I think one of the reasons climbing is becoming so popular is because of how much sitting and resting we do. Spin class? Hell no. Running? Opposite of sitting. Surfing? Sitting waiting for a shark to eat you while you get sun burnt, maybe. In contrast, we climbers do an awful lot of sitting around. Watch this Nina Williams video of her working the Automator Boulder (V13) in Colorado. She takes 20-30 minute rests between attempts. When working on routes outdoors, most people take substantial rests between burns on their project. I bring an REI camp chair to the crag for God’s sake. Sitting around is an integral part of the sport.
So what if I told you, that whether you were on the wall or sitting on your ass, you could get better at climbing? Ever heard the phrase “watch and learn”? Its time to start doing it.
All that time we spend hanging around between burns, we could be watching and learning. But how does this work? And why?
Studies on motor learning have shown that motor skill acquisition can be aided and improved by observation of the skill.
From demonstrations, individuals have learned explicit strategies that they can employ when physical performance is required. It has also been suggested that observational practice techniques might also work to aid motor skill acquisition through a more motor-based matching process.Watch and Learn: Seeing Is Better than Doing when Acquiring Consecutive Motor Tasks
In one study aimed to analyze the effects of viewing demonstrations before or during practice of a new motor skill. There were three groups. The first group, termed “pre-practice” viewed 10 demonstrational videos before engaging in practice. The second group was halted in their practice every three attempts to ingest the ten demonstrational videos throughout the session. The third group, a combination of the two schedules, received five videos pre-practice, and the other five were dispersed throughout the session.
The groups were tested on form and accuracy while practicing, immediately after practice was completed and 48 hours later. The combination group had the highest retention, followed by the all pre-practice group, and finally the interspersed group.
These findings suggest that several modeling exposures before practice and several more exposures in the early stages of practice were optimal for acquisition and retention of form.The interaction of observational learning with overt practice: effects on motor skill learning
All of this to say that there is proof that observation can aid in the learning process. We might as well use all that sitting time to our advantage.
Time is Money
Honing the skill of learning while off the wall is an amazing tool for weekend warriors. We only have so much time to train and climb, so we should squeeze ever ounce of improvement we can out of it.
Here is an excerpt from 9 out of 10 Climbers Make the Same Mistakes – read carefully. It’s important.
Those who spend that resting time with the mind wandering elsewhere…. learn to climb slowly and stop learning altogether
Those who replay the movements of the climb just done, recording which moves felt good or bad and looking back at the holds trying to understand why, and then plan their next attempt to try the movement a subtly different way, progress fast… These climbers are storing up move processing time at a much higher rate than the ‘passive’ climbers.9 out of 10 Climbers Make the Same Mistakes by Dave Macleod
Be the climber who pays attention. Let’s examine how this would look in a few settings.
In the Gym
You hop down off a boulder problem, take a seat and look up at the wall. A stronger climber is working something hard. You pay attention to what they are doing, you try to work out where their hand will go next, you notice when they have tension and when they release it. You have no intentions of trying that boulder today, but instead of looking at your phone, you watched something good and you learned instead.
After they are done climbing, you still have a minute or so before you will be fresh to try your boulder again. You look at the holds on your boulder, remembering why you fell the last time. You envision yourself doing the whole thing, trying to imagine new beta, or a slight adjustment to your body position that might make that move possible. You think about how you can do it better next time – did you have to readjust a hand during the sequence? Can you try to hit it right the first time, instead? Would twisting your hip in more help you reach the next hold? You take mental notes of what you can do better and implement these in your next attempt.
See? Wasn’t that a better use of your time than looking at memes? Instead of zoning out, you continued to engage in activities to improve your technique. You might even do your boulder faster than you would have if you spent your rest scrolling on Instagram.
We can apply this mindfulness to outdoor sport climbing as well.
While Sport Climbing
You show up to the crag and unfortunately, someone is roping up below the route you wanted. They are going to climb it and clean the route so you decide to wait around for it since you are next in line.
Instead of diving head first into getting your rope out and gearing up, you take the time to watch the climber. You have heard that the crux is near the middle so you start to watch. You take stock of the climber’s pace. It looks like it gets pretty pumpy at the top, but the beginning looks vertical with good holds. You see that the climber is moving quickly through the bottom and all of the holds are good options. The climber plunks through the moderate beginning up until the crux. You see the gears shift and you notice that the climber has found a comfortable rest position before moving into the crux. You mentally tic the holds and feet she uses moving through it. You note the body positions she hits as she makes her way through the hard moves. Now, you have a vision of one way to do the crux. She then moves to the pumpy section, continuing to move quickly again. She is well on her way to the anchors and you begin getting out your gear.
Good thing you watched instead of going straight to racking up your draws. It might take you less time to send this now, since you absorbed some knowledge ahead of time. Shit, you might even flash it.
Thoughts on Onsighting
Obviously, if your aim is to practice onsighting, you cannot spend your entire life as a beta pirate as described in the scenarios above. However, seeing beta and replicating it is a useful skill, so it is worth practicing. Additionally, you can learn by watching people climb, even if you do not intend to climb what they are climbing.
Bringing it Together
There are many situations in which taking a step back and keenly observing the climbers around you can help you to learn. Even if the climber is less skilled – sometimes I watch people and ask myself what I think they could do better to improve upon what they just did. I keep this to myself, of course, but it is an exercise I like to do from time to time.
Most of us have a limited amount of time to climb. Between the volume that our bodies can handle and the constraints of everyday life, the time we get on the wall is finite.
So I urge you to start paying attention. The time spent sitting on your ass is more useful than you think.
How do you spend your time between burns at the gym? Do you have plans to change your behavior in the future? Drop a comment and let me know what you think!