How to Become an Expert Climber in Five Simple Lessons (Lesson 4)

Lesson 4: Proper Practice for Climbers Part 1

By Mark Anderson

Now that we understand that we all possess tremendous untapped climbing potential, just waiting to be exploited, how can climbers specifically go about unlocking that potential? Ericsson’s work in Peak not only provides tremendous inspiration, but also general frameworks for improvement that can be applied to nearly any endeavor. The Purposeful Practice (PP) and Deliberate Practice (DP) constructs, described in Lesson 1 of this series, are the most obvious:

Deliberate Practice (DP):

  • Is Purposeful Practice:
    • Has well-defined, specific goals
    • Is focused
    • Involves feedback
    • Occurs outside one’s comfort zone, (to the extent that it is generally not fun)
  • And…
    • Exists in a highly advanced field, following known, effective training methods
    • Produces and depends on effective Mental Representations
    • Depends on advancement of fundamental skills

Ask yourself, how many of these boxes do you check in your preparation for climbing? It’s likely we can all improve our practice rigor in just about every area described above. Let’s consider each one individually, and how we can improve:

  1. Effective Training Methods: If you’ve made it all the way to Lesson 4 of this series, I’m assuming you are at least aware of the Rock Climber’s Training Manual, and you are following some sort of structured, well-conceived, effective training method. If not, do that first! Note, Ericsson’s idea of an “effective training method” is one with proven success in developing expert level practitioners in the given field. I argued previously that there may be no expert climbers, and by Ericsson’s standard, climbing may not be “a highly advanced field,” but we can still follow the examples of prior top performers. For example, we all know that Gullich, Moffatt and Moon set new standards by diligent use of the Campus Board. So we can assume that is an “effective training method” (at least until something better is discovered to supplant it).
  2. Specific Goals: This is an area in which I believe climbers do very well, both on a macro scale (i.e. training for a specific goal route), and a micro level (going into a particular training session with a specific objective in mind, such as “to improve Power Endurance”). Again, this assumes you are following a structured training program.
  3. Is Focused: Here, climbers fail on multiple levels. Ericsson tells the tale of swimmer Natalie Coughlin who took her performance to the expert level (ultimately winning 12 Olympic Medals) by simply focusing on her stroke rather than “zoning out” during her endless lap swimming. Top musicians, chess grand masters, and other experts do much of their training in complete isolation, where they can focus completely on the task at hand. Few climbers do this ever (even when we do, we often inject external distractions like phones and music). More often than not, we train in a social environment immersed with distractions. Step one is to turn off your phone during training sessions. I think music is ok if it serves a “white noise” purpose (helping to drown out other potential distractions rather than interfering with your focus). The worst thing we do is talking while climbing. You absolutely cannot climb at your best while carrying on a conversation, yet climbers attempt this frequently. Stop! When you are working a route, or attempting an on sight, you must be completely locked into that task. That said, when hanging on the rope during a beta-sussing session, it can be beneficial to discuss your approach with your partner (or other equally engaged observers), but any conversation should be directly relevant to your efforts on the route…
  4. Involves Feedback: …Which leads us into Feedback. Climbers very rarely receive actionable feedback. If we are highly attuned to our performance, we may notice we did something wrong (but then we don’t stop to fix it anyway). Ideally, your climbing would be observed by a skilled coach who could identify errors and provide other feedback when appropriate. Few of us have that option, but nearly all of us climb with partners who can perform that role. As discussed in the RCTM, I believe as a community we need to expand climbing partnerships to encompass more than the bare minimum task of keeping your partner from decking. Your partner should serve as your on-site coach, and you should return the favor. He or she is in the best position to evaluate your focus, effort, and execution. Encourage your partner by asking for feedback. Be specific in your questions: how was my footwork on the slab? Did I look relaxed or frantic? Was I trying my best to latch the dyno? Were my hips tight to the rock or did they pop out like I was bracing to fall? Set a good example by offering feedback, in a kind and constructive manner.
  5. Outside Comfort Zone: Ericsson says “the hallmark of DP” is trying to do something that you cannot do, and practicing it over and over, focusing on how you are doing, where you are falling short, and how you can get better. Here again, many climbers excel. Likely due to the readily quantifiable nature of the sport, performance-oriented climbers are constantly trying routes they cannot do and practicing them over and over in order to send the next grade (at least during the redpoint process). That said, there are exceptions, most often on either end of the experience spectrum. The first are less experienced climbers who haven’t learned how to try hard on a rope yet. If you are one of these, observe more experienced climbers and follow their example. The other end of the spectrum are highly experienced climbers. These climbers (myself included), have the potential to fall into a rut, where they are doing the same activities (and sometimes even the same routes) over and over again, just going through the motions without truly pushing boundaries. If you find yourself doing the same warmup routes over and over again, or falling in the same place on the same project over and over again, it might be helpful to mix things up and face some new challenges. Finally, Ericsson notes truly effect practice is generally not fun, and if it is fun, you aren’t improving as much as you could be. This applies to some climbing activities and some climbers (most would argue hangboarding, Linked Bouldering Circuits, etc are not strictly “fun”). I will stop short of advocating that you suck whatever fun remains out of your climbing, but if you really want to be the best, consider that the best in other fields have done exactly that.
  6. Mental Representations: We didn’t really address Mental Representations in the first lesson, but Ericsson believes they are the key to expertise. These are “mental structure[s] that correspond to an object, idea, collection of information, or anything else, concrete or abstract, that the brain is thinking about.” For example, if I list: Labrador, Poodle, Golden Retriever, your brain automatically classifies these items as dogs. You don’t need me to tell you they are dogs, nor do you need to consciously decide they are dogs—it’s subconscious. That’s a mental representation about animals. Peak actually uses a climbing-specific example, noting that experienced climbers automatically group holds by type (crimp vs pocket vs pinch, etc)—a very basic mental representation for climbing. Greater quality and quantity of mental representations enables quicker and more accurate decision making. With respect to climbing, this may be most applicable to sussing beta on our goal routes, either on sight or when preparing for a redpoint. The more we are exposed to different successful sequences, the easier it will be to identify such sequences in the future. Consider that chess experts spend most of their practice time studying the game play of previous masters, trying to predict the best move for a particular situation, and then comparing their solution to that of the master (instant feedback!) Climbers never do this, but we could. We could look at a route that is unknown to us, but has one or more known “solutions.” We could try to predict the correct sequence, and then compare our solution to the beta used by expert climbers. Doing this once or twice will not make a difference but doing it hundreds or thousands of times could vastly improve one’s route-reading ability. One thing we know doesn’t work—bumming the beta from someone else without really trying to figure it out for yourself. Yet this is the most common method of acquiring beta on a difficult project. If I had a strong passion for on sight climbing, I would do what I described above. Instead I have a strong passion for redpointing, so I have spent the past 20 years figuring out beta the hard way–by myself–on a wide variety of routes. By doing so I’ve developed highly advanced mental representations for unlocking beta, and this has allowed me to snag first ascents of many routes that much stronger climbers couldn’t “figure out.” (Such as: Siberian ExpressSlice of TimeBerettaFlight of the PhoenixCharlie Don’t SurfDouble StoutCaptain America,  Where Paradise Ain’t So Crowded, Prowler, Corner Pocket Harlot,)
  7. Fundamental Skills: Ericsson uses this element to highlight the importance of a good coach or teacher. In fields like music, students must learn certain fundamental skills correctly, so that they can build on those skills in future, more difficult lessons. A weak fundamental base will handicap the student until those fundamental skills are corrected. Climbing is no different and we’ve all seen strong climbers who never learned proper footwork and so on. Ideally we would have coaches who could identify any fundamental weaknesses in our climbing. An alternative is to honestly evaluate your own climbing to identify such weaknesses. This is actually pretty easy in climbing—all you need to do is climb on a wide variety of routes (in terms of style, steepness, length and hold type). Compare your performance across these styles. Where your performance suffers, you have found a weakness that needs work.

That concludes our analysis of the Deliberate Practice model. However, there is a lot more to gain from Peak than simply the practical application of Deliberate Practice. We will explore those nuggets in the final lesson….

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