by Steve Bechtel

The first article on practice covered the general idea that you should consider your climbing practice, and some general ideas on what that meant. In this follow up, I’ll answer questions that the first article raised, and give some specifics on how to re-structure your training sessions to include a focus on practice.

It’s important to look at climbing as an amalgamation of discrete skills that, when combined with strength and conditioning, lead to good climbing. If our overall goal is to climb well, we can break “well” down into specific pieces – skills – that we can develop to improve our overall ability. There are many ideas on how complex or “big” a skill should be in order to effectively develop it. The simple truth is that you should continue to break it down into smaller and smaller parts until you can see noticeable improvements over a fixed period of time.

A good place to start is to dedicate two weeks to developing one or two skills. These skills need to be addressed every climbing day. Give yourself two weeks, and if the skill hasn’t improved, simplify it.Remember that a beginner has the most to gain from practice. Luckily, the practice comes naturally, and there is no “autopilot” to fall back on. Everything he does is practice. More experienced climbers, let’s call them intermediates, will see more progress from improving physical capacity than skills once they reach a passable level. Yet once a climber reaches close to his genetic potential for strength or endurance, skills once again become the most important factor in improvement.

Structuring a Practice Session

When you’re practicing a skill, it’s critical to have your mind in the game. Therefore, we practice skills early in the session, when our minds and bodies are freshest. I like to keep the “Five S Formula” in mind when putting together a practice:

  • Simple – The skill needs to be something you understand and can easily implement in your sessions. You shouldn’t need specialized tools or set-ups…otherwise you risk not doing the practice.
  • Segmental – You should have a large-scale framework for improving an ability that you can progress through as you master smaller skills along the way.
  • Sequential – Introduce more advanced skills at the right time and in the right order.
  • Strategic – Address the biggest things that are preventing your overall progress. A training partner or coach will be helpful in deciding what this is.
  • Supported – You will be more successful in practice if you have a training partner or coach to help you work through the process.

Development of discrete skills in climbing has been explored from time to time in articles and in training books. The important thing is to realize that the skill in climbing is complex and that learning complex skills requires simplifying the skill into learnable chunks. Let’s use the example of  turning the hips on steep rock. When you first address overhanging rock as a novice, this type of movement seems strange and counterintuitive. Over time, we realize that this is a fundamental skill used in the majority of moves you’ll make on overhangs. To address this skill, you might go through a process like this:

  1. Practice turning the hips on vertical terrain or on a system wall.
  2. Set up a pair of footholds to practice backstepping with a reach move for the hands.
  3. Using good holds on a 45 degree wall, alternate between driving left side and right side of the hips toward the wall.
  4. Climb out an overhanging wall on big holds, trying to drop knee on each move.
  5. Do the same  drill as above, but make the accentuated effort of driving the hips to the wall on each move.

Daniel Coyle wrote the fantastic book The Talent Code, which explores talent hotbeds worldwide and attempts to break down why, exactly, certain schools or cities, or coaches turn out an inordinate number of talented individuals. He then followed this book with The Little Book of Talent, which highlights actual skill-building tactics he observed in his research for the Talent Code. There are a number of gems in this book, and a few of the insights he had are extra-useful for developing climbing skill. Here are some:

STARE AT WHO YOU WANT TO BECOME

I’ve talked about the value of spending  loads of time watching climbing videos before. Yes, they are entertaining, but watching (carefully and attentively) high-level climbers can be a way of imagining your future self, which is a critical mental aspect to high performance. Spending 10-20 minutes a day watching videos of hard climbing, before practice or before bed, can have a profound effect on the quality of your practice.

BE WILLING TO BE STUPID

Coyle wrote about how Wayne Gretzky would fall down when doing solo skating drills for hockey. Was it because he sucked? No, it was because he was pushing his limits continually. It’s easy to let your ego come in when you’re climbing. I remember climbing around a top-level female years ago who flat refused to get on any 5.12s – even though it was clearly the grade range she should have been climbing. She would warm-up and then spend the whole day working this or that 5.13…because it was OK to fail on the higher grade. The problem was that she would have probably seen better improvement on 5.12, which would have been her learning zone. The opposite strategy is equally problematic – always climbing on routes you are comfortable with, or are in a range where you’re sure you won’t fail. The great learner is going to spend a lot of time flailing on rock types, moves, and holds where he’s weak – “looking stupid” – until he masters those skills.

DON’T FALL FOR THE PRODIGY MYTH

My friend BJ Tilden is a better climber than I am. He has a ton of natural talent…or does he? I’ve climbed with him for over twenty years, and for the first one or two, I was the better climber. Looking at it objectively, I can see that he climbs more than I do, has consistently tried harder things, believed in his ability to do those things, and when the chips are down, he gives it all where I usually say “take.” Which of those are God-given talents? None. Which ones can be learned and trained? All of them. We all like to think of ourselves as being a hard worker who gets by with little talent. This is simply ego-padding. Understanding that the best climber might just try harder than we do is a critical step in letting ourselves get better, too.

EACH DAY, TRY TO BUILD ONE PERFECT CHUNK

Coyle talks about building an “SAP” with each practice – a smallest achievable perfection. To do this, you’ve got to break your skill down to small chunks, and work on one thing only until you see a noticeable improvement. A drill such as a foot placement accuracy drill or slot deadpointing are good examples: you know what it takes to do the skill correctly, and you can detect small changes in your performance. It might seem silly to focus on such tiny changes, but that’s the way all of our skills are built, anyway. All you’re doing by focusing is deciding which skills your body picks up most quickly.

SLOW IT DOWN (EVEN SLOWER THAN YOU THINK)

Speed, in learning new skills, leads to sloppiness. You’ve seen the teenage boys during their first days at the rock gym – all power, no technique. Super-slow movement lets us avoid errors by giving us time to ingrain good patterns and feel bad ones. Working on moving slowly through steep terrain assures excellent positioning, where relying on dynamic movement might prevent it. Slow footwork teaches precision, fast footwork should be reserved for speed climbing. Try the speed-slow drills outlined in Gimme Kraft: do a problem at normal speed, then do it as fast as you can, then do it as slow as possible. What did you learn?

In many ways, your mindset in developing skills needs to be the opposite of what it is when training strength. You need calm, not psych. You need to absorb rather than produce. You need to look for microscopic improvements instead of jumps in performance. I am not arguing that you need to abandon training, but rather that you need to accept that physical conditioning will only get you so far. To excel completely in climbing, regular, deliberate, and utterly boring practice is fundamental.

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