How to Become an Expert Climber in Five Simple Lessons (Lesson 5)

By Mark Anderson

Lesson 5: Proper Practice for Climbers Part 2

If you’ve made it this far, pat yourself on the back! Few have the perseverance to suffer through my pedantic rambling for even one post, let alone 4!  If this is your first lesson you can find Lesson 1 here.

In Lesson 4, we analyzed the Deliberate Practice (DP) model and discussed how best to apply it to rock climbing. In many ways, climbers are way ahead of other fields when it comes to applying Ericsson’s DP model. For instance, most redpoint climbers have learned from example, or trial and error, to apply most of the tenets of DP.

Furthermore, Ericsson states that many fulltime athletes and coaches “have never taken the time to identify those aspects of performance that they would like to improve and then design training methods aimed specifically at those things.” (p.248) He also states that the method of identifying weaknesses and working to improve them “is not widely recognized, even among experienced teachers.” (p.165).

Although I’m skeptical that these practices are as rare as Ericsson claims, he points out, correctly IMO, that a great many athletes, even professional ones, practice in a group environment, in which all athletes perform the same drills, etc, regardless of whether those areas need improvement. It seems that even beginner climbers generally understand the concept of strengths and weaknesses, and for pragmatic reasons, the vast majority of us plan our training individually, targeted at our own specific weaknesses and goals. So in a lot of ways the training methods climbers use are relatively sophisticated, especially for such an “immature” sport.

That said, I would argue that almost no climbers truly adhere to the Deliberate Practice model except a handful of kids on the very best-led competition climbing teams (with the defining factor being access to regular, high quality, on-site coaching).  It’s worth noting that generally, those kids who are exposed to DP-like training get really good really quick. We tend to attribute their rapid improvement to their youth. Surely youth is an important factor, but perhaps the fact that they are actually honing their craft the way other experts do is an important factor too.

So what else can we do to optimize our approach to climbing? Below are a few other areas, in addition to following the DP model, where climbers can benefit (for excruciating details on how to apply DP, see Lesson 4):

  • If You Don’t Have A Coach, Get A Good Book: We just noted the apparent impact of good coaching on youth climbers. Unfortunately that won’t solve the problem for those of us who have minimal access to effective, on site coaching. However, Ericsson states it is possible to overcome the lack of coaching if the practitioner has sufficient knowledge of expert training methods. For example, climbers could overcome the lack of coaching by reading and following the guidance of a high quality instructional manual (such as the RCTM).
  • Perform Less, Practice More: As mentioned earlier, Ericsson believes that “Performance” should be distinguished from “Practice,” and generally speaking, practice is what makes you better (he goes so far as to say that performance “doesn’t count”). This is because during performance, the goal is not improvement, but survival. During performance we don’t use the feedback loop to stop and correct mistakes. Climbers compound this problem because, as Dave MacLeod says in his masterpiece “9 Out of 10 Climbers”, we are performing all the time (or at least we behave as though we are). We are always trying to send, even during warmups, even on plastic, even during drills (to the extent that any climbers perform drills), and especially when anyone else is watching. This may be a big mistake. The counterpoint is that ‘always striving to send’ teaches us to try hard and battle against adversity. Those are beneficial skills. However, when we battle through to the end we miss many opportunities along the way to stop and correct mistakes. It would be better to set aside times when it is ok to stop and correct mistakes—when that is in fact the objective, rather than sending—and set aside other times (ie, important “performances”) when the goal is simply to send.
  • Don’t Practice Failure: (This isn’t a lesson from Peak, but it fits here and it’s worth reiterating).  Imagine a typical climber working a difficult project. They start from the ground, climb until they fall, and then practice the move that spit them off, failing 2 or 3 more times on that move until they finally stick it, at which point they continue to the top and call it good. From the brain’s perspective, the climber just practiced how NOT to do the move 3 or 4 times, and how to do it correctly 1 time. Which movement pattern will be remembered and which will be discarded by the climber’s confused brain? When you fail at a move you are practicing failing. During the golden age of my sport climbing career, when near-limit sends came fast and furious, I used a 3-to-1 rule of thumb for working hard moves: for each time I failed on the move, I tried to do it successfully at least 3 times. There is nothing magical about that particular ratio, but the point is, any move you are trying to master should be executed correctly more often than incorrectly, ideally far more often. As the holds on my projects have gotten smaller and sharper, it’s been increasingly difficult to maintain this tactic, and I’m sure my projects have taken longer to complete as a result.
  • Avoiding & Breaking Plateaus: Ericsson’s observations indicate that people stop improving in a given field only when they stop trying to improve. Some give up on improvement because the practitioner runs into a stubborn performance plateau (which are common to every skill-based activity). Perhaps they can’t muster the motivation to break through the plateau, or perhaps they mistake the plateau for the limit to their “potential” (as noted previously, Ericsson is now convinced there is no such thing as “potential;” our potential is what we make it (p162)). If you desire continuous improvement, you must be prepared to encounter and overcome performance plateaus. Based on his observations, Ericsson suggests the best way to break through plateaus is to try one or more different training methods until a more effective method is found. He notes advanced athletes pre-empt these plateaus by regularly switching between training methods (this strategy is the basis of the periodization used by the Rock Prodigy method, described in the RCTM).
  • Online Message Boards Have Value:At its core, deliberate practice is a lonely pursuit,“ Ericsson says (page 176). My hangboard room has a similar quote from NFL Quarterback Drew Brees: “Trying to be great can be lonely sometimes.” Certainly, trying to become an expert climber is a lonely endeavor (compared to recreational climbing). Although surely unpleasant, loneliness is not a problem in itself, but lack of motivation can be a huge problem. Ericsson notes a common reason people stop improving is that they lose motivation. A sense of isolation from the larger community can undermine motivation. A great way to build and maintain motivation, Ericsson says, is to join a group of like-minded folks that can provide camaraderie and encouragement. The key is to find a group with similar goals and similar levels of commitment. Given the small number of serious climbers, your best bet may be a virtual community. Obviously many IMBs are rife with negativity and apathy—these should be avoided. If you’re looking for a community of climbers who are stoked to improve, always positive, and bursting with effective training strategies, check out the Rock Prodigy Forum.
  • Practice Trumps Talent: In chapter 8, Ericsson discusses research on IQ among experts at strategy games (such as Chess). The surprising conclusion was that among a group of elite youth chess players, high IQ actually seemed to be a slight disadvantage. The reason was that the lower IQ players tended to practice more—from an early age chess required more effort for these players, and so they learned to put in that effort, whereas the higher IQ players could succeed with relatively little effort, and so their practice habits were not as well developed. This is a common story in athletics—the small guy/gal who learns to outwork everyone to compensate for his/her lack of “talent.” So ya, there are climbers out there with more “talent,” but do they work as hard as you? Do they work as smart as you? You can decide the answers to those questions.
  • Expert Preparation is Intrinsically Valuable: Ericsson’s final point, one which I agree with wholeheartedly, is that the lessons learned from attempting to develop expertise in any field, however trivial, apply broadly to the rest of one’s life. That is, even if the physical act of climbing an inanimate rock wall is itself totally frivolous, there is still tremendous merit in developing expertise in climbing. That is because the knowledge & experience gained in your endeavor to become an expert can be applied in other aspects of your life that may have more value. I have experienced this many times in my own life. The lessons I learned wrestling in high school helped me become a better runner in college. The lessons I learned running helped me become a better climber. The lessons I learned as a performance-oriented climber make me a better employee, a better spouse and a better father. Those last two things in particular have far more value than anything I can ever do as a climber, and it makes those ~5,000 hours of climbing practice incredibly valuable.
  • Read Peak: My final point is simple: get a copy of Peak and read it! It’s one of the best improvement manuals I’ve read in years. If you heed its lessons it will make you better in climbing and in life!

One thought on “How to Become an Expert Climber in Five Simple Lessons (Lesson 5)

  1. Mark, great synthesis of a great book. I appreciate the effort you’ve taken to explore how important deliberate practice is to climbers. And despite all we know, how difficult it is to implement effectively! Maybe when the world opens back up we can talk about it more!


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