailing

Coaching Toolbox: How the way people learn new skills affects our coaching.

There are numerous models and ideas that have been developed to help us better understand how individuals learn new skills. As coaches, understanding these can help us to tailor our approach to the sailor’s level of proficiency in the given skill. This could be anything from what training exercise we choose, to the type of feedback we give and how we phrase it. 

The Four Stages of Competency

The model we are going to focus on is the four stages of competency, first published by Martin M. Broadwell, which outlines the different phases involved in learning a new technique and developing it into a skill.

When we link this to the sport of sailing and the types of skills in which sailors are required to learn, we can better understand the types of exercises that should be used and what coaching style is required at each stage.

Unconscious Incompetence

Typically, when learning something new the sailor has no prior experience with the technique and does not know what is required of them. They are not consciously thinking about the skill and are incompetent at performing it. This is called the “Unconscious incompetence” stage.

At this stage, the coach must make the sailors aware of this new technique. This is done with a clear explanation or demonstration of the overall process and basic steps involved.

It is extremely important for the sailor to understand what successful use of the technique looks like, and some understanding on how to achieve this. A more detailed grasp of the specific sections will come further down the line, but only if the sailors know what they are aiming for.

This initial learning would normally be found within the sessions briefing before heading out onto the water. However, if you are running a multi-day course or working within a longer-term program, this learning can be started with effective priming work.

We should remember to keep things clear and simple at this stage, allow the sailor to take on this new information.

Conscious incompetence

The second stage of learning applies to when the sailor is aware of the technique, but they cannot achieve it. This is called “Conscious incompetence”. This is the most frustrating stage for our sailors and requires plenty of practice.

As coaches, this is when the exercises that we choose can have a massive impact on the rate of learning. We want to achieve an effective learning environment free from distractions and pressure. We do this by choosing non-competitive exercises that focus solely on the technique and reward good technique.

An example of this for roll tacking could be “Elephant Ears”, where sailors individually tack next to an anchored rib. They then loop back around and repeat the process, whilst gaining technique-based feedback from the coach.

Elephant Ears Exercise

The most important thing the sailors needs from us is support and constructive feedback. Positive reassurance and process-based feedback stops the learning processes from becoming overwhelming, allowing the sailors to focus on the basic steps of the new technique.

This way of teaching is also extremely useful for a group with a range in ability, as the individual process-based learning allows you to challenge individuals with further technique refinement.

Conscious competence

The next section of the model refers to when the sailor starts gaining success with the technique but is having to actively concentrate on the action. This progress can often increase their confidence; however, this is not the end of the road. They know need to learn how to put this skill into the bigger picture and for it to become second nature.

As coaches we now use exercises that make the sailor execute this new skill in real life situations slowly increased diversions and pressure. This must be done carefully, as progressing too quickly can lead to a temporary backwards step in the overall level of the skill. If this does occur, briefly removing some of these pressures will allow the sailors regain confidence and begin to progress again.

Depending on the skill in question, this overall process of adding context and pressure is often done over a period. This can be as shorts as a few variations of the same exercise with increasing constraints over an afternoon, or process over a few months of training.

An example of such exercise could be “1,3,5,7”, where sailors must sail around a windward/leeward course individually. The sailors must change the number of tacks that they do each lap, from 1 to 3 and so on. However, they can only move onto the next number when the coach has told them when rounding the windward mark. The coach may also opt to decrease the number of tacks if needed.

1,3,5,7 Exercise

As coaches our feedback can now become more in-depth, looking at refinements in the processes and how the skill is being used in the real-life situation. For example, how a tack may change if you are coming in late on the port lay line.

Unconscious competence

In the final stage, we see the Individual demonstrate the skill automatically and correctly within its environment. Meaning that the sailor is no longer thinking about that specific technique and is free to focus on other areas of their sailing.

This is done by testing the skill in a competitive real-world situation within a few practice races. We should be able to observe no decrease in the ability of the skill when it is put under this pressure.

We should also start integrating more questions into our coaching conversations, challenging the sailors understanding of the technique and its uses. This will also help solidify whether they have gained a total incorporation of the skill into the sailors’ practice.

If this has not been reached, we should highlight the areas in need of more training and revert to an exercise that focus on adding the required pressure or distraction on this area.


The links we can make between each stage of learning against the different coaching and exercise styles needed can drastically increase the rate of learning.  A training program, or a weekends coaching can be effectively planned to follow this structure, focusing on an individual skill.

Stages of Competency, Exercise and Coaching style

This entire model can also be simplified by using two words “teaching” and “testing”. In the early stages of the model we are focusing on teaching the sailors a technique, both our exercises and feedback are designed to this end. However, once we transition through the model, we are focusing our attention on testing the skill, again with both our exercises choice and coaching conversations.

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