by Steve Bechtel

This site is filled with our best training ideas and advice. There are dozens of books on systems for improving your climbing. You could watch quality training videos online for a whole day and get ten lifetimes worth of good advice. So why do so few climbers reach their goals each year? Why do so few people follow through to the end of a training program? It’s because change, whether we want it badly or not, is hard.

My job is that of a strength coach and personal trainer. Every day, I work closely with people who are trying to change the way their body looks or feels or performs. I have had this job for a long time, and I’ll admit right now that client compliance sucks. Sure, you have one or two athletes that have great success, but for every success there are another dozen that just don’t make it.

A couple of years ago, I had the great fortune of watching a presentation from Dr. John Berardi of Precision Nutrition. It was aimed at personal trainers and coaches and he talked extensively about how to increase compliance with clients. The bigger message, though, was how to make a change that will stick. The ideas that follow come from Berardi’s lecture.

Whether a thing is good for a person or not, it’s hard for that person to change. Berardi cited a fascinating study that showed patients with serious diseases such as cancer, heart disease or diabetes only showed a 55% compliance rate when it can to taking life saving medications. What!? Taking pills is EASY. If you don’t take them you’ll DIE! And compliance sucked…imagine how bad compliance is when it comes to something optional like training for climbing.

So what is holding us back? The big culprit is habit – we only have so much willpower; beyond that, we depend on habits to keep us in line. Our good habits are pretty easy to keep up (such as brushing teeth or drinking water), but when it comes time to add more good habits, such as intense training sessions, we rely more on our finite power of will. And this leads to failure.

So how do we build good, permanent changes into our climbing? It’s a two-part process:

1. Make the change small. What’s small? It should be something you are sure you can do all the time. It should be clear, measurable, and it should happen daily (or at least every other day). For example, you might want to stretch your hips and legs five minutes every morning. “Getting some stretching in” is too nebulous to make an effective habit. If your habit involves something along the lines of finger strength, you should look to allow for recovery, i.e. every day is a bad idea. In such a case, I’d recommend a training effort every other day and a recovery/flexibility effort on alternate days.

Even if your change is very small, achieving it helps create a history of success. This history is key to most of us; we generally fail 9 out of 10 times we try to take on something new. Once you start succeeding, you start believing you can succeed, and so you do. The numbers vary, but you can expect it to take around a month for a good solid habit to take root.

2. Use both “sides” of your brain. Simplistically, you can look at your brain having an emotional / sensitive side and a logical / analytical side. Your logical side knows it’s time to train, but your emotional side had a hard day and could use a beer. Who wins? In several books, this conflict is compared to a rider and an elephant; the rider being the logical side, the elephant being the emotions. The elephant is easily spooked by big changes and grandiose plans, so try to keep the changes manageable.

It is also important to “shape the path” for the elephant. Remember why the end result is important to you and build support for that goal among your family and friends. (This is a little touchy feely for me, but…) The more emotionally supported you feel in your goals, the more easily you can stay on track. Also, make good use of action triggers.

Action triggers are solid habits on which you can “caboose” your new one. A common one might be flossing right after you brush your teeth. In training, it might be to do 10 minutes of ARC-style climbing before every bouldering session. Research shows that an action trigger habit is about five times as likely to stick as one planned on its own.

This kind of advice might seem a little “lightweight” for someone who is into training for climbing, but you’d be surprised how many people I see that end up falling into the same old patterns year after year, with predictable results. If you want to change your performance, you’re going to have to change your behavior. If you’re going to change your behavior, chances are it will be one small step at a time.

If you’re really interested in habit change, you might want to check out some of these books on the subject:

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (Collins Business Essentials)

The Power of Less: The Fine Art of Limiting Yourself to the Essential…in Business and in Life

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