by Steve Bechtel
“You can practice shooting eight hours a day, but if your technique is wrong, then all you become is very good at shooting the wrong way.” – Michael Jordan
The term “training” is over-used. People refer to any and everything they do in climbing as training, yet training is a very specific act. It is repeated efforts at improving specific parameters of your fitness. Imagine “training” a dog but just randomly giving it orders with no expectation of behaviors. Organized, progressive, repeated…these are how training must be defined.
Yes, there is training for climbing. It is done in the weightroom, on the hangboard, against the clock. And although bouldering, climbing routes, and even System board work can be considered training, they are really practice. Training is how you get stronger. Practice is how you get better.
The saying “practice makes perfect” is known to all of us, but the truth is that practice makes permanent. Simply doing something a lot doesn’t make you good at that thing. What we really need to do is practice correctly, do it a lot, and then reap the rewards. This is where my 75/25 rule comes back into play: 75% of your “training” time should really be practice time. Don’t go to the gym to get tired, go to get better.
Get Better At Getting Better
“People often arrive at an “OK Plateau”, a point at which they stop improving at something despite the fact that they continue to do it regularly. The secret to improving at a skill is to retain some level of conscious control over it while practicing to force oneself to stay out of autopilot.” – Doug Lemov, Practice Perfect
When you first start climbing everything is practice. You learn new skills and motor patterns so intensely that you improve with each and every session. Over time, you become adept at the frequently-used skills of climbing – they become automatic – and your progress slows. Occasionally, you’ll learn a more subtle skill, get a bit better conditioned, or make other small breakthroughs…but eventually, most of us end up with a fixed skill set and simply move between fitness and non-fitness.
The more experienced we are, the longer we’ve been doing the same things, the more critical practice, and practicing right, becomes. I won’t lie – restarting the practice engine that you developed as a novice is hard to do. It’s a critical step, though. As Jonathan Harnum puts it in The Practice of Practice, “There is no such thing as maintenance. If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.”
There are three basic steps to building successful practice that transcend all disciplines. Once we master these steps, getting better gets easy.
How many times have you seen it – someone at the gym or crag absolutely flailing and somehow convinced they are getting better? Sure, failure is an important part of progress, but too much failure will slow you down. A great way to look at this is the graphic of theZones of Comfort. As explained by Noel Tichy: “We can never make progress in the comfort zone because those are the activities we can already do easily, while the panic zone activities are so hard we don’t even know how to approach them.
The sweet spot is the learning zone, where you might fail occasionally, but most of your attempts are successful. (As a side note, this is what we call “second tier” in redpoint climbing; grades that push you to try very hard, but are achievable in one to three tries.) The vast majority of what you do in your practice and in training should allow you to complete the exercise successfully.
Skills degrade with fatigue. Yes, you can train to a pump, to exhaustion, or to puking, but you’re not going to acquire strength or skill by doing so. If you’re going to practice effectively, you have to be fresh for every effort. With this in mind, you have to choose wisely when it comes time to practice. A strength session with plenty of rests between efforts might be a great time to practice, where an endurance session in which you are accumulating massive fatigue will not be.
Focus your session around building skills first, then around strength, then energy system development tasks such as anaerobic capacity or endurance. If your session doesn’t call for one of these facets, it’s still a good idea to keep the same order.
Keep your Head in the Game
In order to get better, you have to look for errors…not just climb. This is what we call active learning. The better you get, the more you’ll have to pay attention to what needs fixing. In fact, most of your practice should be about exposing errors and weaknesses so that you can correct them. This doesn’t mean just working weaknesses, either. You’ll also want to hone in on fine tuning your strengths.
Structure of a Practice Session
When we go to the gym, most of us follow a set pattern. A typical one is to shoe up, do some easy pitches or problems, slowly increase the intensity until we feel like we’re working, then stay at the same trajectory until fatigue stops the session. Imagine learning math this way, or practicing music, or kicking a soccer ball. Framed in a logical sense, many of our training practices seem ridiculous.You have got to look at movement as a skill, then work the skill. This is how effective technical practice takes place in sports.
In the excellent book Practice Perfect, the authors suggest that a normal practice session often takes this sequence:
- Reflect and discuss
- Possibly do over
A more effective practice session would be structured like this:
- Do over (using the feedback)
- Possibly do it multiple times
The “Do over” step is absolutely critical. Research shows that if you do a skill right once and wrong once it is engrained in your neural circuitry equally. This means that you may or may not have acquired the skill. Repeating the correct skill multiple times is the only way of engraining the correct pattern. Understanding this one concept could be a career-changing move for a rock climber if he’s in the habit of working moves too quickly.
The feedback part of the above list can’t be ignored. This is where egos get roughed-up. Take it from me…it’s hard for a 30-year veteran to take criticism well. The truth can hurt, but making breakthroughs is worth the pain. For effective feedback to take place, you’ll need a coach or qualified training partner to look specifically at the skill you are practicing and provide feedback as it relates to that skill. The feedback should be brief, clear, and actionable within the session. “Try to keep your hips over your feet” is usable feedback, “You need better shoes” is not.
A coach or training partner might be ideal, but you can’t always have your coach on hand. You do, however, always have your phone. Videoing yourself exercising or climbing is embarrassing and may be seen as weird or egotistical, but it’s educational. One step better than straight video is the app Coach’s Eye where you can compare performances side by side. Either way, watching yourself perform can be some of the fastest learning and correction you can do.
Separate Practice from Performance
“One of the challenges I faced during practice was the distraction caused by a player’s natural instinct and desire to score baskets or grab rebounds. Either urge is such a powerful siren song that it’s hard to make them pay attention and learn the ‘dull’ fundamentals that ensure success in scoring and rebounding – such things as pivoting, hand and arm movement, and routes on play.” – John Wooden
You can’t learn and perform at the same time. This can be a problem. When we climb, we usually want to be out sending hard stuff, but bringing your mind back to practice will get you good faster than just going climbing. This is the beauty of both working hard routes and climbing easier things – the former forces you to learn and practice in earnest, while the former gives you an opportunity to solidify your skills. The place you tend not to learn is during redpoints – when you’re sending it’s game on and there’s not a lot of time for reflection and feedback.
Since redpointing is the name of the game, you need to simply separate your foci. When you’re going for it on a climb, go. When you’re not sending, bring your mind into the process of learning. Even on the easiest terrain, there is always something to improve.
Keep It Short at First
Getting back into practice is tough. When bringing a focus on practicing movement back into your training sessions, start with just a few minutes of focus on one simple skill. As the weeks progress, you’ll find yourself able to practice longer and with more success. Eventually, movement practice will find its way into most of your sessions, and, once again, you’ll start creeping up through higher and higher grades…just like the old days.
In the follow-up article to this one, I’ll cover a few practice strategies in-depth and offer more concrete ways to marry practice and performance. In the meantime, you can find more on practice and skill development in these books: