The cognitive stage of skill
acquisition is the early identification and understanding of
the skill to be learned. Individuals focus on what to do, that is
most of the learner’s activities during this stage will be in the mind, watching,
thinking, analysing, reasoning, judging and visualising, rather than lots of
practice. During this stage the learner develops an in-depth understanding of
the skill to be acquired.

This is the first experience the
learner has with a skill. At this stage the learner needs one or two simple
instructions to concentrate on and plenty of demonstrations of the correct
skill. Too much instruction causes the learner frustration due to information
overload. For example, in tennis, the learner needs to do is concentrate on
getting the body side on at impact and keeping the racquet head parallel to the

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Conceptualisation, the generation of
clear mental pictures of a task, is a critical process at this stage of
learning. Demonstrations of the skill being practised give the learner an
overall view of the skill. Visual cues allow them to transfer what they are
seeing into what they want to do. This as well gives them a “mind’s
eye” to revert back to and rehearse.

Some learners pass through the
cognitive stage very quickly while others may find this stage particularly
challenging. To begin with they make many errors and have few successes (e.g.
missing the ball altogether followed by hitting the next one in the desired
direction) depending on the complexity of the skill. Complex skills may need to
be broken down into smaller movements. Learners may experience large errors,
awkwardness, jerkiness, poor timing and some disorientation. For example, when
playing a golf shot, someone in the cognitive stage will often miss the ball or
hit the ground.

During cognitive learning, coaches
should focus on simple fundamental skills, aim to keep motivation high and
provide positive, constructive and specific feedback. Video feedback
demonstrations and visual cues are valuable tools for coaching at this stage.
When the error count begins to drop and a more consistent performance is
demonstrated, they have started to move into the associative stage.