I’m currently reading The Sports Gene by Sports Illustrated writer David Epstein (Read a brief overview here). It’s a fascinating treatise on what sports science has uncovered so far about the components that contribute to elite athletic performance. The book elaborates on the fundamental “nature vs nurture” question as it applies to athletics; how much of an athlete’s performance is due to his inherited genes and how much to his training and skill development (or practice). It’s a Malcom Gladwell-esque compendium of anecdotes and statistics that explores the topic from numerous angles and a wide variety of sports. [The fact that rock climbing isn’t mentioned is no surprise, and further evidence that climbing, as a subject of sports science, is in its infancy.]
This question of how expertise is achieved is posed by researchers in the field (as well as Epstein) as one of “hardware vs software,” or the heritable physical traits of an athlete vs their learned perceptual skills. This isn’t the same as physical skills, but they may be related. Examples of perceptual skills include Payton Manning’s ability to read an NFL defense and predict who the open receiver will be after the ball is snapped, or Albert Pujols’ ability to determine if a pitch is going to be a ball or strike before it’s even left the pitcher’s hand, based on the pitcher’s arm and shoulder movement. While you may presume that athletes like Pujols have extraordinary reflexes, the fact is they don’t—they do have much better-than-average eyesight, but their expertise is largely derived from practice at observing pitchers and baseballs in flight and using that experience to predict the location of the ball when it crosses home plate, and thus, where to swing. (This point is foot-stomped in the book with a compelling anecdote about many MLB hitters, including Pujols who were unable to hit a single pitch thrown by USA softball star Jenny Finch—a much larger ball thrown at a relatively anemic 65 mph. The cues these hitters rely on were useless in this case, because a softball pitcher’s arm motion is totally different from that of a baseball pitcher’s).
It should come to no surprise to any veteran of scientific literature that the answer to this question of “hardware vs software” is…both. At the highest levels of professional sports, there are certain traits that are virtual requirements, such as the aforementioned eyesight in MLB hitters, and height in NBA ballers. It’s easy to become demoralized by talk of essential genetic traits, but I would argue we haven’t reached that point in climbing. No, the real point here is that practice is critical to elite expertise. A landmark study of musicians led by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson led to the hypothesis that nearly any skill could be mastered with a substantial amount of practice. However, this is not just turn-off-your-brain-and-be-a-robot practice, it takes deliberate practice—rehearsal that:
• Focuses on specific weaknesses
• Challenges the practitioner
• Provides expert feedback on the quality of the performance
Ericsson’s findings have been twisted into the now-popularized “10,000 hours to expertise rule” that claims that mastery of any skill can be achieved with 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. In fact, the quantity of practice required to reach an elite level varies greatly across activities, and across practitioners within a given activity, but the “spirit” of the rule holds—attaining expertise requires significant deliberate practice.
So of course, I can’t help but wonder how these concepts apply to climbing. Clearly climbing performance is heavily dependent on both physical traits, physical skills and perceptual skills. Your physical traits (such as your ability to hang onto a small hold) are a combination of your inherited genetic traits and physical training. Physical skills include the ability to execute climbing specific movements, such as a complex dyno, or effective footwork. Perceptual skills are the cognitive abilities used in climbing such as reading a route and anticipating the best sequences, or the ability to ration effort on a pumpy climb. Our physical and perceptual skills are a result of practice. Different climbers may accumulate skill at different rates, (one climber may need to practice longer to acquire the same level of skill as another as a result of their genetic predisposition for skill acquisition), but the point is, we all require practice.
This may seem obvious, but I wonder how much climbers emphasis deliberate practice in their training? Climbers don’t even use the word practice, we call it “training” or “climbing.” Given this, what’s the chance we’re concentrating on the tenets of deliberate practice while we are in the process of practicing for climbing? It’s certainly possible to spend 10,000 hours or more at climbing and not even approach an elite climbing level (you might know climbers like this). For many folks, (call them “recreational” climbers), maximizing performance isn’t their goal, so their 10,000 hours don’t amount to deliberate practice. The real quandary lies with the others…those of us that want to improve, and have been trying to improve for years, yet don’t seem to make progress with our climbing skill. The disappointing results may be due to the quality of the practice.
Whether it’s a lack of know-how, or lack of desire, most climbers don’t practice well. Simply consider the typical gym or crag setting, and compare it to other sports (with a seasoned coach barking out a scripted series of targeted drills). Climbing is comparatively unfocused, unstructured, and unsupervised. To improve the quality of our practice, each session should:
• Focus on clear improvement goals
• Utilize challenging exercises
• Incorporate expert coaching or other effective feedback
I’ve seen highly motivated climbers reach very high levels of performance very quickly by earnestly attacking their weaknesses, pushing themselves, and seeking expert feedback. You can do it too!