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The Four Stages of Competence | Podcast #280


Sky Matsuhashi

on February 27, 2020

You’re here because you want to improve your skills to the level of Unconscious Competence and crush the competition. You’re down with studying and playing with purpose to build profitable skills so you can earn more profits at the tables. Ultimately, you want to be as skillful and profitable as you can be.

Have you ever thought about what it takes to be one of the best?  What sets the strongest players apart from the rest?  What makes that player there better than you, and what makes you better than that other player?

I believe the answer to this is that the better players have developed certain skills to such a level that they can call upon those skills without even thinking about it.  These skills have been turned into profitable habits and their mind automatically knows when to employ them.

In this article, I’m going to discuss the four stages of competence and I'm going to help you move skills from the bottom to the top.

What are the Four Stages of Competence?

The Four Stages of Competence is a learning theory developed back in 1969 then later revised by Noel Burch in the 1970’s.  He was interested in studying how people go from complete beginners within a discipline to becoming professionally adept and able to apply skills, seemingly without even thinking about it.

Listen to this podcast episode #280:

He came up with his theory near 50 years ago and it’s been a popular one ever since. I love thinking about skill building within the 4 stages that he created.

1. Unconscious Incompetence

This is where we all start with our first hand of poker.  We looked only at the strength of our hand, not even knowing how strong it really was.

“Is K4 better than JT? I know the King is higher, but the Jack and Ten are connected. But that 4 is pretty low.”

Without even knowing this, we decided whether to bet, call, raise or fold.  At the time, we didn’t even recognize there was so much more to the game than the cards we were dealt.  We didn’t even know what we didn’t know.

2. Conscious Incompetence

At this stage, we’re applying some new skills, and we are aware that there is still a lot that we don’t know.  As we play and study more, we become aware of how poor our skillset is.  We find ourselves in bad spot after bad spot and we have no idea how to handle it.  This is screaming at us to study more in order to gain some skills so we can handle ourselves better at the tables.

3. Conscious Competence

Now this is the stage where things are really starting to progress.  We are trying out our new skills and doing lots of practice and experimenting.  We know how to use many of the skills we’re working on, but we have to spend lots of concentrated effort on putting them into play.  Hand reading opponents, planning for future streets and considering our image are all things we can do, but they don’t come naturally yet and it’s easy to forget to take these things into account unless we consciously focus on it.

4. Unconscious Competence

This is the stage we’re gunning for.  As we practice our newly learned skills over and over again, they become much easier to employ and eventually become natural.  Gut reactions take over and we have a great “feel” for the game.  We don’t have to devote all of our mind to hand reading because our mind is churning this out naturally as every hand progresses through the streets.  We automatically see good spots to barrel bluff, to call down with second pair, or to fold to river aggression.  The level of Unconscious Competence is where our A-game can be found, and it’s what we have been studying and training so hard for.

Now that you understand the 4 stages of competence, let’s look at how we can train skills to the topmost level of Unconscious Competence.

Bringing Skills to the Level of Unconscious Competence

As you can imagine, taking skills from the bottom level of Unconscious Incompetence, to the top level of Unconscious Competence, is extremely difficult.  There are no shortcuts; it takes time and intentional effort.  Here are the steps:

1. Recognize the Skills You Must Develop

You must recognize the important skills you’re currently lacking.  Do you always have trouble deciding whether or not to 3bet? Is facing every cbet difficult because you don’t know what information to use in your decision to call, fold or raise? Do you call every river because, “He could be bluffing!?” Do you plan for the turn before you make your flop play?

I recommend you make a list of the skills that you lack, and put them in order based on their importance. Preflop skills are more important than post-flop skills, and common situations are more important than uncommon ones. If you don’t know which to prioritize as #1, simply choose the skill you think would most benefit you.

Don’t spend too much time on this part, though. Once you build your skills for the first strategy, you’ll simply move on to the next. Eventually, you’ll train everything on your list to Unconscious Competence. Don’t stress yourself out by picking the perfect skill to begin working on.

2. Focus on ONE Until Done

From this point forward, all of your study time and purposeful play will be dedicated to this ONE topic you’ve chosen. If you chose to improve your blind calling skills, don’t watch videos on cbets or read articles on bankroll management or listen to podcasts about the mental game.

EVERYTHING you do should be geared to improving your blind calling skills:

  • Choosing study material (videos, podcasts, articles)
  • Hand reading exercises
  • Hand history reviews
  • Flopzilla work
  • Posting in forums
  • Creating cheat sheets (video example below)

Take plenty of notes so you can revisit them at any time and during your pre-session warm-ups. Also, take the time to create action steps so you can purposefully practice your strategies on the felt.

For example, if you learn that you should only call to set mine with 20x implied odds, train yourself to look for that before every set mining call.

3. Take Action with the Strategies

You must play focus sessions in which you are intently concentrated on using the skills you’re learning and taking action with the action steps you created for yourself. If you’re not family with action steps, stay tuned because I’ll give you one at the end of the podcast.

The more you actively use the skills you’re working on, the quicker they’ll become natural parts of your game and they will eventually get developed to the level of Unconscious Competence.

Hopefully you use PokerTracker 4 so you can tag important hands as you play. You’re experimenting and testing out new strategies, so you’ll encounter situations that you’re unsure of. Tag those hands so you can easily find them and review them during your study sessions.

4. Review Each Session

You must follow up each of your sessions with a review the next day. You must look to see if you’re implementing the strategies you’re learning and you must look for mistakes made. Take note of mistakes so you can work to NOT repeat them in your next session.

Also, take note of your successes and let those bolster your studies. When you see that things are working out well for you, you get a great sense of accomplishment. This feeling will spur a desire for continued study and even more improvement. It’s a beneficial cycle.

Rinse and Repeat

Your job is now to repeat steps 2-4 to build your skills to the level of Unconscious Competence. You keep studying to learn new skills, focus on using them off-the-felt, then study your sessions afterwards. You do this until you feel you’ve developed the skill for long enough and you’re ready to move on to the next skill.

Save your notes of course so you can easily revisit what you learned in the future to refresh yourself should your skills diminish.

Take action to plug poker leaks

Take Action: Build a Skill to the Level of Unconscious Competence

Here’s my challenge to you for this episode: Choose the one skill you want to work on, and work to build it to the level of Unconscious Competence. Find related study material, take notes and create action steps while you ignore all that isn’t related. Play with focus on the skills you’re learning. Then, study each of your sessions and tagged hands to find mistakes. Rinse and repeat until you feel confident enough that you can leave it behind and move on to the next skill.

Now it’s your turn to take action and do something positive for your poker game.


Sky Matsuhashi

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