Four Stages of Competency in Kung Fu Martial Arts 28 NOV 2008

Tie Hou QuanOn the way to mastering any particular skill, four definite phases of competency have been identified. These phases are applicable to all daily life and not just martial arts.

The phases that have been identified classify a person as either being a complete newcomer to a skill right up to being a master of that skill. The different phases are as follows:

1. Unconsciously Incompetent

The fighter is unaware that he is unable to fight effectively. Thus he does not strive to improve his skills to a higher level.

e.g. A newcomer to Kung fu would be unaware of Center-Line philosophy and therefore fight without attempting to manipulate his opponent’s body position.

2. Consciously Incompetent

The fighter is aware that his skills are at a very low level and actively tries to improve his skill level.

e.g. A Kung fu student would learn about Center-line philosophy and actively try to apply it to his training. He knows about it but is unable to practice it properly.

3. Consciously Competent

The fighter has learnt his techniques and can actively apply them in battles

e.g. A skilled student will have learned Center-line philosophy and studied how to apply it properly in combat. He is now able to actively apply it during his training. However he is only able to apply if he thinks about applying it – thus it needs to be a conscious effort on his behalf to apply these techniques.

4. Unconsciously Competent

The fighter has such a high degree of mastery of his techniques that he can apply them in battle without even thinking about it.

e.g. A highly-skilled student or master would have mastered the Center-line techniques and without thinking about it, be able to correctly apply them in fights.


As mentioned before, these four phases apply to any skill in life. An easy real-life example to think about is that of driving a car. In the beginning, a person sees cars and thinks it should be easy to drive without ever sitting behind the wheel of one. He is currently in the Unconsciously Incompetent phase. Once he realizes it is not that easy to do, he gets his learner’s license and attempts to learn how to drive correctly. He is currently consciously incompetent. Once he has learnt how to drive, he can now apply for and get his driver’s license. The first few weeks after getting his license he is driving, but is actively driving. This means that it hasn’t become second nature yet. This is the consciously competent phase. Finally, when driving becomes second nature, meaning you drive a car without focusing your full attention on it, you have reached the unconsciously competent phase.

Another example that can be thought of a computer programming in a particular style, say Object-oriented Programming. Again, without knowing about Object-orientated programming, a programmer will simply continue programming in a linear style. If he learns about the style but is unable to apply it, then he has moved up to the consciously incompetent phase. Once he has studied the object-orientated programming paradigm and can successfully apply it to his programs, then he has again moved up, this time to the consciously competent phase of understanding. Lastly, when programming in this paradigm is second nature to him, then he will be in the unconsciously competent phase of understanding.

In Kung Fu, the goal is to reach the level of the unconsciously competent phase of understanding in everything that you do. Because fighting should be second nature to you, you need to have undergone intense training such that you understand your techniques and movements inside out. Because of the focus that is required in becoming adept at these skills, you will have needed to go through all four phases of competencies in order to become a master.

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About Craig Lotter

South African software architect and developer at Touchwork. Husband to a cupcake baker and father to two little girls. I don't have time for myself any more.