7 Habits of Highly Successful Climbers

The last few years have seen a big focus on training for climbing and a great interest in the specific methods top athletes use to improve their strength and conditioning. Although this has been good overall, I still go back to the belief that strength and endurance should be the last thing you worry about when you want to get better, not the first. There is nothing more frustrating than an athlete that puts up great numbers in an assessment but can’t seem to send on the weekend. We see dozens of climbers each year that put up the very same strength and conditioning numbers as people who climb at the 5.14 level, yet are stuck at 5.11 or 5.12…so what gives?

Successful redpointing takes into account more factors than many of us would like, but it also highlights the fact that it’s not just the strong or the bold or the very light that succeed at the sport. With this in mind, I recently spent a few weeks looking over my consultation notes, athlete surveys, and intake interviews to see what the key separation points might be. I first came up with a list of 20 or so factors associated with performance, then was able to combine a few into some tighter categories, and then edited again to get closer to the root of what I think makes great climbers great.

The obvious next step was to paraphrase someone else’s great title (like every magazine editor loves to do) and build the list.

Great climbers have a set of goals and a plan to execute those goals. If your goal is to just “go out and have fun with friends,” well…don’t expect to send hard routes by accident. Although the greats might also be having fun with friends, their intent is performance and what they did over the last weeks and months has set them up for it.

The framework of setting goals and the preparation for those goals are not as important as having them in the first place. A highly useful step to start with is to look at what inspires you about climbing. Is it a physical challenge? A route aesthetic? A performance goal in competition? Once you have a clear vision of what you want to do, you can easily build the framework to get there.

A useful idea to keep in mind is the setting of habit goals and achievement goals to get you to where you want to be. Although in climbing, most of what we aim for are achievements, habit goals can be anything from taking proper rest days, to being more consistent with sleep, to logging cooldown pitches every single day. By combining both goal types, we have an opportunity for regular progress and success. If we set achievement goals only, we are going to fall short every day until we achieve that goal, which can be demoralizing and tedious.

Goals should cover a few time frames, including goals for the upcoming session, for this month, and for this season. High performers have exciting and motivating long-term goals under which they build the short-term ones. If your short term goals aren’t directly related to your long-term ones, you are probably going to end up off track.

Great climbers typically have a good goal pipeline in place. A goal pipeline in a framework wherein today’s plan leads directly into what needs to happen this month and this month’s plan relates directly to the long-term goal. It’s easy to get derailed today and justify it by planning to get going on the plan tomorrow. To build a successful pipeline, you’ll need to really pare down what you are going to do, and leverage your discipline to get there.

Your vision should drive your behaviors. David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, notes that the real value of a long-term goal is not what happens in the long-term, but what behaviors you change today with that goal in mind. Want to have super strong fingers in 3 years? Start training – even a little bit – right now. Want to lose 20 pounds by this time next year? Start the process of adding more good food to your diet right now. If you wait until the deadline is in the near future, you risk having prepared too little.

Consistency is almost always a “secret weapon” of high performers. Many of us try to shortcut or hack performance or big goals by use of periods of high motivation, by believing in secret workout plans, or by relying on some mystical power of self-belief. The way the human machine works is by small adaptations to regular stimuli. Random, inconsistent stimuli only make us better by chance…and also can ruin a season of climbing.

Rule number one in getting the most out of a training program is to show up and train consistently. If you look at the highest performers in our sport, you’ll recognize a pattern of continually getting out there to the crag or to the gym and climbing. You don’t need to endeavor to train super hard or for extended sessions. Those things come later. All you have to do is make a commitment to showing up, even when you don’t want to. Like Dr. J said, “Being a professional is doing the things you love to do, on the days you don’t feel like doing them.”

It’s hard to keep showing up when you’re tired or performing badly. Years ago, we had the numbers 1-6-3 posted on the bulletin board at the gym. It was a reminder that not every session was going to be groundbreaking, or even fun. It was a take on the observation that out of every ten training sessions, one would feel great and you’d leave the gym super psyched with what you had just done. Six of every ten sessions would feel like punching the clock, not great, but not bad. Finally, three of them would feel downright awful. Although many of us might feel that bailing on those three would be just fine, that we should just come back another day, the climbers that stay and train make better progress in the long term.

Keeping what you have done and what you are planning to do in perspective is a big key to success. In an era where every climber is expected to shine a spotlight on what they did every single moment of every day, the ones who can stay quiet and focused are going to have more energy to give their efforts. Cultivating the ability to listen, the ability to accept you might be wrong, and especially the ability not to over-advertise your goals will lead you to greater success in the long run.

Although we can all think of examples of loud-mouthed and posturing athletes who were very successful, the norm is that the “quiet professional” tends to get more done. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you work harder, train harder, or want it more than others. The key to humility is to take the other out of it completely and to look only at what is going to make you better. Humility is about honesty with yourself, and working toward being better than you are today.

Time and time again, I am surprised to see elite-level athletes that have fundamental questions about their performances, that are willing to concede that they could be climbing better, that are willing to take big risks to get better. It is an understanding of their own limitations and an overarching desire to be better that lets them do this – and this is a huge key to their success.

I don’t try very hard. When I mess up a sequence, when I feel a bit too pumped, or when I grab a hold that feels a bit too tweaky, my default is to back off. Climbing at your limit, whether it be 5.11 or 5.15, is all about bringing your “A” game to limit-level efforts. Sure, you can be more conservative, as I tend to be, and still send now and then. The compromise is that you’ll send less frequently and at a lower level.

I am a huge advocate of watching others climb, either live or in videos. Although you can watch for entertainment only, I think directed study of the videos is a big benefit. Pick out one climber, go to their Instagram videos or YouTube channel, and start studying. Although watching videos is good for learning everything from timing to technique to tactics, all we’ll look for right now is intensity. How focused is the climber before leaving the ground? Where are her eyes as she moves up the wall? What is her breathing like, how are her movements when she approaches the crux?

You’ll find that elite climbers tend to be more focused than the average person at the crag. You’ll find them to be more confident. You’ll see less hesitation. You’ll see them try really hard in the really hard sections, and then really relax in the easier ones. The great news is that you can begin to adopt these habits instantly, and can continue to develop them for a very long time.

Setting Realistic Goals
Goal setting is a big key to successful execution of plans. The slippery part of goal setting, though, is that we sometimes lose ourselves in dreaming rather than reaching for attainable steps. Not to say that dreaming is bad, it’s just wasteful if you don’t build the base below it.

When Todd Skinner set out to free climb the Salathe Wall in the mid 1980s, he failed miserably. He was shocked by how much hard climbing there was, and instead of just throwing himself at the project, he set his sights on getting good at doing lots of hard climbing – away from the Salathe. From 1985, when he first tried the route, to 1988, when he sent the route, he traveled almost non-stop. He climbed all across the US and Europe and sent nearly 200 5.13 routes (at a time when 5.14a was the hardest grade in the world). He climbed everything from hard boulders, to runout slabs, to roof cracks, to gold-standard sport routes of the day, all in an effort to have a real shot at the Salathe.
When the time came to return to the Salathe in the spring of 1988, he had vastly improved, and had converted a dream route into a realistic goal. Inspiration is just the first step. Successful climbers figure out the component parts of realizing those dreams, and build goals based on the parts – this all takes place in the middle ground between inspiration and execution. It seems intuitive, but time and time again we run into climbers who are missing a huge step between where the are today and where they want to be. The “messy middle” is where elite climbers become elite.

Highly successful climbers do a lot of climbing, and they do it in a variety of settings. Many of us live in an area dominated by one rock type or climbing style. Even though we might have an abundance of that type of rock, simply climbing at your home crag can severely limit your development. Making a concentrated effort to get on routes of all angles, lengths, and rock types will fast-forward your progress.

For example, climbers around Moab, Utah, have almost unlimited access to great long, vertical crack climbs on that wonderful Wingate sandstone. However, there is a scarcity of steep climbs, boulders, and other rock types. Moab climbers that want to build breadth to their skills need to travel to hone them. In my home area near Lander, Wyoming, we have close to 2000 sport routes on limestone, but we have almost no crags stacked with good cracks and our bouldering, too, is limited.

Climbers who make an effort to travel, or base themselves in an area with a wide variety of rock types have a distinct advantage, and their climbing styles show it.

The same goes for training. Always hammering in the bouldering cave might make us feel strong and powerful, but it might not apply when we get out the door. Indoor training should really focus on doing the things you’re bad at as much as mastering your strengths. Making sure you climb at several gyms, or on several different setter’s problems, or even touring your local home gyms can make a huge difference.

I have long held that the climbs we feel are “good” or “classic” are often those that suit our preferences. As Dave MacLeod put in 9 Out Of 10 Climbers Make the Same Mistakes, “know your enemy – your tastes.”

Stay Cool
It seems like the athletes that don’t work very hard when it’s time to work will do a really good job with self-care and recovery. It’s not uncommon to see people spend the majority of a “training session” on the foam roller and using the thinnest Therabands to activate/rehab tiny muscle groups. Although these can be great assistance exercises and recovery modes, you actually need to train hard enough occasionally to have something to recover from.

On the other end of the spectrum are those climbers that go hard all the time and never stop to recover. They are limited only by their skin or the weather, and are trying to redpoint 50 weeks per year. The end result is an overall lack of high performance and probably a shorter career than they might have had.

The most successful climbers we see fall somewhere in the middle. They train hard when it’s time to, and they back off and recover when needed. They take not only rest days each week, but occasionally will have several days off. What’s more, many of the best climbers in the world will take several weeks off, in a row, every single year…and they still come back strong.

Success doesn’t come down to simply going harder at your strengths or finding a route that suits you. It comes down to great habits, reflection, and a willingness to struggle. Take a step back and see where you really are, then dive in and start getting good at the hard stuff.


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