How to Become an Expert Climber in Five Simple Lessons (Lesson 3)

By Mark Anderson

Lesson 3: The First Expert Climber

In Lesson 2, we discussed how Anders Ericsson’s findings in Peak apply to athletics in general.  The next question is, to what extent does Ericsson’s work apply to climbing? As discussed in Lesson 2, the vast majority of Ericsson’s research concerns activities I described as “entirely or primarily skill-based.” Chess is a good example of an entirely skill-based activity, requiring no physical ability beyond that to move the chess pieces around the board. Digit memorization doesn’t even require physical manipulation of chess pieces. Music is primarily skill-based, but there is a physical element involved in order to manipulate the instrument.

So then, is climbing a “skill-based” activity? Many smart climbers often say that it is. Climbers have debated this semantic question for decades and I do not intend to resolve the question here, but merely ask it another way: Is the skill element of climbing so overwhelming (relative to the physical component) that we could say categorically that research conducted on chess players applies (even approximately) to climbers?  Surely not.  So we can’t just assume every lesson in Peak applies exactly to climbing, but we can still apply a great deal. We just need to identify which lessons are beneficial to climbers.

Let’s consider Peak’s implication that there are (virtually) no limits to human potential. Does this apply to climbing? I assume there is some absolute physical limit beyond the scope of our imagination, but I agree with the practical point–we are likely far from reaching the limit of human climbing potential. To illustrate this, I present the following thought experiment concerning Gladwell’s 10,000 Hour Rule:

Let’s say for the sake of argument that 5.14a is an “expert” climbing level. Here’s some rough math showing the number of hours I spent “practicing” to reach that level:

  • Required 7 years of training from the time I became serious about climbing
  • On average, each year consisted of 3 training cycles
  • Each training cycle required 91 hours, broken out thusly:
    • Base Fitness Training: 1hr x 15 sessions = 15 hours
    • Strength Training: 2 hrs x 10 sessions = 20 hours
    • Power Training: 2 hrs x 10 sessions = 20 hours
    • Performance: 3 hrs x 12 sessions = 36 hours
    • Rest: 0 hr x 10 days = 0

Therefore, I required (very) roughly 1,911 hours of “practice” to reach the 5.14a level. Note, however, Ericsson says performance doesn’t count as practice (because you aren’t correcting errors, you’re just trying to get through it the best you can).  756 hours of that 1911 was spent climbing outside on rock.  Depending how one climbs outside, a good portion, likely the vast majority, of those 756 hours would not meet Ericson’s definitions of practice*.  So the number might be closer to 1200 hours.  Granted, this is only one data point, but I don’t believe this quantity of practice is absurdly low for a 5.14a climber (we’ve all heard anecdotes of guys like Dave Graham climbing 5.14a in far less time, sometimes within a year of climbing).    [

*Note also, that I spend a fair amount of time visualizing climbing, reviewing film of myself climbing, studying guidebooks and instructional texts; Ericsson might consider some of this time practice, but it is not counted here for the practical reason that I don’t have a good record or estimate of how much time I’ve spent doing it.]

The obvious conclusion from this thought experiment is that 5.14a is NOT an expert level!  By the standards of very well-developed fields, 5.14a would be entry-level. Consider that the amount of “practice” detailed above is only around 10-20% (depending how you count outdoor climbing days) of the time invested by Ericsson’s 20-year-old music students!  [Another possible conclusion is that climbing is so far from being a skill-based activity that hours of practice are meaningless, but I doubt this is correct.]

Let’s consider what happens when we raise the standard. If we set the arbitrary level of climbing “expertise” at 9a (5.14d) instead of 5.14a, the results aren’t much more convincing. I required 16 years of dedicated training to reach the 9a level, or approximately 4,368 hours (again including 1,728 hours of “performance” that Ericsson might not count, and excluding many hours of “mental” practice that he likely would count).

So one may argue that 9a ability is at best about half-way to expertise, by the standard of truly well-developed fields, like music or chess. I’ve been at this for 20 years, yet I’ve still (at best) only put in about one-quarter as much time “practicing” as a typical international soloist musician. Clearly I’ve been slacking! The lessons here is that it’s likely I can still get a bit better at climbing.

Clearly as a species, humans can get much better. Even the leading American climbers of my generation—Sharma, Caldwell, Graham—didn’t start climbing (seriously at least, in Caldwell’s case) until their mid-teens, a decade later than experts in other fields. The Adam Ondra generation, the first generation to start climbing seriously at a young age, may be the very first to possess even the potential to put in the same amount of “practice” time as experts in other fields.

Of course, that assumes those few who started young actually spent those years effectively. Perhaps you’re thinking, “thanks to books like the Rock Climbers Training Manual, climbers train much more effectively and efficiently than musicians, so therefore we can acquire expertise with far less practice time.”

Consider that musicians in large numbers have built their lives around their craft at least since the time of Mozart (born in 1756 and pursued music full-time starting at age 4). Since then some 10+ generations of musicians have honed more efficient and effective practice methods to stand out from their peers, and then subsequently passed the most effective methods down to future generations.  Climbers have only started to do this in any meaningful way during the last generation or so. Granted, we can learn from other fields, and the internet helps spread information quickly, so it won’t take climbers 250 years to get to where musicians are today, but it won’t happen overnight either.  Perhaps Ondra, Alex Megos, and other climbers of their age have the opportunity to put in expert-level practice time, but even then, climbers will have a long way to go to catch up to the focus, practice methodologies, and proficiency of musicians.

The bottom line is, these numbers suggest the sport of climbing is incredibly immature. Climbers have a very long way to go to approach “expertise” as Ericsson describes it. There is surely still tremendous untapped potential for climbing within the human machine.

You might be thinking, “how does it help me to know that in 50 years, my 8-year old great grandson will be warming up on 5.14d before he tries to onsight a 5.16b?” It helps to know that there is some yet-to-be-discovered training method that will (someday) enable 8-year-old kids to onsight 5.16a. If you know it exists, then you might be inspired to look for it. Imagine if you had access to that training method right now.

In other words, some of that ‘untapped potential for climbing within the human machine’ will be realized by forcing our descendants to start practicing seriously at earlier and earlier ages. As an individual athlete, it’s too late for you to benefit from that change in approach. However, much of that untapped potential will be realized by improving practice methods, evolving Mental Representations, increasing dedication/motivation and enhancing focus. These are all things we can leverage right now as individual athletes. Using the key takeaways from Peak, we will discuss how to do that in Lesson 4….

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