As we learn any new technique we pass through various stages on our journey to mastering it. Depending on the difficulty of the technique, becoming ‘expert’ at it can take a significant amount of time, so the time spent at each stage of learning can vary dramatically. The ability to understand and recognise these stages allows us to select most productive approach for coaching any given student, allowing a coach to pitch tasks that are appropriate to supporting the student in progressing their knowledge, understanding and application of a skill.

There are three, commonly referred to stages of learning.

1. Cognitive

2. Associative

3. Autonomous

This article aims to provide a simple introduction to the 3 stages of learning from a paddlesport coaching perspective.

Cognitive Stage

The cognitive stage is found with novices where a student is new to a technique. It is characterised by:

1. Major errors

2. A lack of style or fluidity when performing a skill

3. The need for repeated demonstration/explanation

4. The student potentially seeking praise or positive feedback


Associative Stage

The associative stage occurs when a student has grasped the fundamentals of a technique but has yet to perfect it or master it’s use in more challenging situations. For example, they may have a reasonable low brace turn but not the ability to apply it effectively in rougher water or use it effectively when breaking in/out of currents. The associative stage is characterised by:

1. Occasional errors

2. A Hit and miss style – the technique is not repeatedly performed correctly

3. Lack of adaption – the technique is not yet performed correctly in all conditions/situations where it may be required.


Autonomous Stage

The autonomous stage occurs when the student is able to performs skills with high degree of accuracy regardless of conditions/situations. There will be an obvious confidence using the skill and the performance is ‘unconscious’ i.e. they do not have to think about performing the skill. The autonomous stage is characterised by:

1. Very few errors and those seen are normally small.

2. The use of the skill refined and where appropriate blended with other skills

3. There is a fluid performance

4. The student can transfer the skill to a range of environments or situations.

Edging Example

If we take an example of edging a sea kayak to aid directional control. Paddlers new to the concept of edging are firmly in the cognitive stage. They struggle to hold an edge, maybe apply the edge on the incorrect side or apply too little or too much edge resulting in either a lack of direction change or a capsize. Concentration on the edging will be intense and potentially have a negative impact on how they apply other skills – for example other aspects of their forward paddling technique will suffer as they concentrate fully on edging.

As the student moves into the associative stage, they may have gained reasonable control over their degree of edging. They are likely to be able to change direction of the sea kayak through edging whilst maintaining a decent forward paddling stroke. However you will still see occasional mistakes – wobbles as they over edge for example. They may also only be able to apply a limited range of edge to keep within their comfort zone. The use of edging may also be limited in terms of conditions or situations it is used in. Rougher water may reduce the quality of performance or the use of edging not yet blended with other strokes such as a stern rudder when surfing waves.

As a student enters the autonomous stage, they will no longer have to think consciously about edging but naturally begin to use it during their paddling. They are likely to apply edge effectively in a range of situations: forward, reverse paddling, surfing waves, breaking in and out. They will also combine edging with a number of other strokes effectively. They will also be able to ‘multi-task’ for example be applying effective edging, whilst paddling and chatting to other paddlers.


Adapting Coaching To Suit Learning Stage

Cognitive Stage students will require simple, focused tasks and plenty of repeated practice to help build knowledge and experience of the skill being delivered.

Students at the associative stage will benefit from activities that require them to begin using a skill in a wider range of situations or blending it with other skills.

Student at the autonomous stage will require highly specific feedback on the fine detail of their performance to iron out the minor issues. They may also look for support as they ‘self-coach’ their own performance.


Progress Through Learning Stages

The time it takes to progress through each stage depends on a number of factors:

The student – different students will learn at different paces.

The complexity of the skill – the more complex the skill the longer it may take to master.

The quality of coaching – the better quality the coaching the easier the student may find to mast the skill.

The amount of time spent practicing – the more time spent practicing the quicker a student will progress.


It is beyond the scope of this introductory article to delve into stages of learning at any great depth, however I hope it has provided a simple introduction to the topic. As ever, I welcome feedback and thoughts.