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Three Steps to [Climbing] Heaven

By johnkettle, Apr 30 2015 03:00AM

Improving your climbing performance is as simple as 1,2,3.

Regardless of whether your goals is to climb grade 9g, flow effortlessly up the rock or simply enjoy Thursday night at the wall without simultaneously battling irrational fears, there are three fundamental things you must do in order to achieve those improvements and make your hopes a reality:


Step 1: Become AWARE of what you currently do

In order to change your wicked ways, first you must become aware of what you are currently doing. This process can be really tough on your ego, but being honest with yourself is key doing this successfully. Phrases like “that’s my style” are classic tactics for protecting the fragile ego from confronting faults - re-brand them as golden opportunities to improve, and seek them ruthlessly! There are three areas of knowledge to explore:

• Climbing attributes you know about - ‘Knowns’

• Climbing attributes you know you don’t know about – ‘Known Unknowns’

• Climbing attributes you don’t know you don’t know about! ‘Unknown Unknowns’

By climbing attributes I mean your physical, mental, tactical and technical skills, your habits on a micro scale (during a typical session) and macro scale (over a typical year).

Evidently conducting a self-assessment will only help with the first two of these bullet points. Ask for honest and critical feedback from trusted climbing peers, read all the great books, video yourself climbing, hire an expert coach ;-) to discover the elusive ‘unknown unknowns’. Document them, score yourself for each attribute if it helps.


Step 2: DECIDE what you would like to do instead

The easiest step: Having rooted out all the sub-optimal areas of your climbing performance, whether they are unhelpful thought patterns, erratic motivation levels, dodgy footwork or inappropriate pacing, you must now decide exactly what you would like to replace these unhelpful habits with. The next move on the climb to enlightenment is writing down exactly how you would like to behave/perform in each one of the circumstances where you struggle at the moment. Some examples:

Current behaviour: When I get to 4 out of 5 for pump, I over-grip and focus exclusively on reaching the next protection.

Goal behaviour: When I reach 4/5 pump, I remain relaxed with a wide focus including good footwork and body positions.

Current Behaviour: I find myself holding my breath and tensing up during cruxes

Goal Behaviour: I breathe deeply, relaxing my shoulders, hands and calves during cruxes


Step 3: BUILD and implement a pathway from performing Step 1 to performing Step 2

The third and final phase (you’ve nearly done it!) is the longest and most rewarding phase. Savour it and you will find yourself on the happy travellator of lifelong learning. Some folks write a training plan for this stage, and if your greatest limitations are physical then that may be appropriate. I prefer to call it a playing plan, as playing is more fun to me than training, it’s why I climb. Structuring your play to make it more effective is the key here. If you don’t know how to implement your progression then once again, seek outside knowledge from peers, books or a good coach. Vetting the knowledge to ensure it is more than ‘pub science’ or internet anecdote is key to avoiding frustration at this stage.

You’ll be working/playing hard to undo existing habits and override them with better, more attractive new ones. This process can be done really efficiently with some knowledge on skill acquisition, types of practice and some basic psychology. Hunt them down.

That’s all there is to it! When you find yourself plateauing or struggling to achieve a goal, return to step 1 and repeat in a rising spiral of wondrous personal growth. Once personal improvement and ‘the climbing process’ becomes the focus (rather than just results) it can be deeply rewarding, and climbing better and harder just happens to be a pleasant by-product. Happy Climbing!


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john kettle

climbing coach and guide