Unconscious Competence

As earned in the book The Mental Side of Poker by Jared Tendler, there’s a progression in gaining skill, no matter what you’re trying to get better at. It goes unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscience competence, and then unconscious competence. You go from not knowing what skills you don’t have, to knowing what skills you don’t have, to knowing what skills you have, to not having to think about your skill.

And the most important part of this progression is that when there is a tense situation your mind and body default to what you have committed to unconscious competence. So if you are decently skilled in one area, but your highest skills are still in the conscious competence phase, whatever skills you’ve been able to commit to unconscious competence will be what you default to when the pressure in on. So it’s never the bleeding edge skill that you’re working on. It’s almost always the skill that you got really really good at and moved on from long ago.

In my experience people tend to think that whatever they are working on currently is what they should do well at while they’re playing. Their logic is “because I’ve been practicing it, I should do well at it.” But inevitably, when the pressure is on, they attempt to pull off the newest skill they’ve been working on, but what they get is the skill level that they were at weeks or months ago.


Recognizing this fact about skill acquisition/ access changes two very important areas in your mind. It changes how you practice and play, and it changes your expectations of yourself.


It changes how you practice and play because you realize how much harder you have to work in practice (when there is no pressure) to raise your game to a much higher level so that when you go play your lower level is higher than it used to be. Your goal is to make your current A-game into your new B-game, with an all new higher A-game. It makes you realize how important it is to find ways to simulate competition while you’re practicing. To induce pressure in any way you can. Because the goal is to tighten the gap between how well you play and how well you practice.

This realization also changes your expectations of yourself. You now realize that when the pressure is on you won’t perform as well as you practice. Your mind and body are simply unable to access the less trained parts. When you’re on the 18th hole leading by 1 and you’re 185 yards out to a tucked pin, you know you’ve hit this exact shot in practice, but you also know that you haven’t mastered it in practice. This 185 yard shot still lives in the conscious competence phase (you know your skill level but have to think about it). So you can know what to expect of yourself, and adjust and make a calculated strategic decision to give yourself a wider margin of error. It takes great discipline to know how well you could hit that shot in practice, but realize where your skill level is actually at. So you hit the shot you know you can hit, completely accept the outcome, get out to the practice facility and set out to raise your skill level to where that 185 yard shot to that tucked pin lives in the unconscious competence phase.

List out some skills that you have and categorize them in the four phases of skill. Use your skills that are in the unconscious competence phase while you’re playing. And in practice get with a coach, use challenges, drills, induced pressure to get all of your skills to that phase. That way you can confidently hit the more difficult shots with a quiet mind.

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