Skill Acquisition: How to Level Up Quickly & Safely

As a relatively new poler (how long can I say that for – I have been committed to pole for over 18 months now!) – I have found myself becoming frustrated when trying to learn a new trick and it often feels like I just cannot get it right. Whether it be hand or leg placement, grip or just getting onto the position – it feels like I will never get it no matter how many times I try. Then one day – poof it happens!


Whilst it feels like magic – I recognised it is more that my brain and body have figured out the right sequence for it to come together – otherwise known as skill acquisition.


On reflection of finally getting my SUPERMAN recently, I thought this might be a great opportunity to explain the stages of skill acquisition, as well as how we learn as individuals. So go grab a cup of coffee, make yourself comfortable on the couch and start reading – this is a long one!


What is Skill Acquisition?

Skill acquisition is the science underpinning movement learning and execution. Simply put – it is our brain developing a neural pathway of pattern of recognition and muscle memory. This is something that is constantly evolving, and we start at a young age – from learning to crawl, walk, ride a bike, learning a trade. We never stop.


This is no different when applied to pole. We go through skill acquisition as we transition from the first time we walk into a pole studio and touch the pole, to progressing through various class levels, learning tricks and performing. There are so many aspects to pole that require the use of skill acquisition – from tricks, to contemporary or sass classes, floor flow, heels, spinning pole– the list is endless.


Stages of Skill Acquisition


NERD ALERT: From a research perspective, there are a few models of learning proposed regarding skill acquisition, with the most common being Fitts and Posners published in 1967.


They describe three stages of skill acquisition:

  • Cognitive

  • Associative

  • Autonomous


Cognitive stage


Otherwise known as the ‘what the hell am I doing’ stage. Your brain is in overdrive, overload and has a constant self talk narrative - ‘hand here, legs there, ok what next??’ and you are not even thinking about pointing your toes.


This stage requires a significant amount of conscious thought. Do you remember learning your first handspring, invert or even pole sit? Often the first few times we do the movement we feel unsure, legs and arms going everywhere and each time we try – it is like we do a different movement. During this stage there is inconsistency with the movement and mistakes (that’s all a part learning!).


You HAVE to think about the movements required – thus the name cognitive stage. You might be repeating specific cues an instructor has told you, following a pole buddy as they execute the trick or visualising what you saw on Instagram. The key part of this stage is that it does not feel natural and you are conscious of every movement.


Regardless of what level of pole you are at– when learning a new trick, or even giving it a crack on your left side – you will have to go through the cognitive stage. This is the stage when you are also most likely to overtrain and sustain an injury. You find yourself frustrated because you just want to get it right. It is important to remember to take a break (the neural pathways in your brain do get fatigued!) and continue to work on the correct movement patterns.


And a special note for those that are Instructors – if students are in this stage – it is better to provide broader feedback and provide specific cues for practice.


Associative stage:


We practice and practice and try it on our left side and continue to practice. Eventually it feels like muscle memory kicks in and it all starts to flow. That is EXACTLY what is happening. Thanks to the neural pathways in our brain, we start recognising the pattern of movement, muscles and positions required and the execution becomes more natural. It is not an automatic reflex yet – but it starts to come together and feels a lot easier.

Can you think of a trick that you can relate to when reading this? Congratulations – you are in the associated stage of skill acquisition relating to that specific trick!


A particular trick during this phase will start to flow easier and require less energy (you may notice you stop holding your breath). During this stage – you start to become more aware of the finer details – are you pointing your toes, how is your hand grip, can you smile?


This is an important stage to continue to reinforce the good habits – for example limiting jumping, maintain push/pull. You may find an instructor starts to provide you very specific feedback. You also may feel like you get bored repeating the same skill and find yourself wondering ‘what can I do next?’ and that is ok! Give yourself a break, challenge yourself with a new trick and come back to it.


Autonomous stage:


The pinnacle - the stage when a movement becomes automatic. You don’t have to be consciously aware of what you need to do to achieve the trick – you just do it! It is the stage where you do not have to think about the movement involved, as soon as you put your hand on the pole to execute it, your body knows what to do as the pattern is formed in the brain.


During this stage, you may find that someone describes that they completed the trick without concentrating or specifically engaging in the movement. Or when you ask a specific question about the trick that they have to pause for a moment – it has become so habitual that they just do it! Like starting a car – do you know what you actually do first?


So how long does it take to progress through each stage?

Image from: Shaw, W. (2020) The Three Stages of Learning.

There is no set time frame, or magical formula. It all comes down to the number of repetitions performed, the action of turning it into muscle memory. If you practice a trick only once a month for 10 minutes – it is unlikely to go past the cognitive stage. If you practice it every time you are at the studio – you are increasing that pattern recognition and more likely transitioning into the associative stage. When it comes to moving into the autonomous stage – this can take many years of training. Some people will talk about 10000 reps or 10000 hours.


Simply – it takes a lot of consistency, dedication and practice, practice, practice!


This is also why cross-training is so valuable for pole. If you have the foundational strength required for a trick, then you can focus on the particular requirements of the trick at training. You may also find that you move from the cognitive to associative stage faster if you have a stronger foundation. The reason for this is because these skills are transferable – for example those with a gymnastics or handstands background, or tricks with a similar foundation (inside or outside leg hang).


But don’t be fooled – if you reach the autonomous stage and then stop practicing, sustain an injury or take a break from pole, you will regress back to the associative and even cognitive stage. Challenge yourself to not just tick off the tricks to do with photos for instagram, see if you can actually acquire the skill to achieve the trick again and again and again, then put it in a combo.


Key take away? Practice, practice, practice!


So that is the stages of skill acquisition, but how do we learn? Everyone is different, and the VARK model of learning helps explains this further


VARK Model


Fleming and Mills in 1992 developed four modalities of learning. While we may have some overlap of how we learn (especially from the viewpoint of student vs teacher) it outlines a simple way to understand how we absorb information.

VARK model of learning

Visual


Visual learners prefer a graphical or symbolic way of representing information. Do you prefer seeing a diagram on a whiteboard? Then this style of learning is for you.


Aural


Aural learners are just as it says, they prefer to hear the information. These learners like listening to podcasts, books and in class will learn a new trick based on cues or verbalisation of the moves from an instructor.


Read/Write


Read/Write learner take in information through reading or writing. These learners in a class may prefer to read over the steps of a move (or write them down).


Kinesthetic


Kinesthetic learners are those that learn through a mode that reflects reality. This can include personal experiences, examples, practice or stimulation. In a class – this will be based on demonstrations or being spotting through a movement. As this style of learner you want to hold or ‘feel’ the move.


So what does this mean for me?


Have you ever thought about the type of learner you are? Now is the perfect opportunity to reflect on it. There is a quick quiz that you can take that identifies your dominant learning style - https://vark-learn.com/the-vark-questionnaire/


If you already know the type of learner you are, have you been using that knowledge to aid in your learning? Are you listening to podcasts on the way to work? Do you scroll Instagram to look at the latest tricks or practice through visualisation? Are you practicing on the pole to get the feel of the movements?


But how does this relate to skill acquisition?


In order to progress through the stages of skill acquisition, it helps if you (AND your instructor or pole buddy) have a good understanding of how you learn. This means you can reinforce movement patterns, enhance initial skill learning and move more fluidly through the different stages.


But also remember – you may learn differently from each instructor you have. Every instructor has a different style of teaching, and sometimes the way they can explain it, or demonstrate, helps it all just click together – even if it is not your usual learning style.


Tips and Tricks

So putting that all together – here are a few tips and tricks to help you progress to the associative and autonomous stages of skill acquisition:


  • Practice new skills at the beginning of training sessions

  • Your brain (and body!) has greater capacity to work on those skills that require significant cognitive effort earlier on in training as you are not so mentally fatigued.

  • Practice, practice, practice

  • Then practice some more

  • Practice skills at random

  • Are you in the associative (or autonomous) stage of skill acquisition with certain tricks? Grab your pole buddy and get them to call out random combinations, or starting positions (sit, aerial, kneeling) – this will further challenge your brain and learning!

  • Know your learning style and make the most of it.

  • Do you need more 1:1 with an instructor? Do you need to slow down Instagram videos to look at foot/hand placement? Do you need to hear the cues for the trick?

  • Challenge your comfort zone

  • If you specifically avoid trick (or your left side) because you don’t enjoy it or haven’t nailed it – you are likely still in the cognitive stage of skill acquisition. In 2022 – pick 2 tricks you avoid – and make it your goal to nail them!

  • You have to fail to get it right

  • Do not be afraid to fail –that is how skill acquisition and learning works.

  • Video your training

  • This is the best way to review your tricks and see what areas need further development, but is also an AWESOME way to see how much you have grown. All the experienced polers I have spoken with say they wish they had videoed themselves when they were first learning – so get them camera’s out.

And that’s the end of our Skill Acquisition blog. I hope there were a few golden nuggets in there that you can take away and enhance your training.


On reflection after reading this blog – do you think you have an injury that is limiting your skill acquisition? Or find you lack the strength for certain tricks and are not sure what to do?


Online telehealth appointments can be booked with the Pole Physio via our ‘Book Online’ page that can be found here. Assessment and tailored rehabilitation are provided in accordance with best practice and evidence-based treatment to help you unleash your 'poletential'.

Until next time, train safe

The Pole Physio


x



References:

  • Clear, J. (2018) Atomic Habit. New York: Avery, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

  • Fitts, P. & Posner, M.I. (1967) Human Performance. Brooks/Cole Publishing, Belmont, CA.

  • Fleming, D. & Mills, C. (1992) Not another Inventory, Rather a catalyst for reflection. To improve the Academy, Vol 11

  • Shaw, W. (2020) The Three Stages of Learning. Available from: https://sportscienceinsider.com/stages-of-learning