You may recall that I (amongst others) have previously written about the four stages of competence and shuhari in order to better understand skill acquisition.


Four Stage of Competence

  1. Unconscious incompetence (I don’t even know what I can’t do)
  2. Conscious incompetence (I know what I can’t do)
  3. Conscious competence (I can do it when I concentrate)
  4. Unconscious competence (I can do it automatically)




Today I am borrowing heavily from an article in Koji Komuro’s excellent book on Judo grappling ‘柔道固技教本’ (Judo Katamewaza Kyohon). He discusses his three levels of mastery, what he refers to as ‘degree of learning maturity’. You will see that Komuro’s theory supports the four stages of competence generally attributed to Gordon Training International. The theory also roughly reflects the traditional Japanese shuhari stages. These theories assist both the learning and teacher in appropriate methods of acquiring skill.


  1. Can comprehend (わかる)

Grasping the theory, mechanics, distance, timing and opportunities to use a technique is the first stage of mastery. This stage centres of mental understanding rather than physical ability. Comprehension spans the first two of the four stages of competence. Use of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic aids will assist all learning styles to understand the technique. This may be achieved by using diagrams and demonstrating a technique (visual), explaining the mechanics and applications (auditory) and by feeling the move applied to the learner before the learner attempts to replicate the movement (kinaesthetic).


  1. Can do (できる)

Komuro writes of three following levels within this stage, which roughly equate to degrees of conscious competence.

  1. Can practice in static drill (uchikomi)
  2. Can practice within movement (ido geiko)
  3. Can practice in sparring (kumite/randori)


When learning a new technique, proficiency is generally developed in this order. Therefore, it is recommended to first isolate the basic movement with a compliant partner, then drill within natural movement, and eventually attempt the technique against progressive resistance.


  1. Can use (使える)

Komuro cautions that an ability to use a technique in sparring does not necessarily equate to an ability to use that technique in a fight, whether in combat sport or self defence. Using the technique in reality requires the practitioner to make the move their own, to explore it, experiment with it and develop the confidence to execute it given the smallest window of opportunity.


To paraphrase Komuro’s advice to achieve the final level of mastery:

  1. drill from a position of advantage
  2. drill from a position of disadvantage
  3. drill when the opponent is trying to escape.


Komuro concludes his article by referring to a Japanese idiom ‘一技3年’ or ‘three years per technique’. It would be convenient to allocate one year per level of mastery. However, I believe that the majority of that time is spent navigating the transition from ‘can do’ to ‘can use’.


Above image is accredited to Will Taylor, Chair, Department of Homeopathic Medicine, National College of Natural Medicine, Portland, Oregon, USA, March 2007

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2 Responses to Mastery

  1. Marc Colbeck says:

    I once had a martial arts instructor say that the four stages of learning were: (1) FORM – the simple form of what to do, (2) FUNCTION – WHY we do it, what it’s meant to accomplish, (3) FEELING – learning to recognize the ‘felt sense’ of when you’ve done it right (or not) and, (4) FORGET – you don’t think about it, you block and respond, someone asks ‘what did you just do’ and you reply ‘I’m not exactly sure’. Of course, there are lot’s of ways to think about it, interesting to see your ideas. Thanks for sharing Chris.

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