What are the three stages of Motor learning?

In this blog we will answer the question  What are the three stages of Motor learning? And emphasise how sports can enhance it. 

Motor learning refers to the complex processes occurring in the brain in response to practice or experience of a specific skill that results in the changes in the central nervous system that allows the production of a new motor skill. For athletes, apart from thinking at the spur of the moment, motor agility is of the utmost importance. Motor learning involves an attempt by learners to acquire an idea of the movement or understand the basic pattern of coordination. To achieve goals, learners must use cognitive and verbal processes to solve their problems. Motor skill acquisition requires three stages: the cognitive stage, the associative stage, and the autonomous stage.

Cognitive Stage

The problem to be solved in the cognitive stage is understanding what to do. It is extremely difficult to learn a skill without receiving any visual or verbal knowledge about the skill. For example, the butterfly stroke in swimming. It is a complicated and somewhat unnatural stroke in which to restrict the movement of the arms with the kick of the legs. It would be difficult for a beginner to learn this without seeing it performed by a professional or without receiving a detailed demonstration of how the stroke is performed. In other words, motor learning begins with the processing of information. The verbal-motor stage is verbal-cognitive in nature because it involves conveyance (verbal) and acquisition (cognition) of new information. Here, the person is trying to process information to cognitively understand the requirements and parameters of the motor movement. Everything begins with acquiring knowledge of different things around us. During this stage, the beginner digests information and arranges it into a meaningful form that leads to the formation of a motor program.

In this stage’s instruction, guidance, slow-motion drills, video analysis, augmented feedback, and other coaching techniques are highly effective. The learner must be provided with the necessary information, guidance, and time to establish sound fundamentals of movement. The learner must rely on visual learning and trial and error to guide learning.

Associative Stage

This stage is specified as less verbal information, minor gains in performance, conscious performance, adjustment making, awkward and disjointed movement, and using more time to complete. In this stage, the athlete is working at making movement adjustments and linking together small movement skills. The problem to be solved in this stage is learning how to perform a skill. Here, visual cues are less important than proprioceptive cues. Proprioceptive cues talk about the learner focusing more on how their body movement and what input is being sensed from their joints and muscles. From the cognitive perspective, the athlete is trying to turn “what to do” into “how to do”. In the stages of life, there is always room for improvement. For example, a baseball pitcher can improve his delivery and learn new pitches, a gymnast can refine a routine, a basketball player can improve his hitting technique, etc. Athletes and their coaches frequently go back to the cognitive and associative stages, respectively. The more practice, the more proprioceptive input the learner receives while learning.

Autonomous Stage

This is the final stage of motor acquisition. It requires years to reach this stage. In this stage, the motor performance becomes largely automatic, cognitive processing demands are nominal, and the learner is skilled in attending to and dealing out other information, such as the form or style of movement. It is the stage where they can now answer back and not think, look and spontaneously react and arrive in a state of flow. Both good and bad outcomes are connected with the autonomous stage.

The good is that performance calls for a smaller amount of attentional and cognitive demand, which releases the performer to engage in secondary tasks. Such as, the concert pianist can follow random digits or perform arithmetic while simultaneously playing the piano.

The bad is that since the demand during a performance is less cognitive, it leaves plenty of space for irrelevant and distracting thoughts to enter the working memory of the mind.  For example, in the Olympic trials, the athletes were caught thinking about making the Olympic team instead of focusing on the performance of gymnastics routine, swimming race, or wrestling match. Some mountain climbers often meet accidents near the top of the mountain because they start thinking about reaching the top peak (the outcome) instead of focusing on what brought them to that part of the mountain (the process). The other bad outcome is that it emphasizes learners to maintain incorrect movements because specific amounts of comfort and reinforcement are associated with automatic performance. Just because a motor movement is performed automatically, doesn’t mean it is correct or worthy of being maintained.

In this blog we have answered the question  What are the three stages of Motor learning? And have emphasised how sports can enhance it. 

Frequently Asked Questions

 What are the stages of motor development?

The stages of motor development are the cognitive stage, the associative stage, and the autonomous stage.

What are the motor learning concepts?

Motor learning is a set of internal processes connected with practice or experience leading to permanent changes in the capability of skilled behavior. It is defined as complex processes that occur in the brain in response to a particular skill.

 What are the 6 motor skills?

According to Glencoe/McGraw-Hill Education, the modules of motor skills related to fitness are agility, balance, coordination, power, reaction time, and speed.

At what age do motor skills develop?

The fine motor skills develop from birth to 2 years old. It includes reaching, grasping, and manipulating objects with your hands. There is a whole list of motor skills children should demonstrate until the age of 2.

What motor skills develop first?

Every child is dissimilar, but gross motor skills development occurs in a predictable pattern. Large muscles like arms and legs develop first so kids major the gross motor skill, walking first. Small skills that require control and delicacy in the hands and fingers come later.

Titles to Read

1)  Motor Learning and Performance 6th Edition With Web Study Guide-Loose-Leaf Edition: From Principles to Application by Richard A. Schmidt and Timothy D. Lee

2)  Motor Learning and Performance: From Principles to Application by Richard A. Schmidt and Timothy D. Lee

3)  Motor Learning and Control for Practitioners by Cheryl A. Coker

4)  Motor Learning and Control: Concepts and Applications by Richard Magill and David Anderson

5)  Motor Learning and Development by Pamela S. Haibach-Beach, Greg Reid, et al.


  • https://us.humankinetics.com/blogs/excerpt/understanding-motor-learning-stages-improves-skill-instruction  
  • https://starfishtherapies.wordpress.com/2012/10/16/motor-learning-stages-of-motor-learning-and-strategies-to-improve-acquisition-of-motor-skills/
  • https://smartgolffitness.com/stages-of-motor-learning/