When my wife Kristin started going regularly to the climbing gym by her office around eight months ago, she was a beginner in every sense: strength, technique, and confidence. Up until then, when we went bouldering together I’d use the following criteria to help her find a problem to work on: I had to be able to do the problem in my approach shoes or sandals, sans chalk, and without at any point showing signs of exertion.
This past weekend, Kristin nearly finished a powerful V4 in the gym, opting to back off the scary final move rather than risk an out-of-control fall. Around the new year, she climbed a two V3s outside, pushing through the dicey top-outs that would have been non-starters just months previous. I told Kristin how impressed I was with her progress, particularly her technique and footwork, which has developed at least as fast as her strength.
“Well, I’ve been watching you and your friends climb for years,” she said, as if just observing more experienced climbers could account for her progress. At first I dismissed the comment, but maybe there’s something to it.
When a beginner asks how to become a better climber, the most common answer is, “Just get out and climb.” This response seems glib at first, as if denying the value of specific training for climbing. In part it’s an attitude that harkens back to the adventurous roots of climbing, the focus on self-reliance and toughness, nature and soul. It wasn’t so long ago that climbers like Tony Yaniro were berated for training for specific routes or problems; to the old guard it seemed out of keeping with the spirit of things.
But I also think “Just climb” is an acknowledgment of the fact that climbing is a very complex activity, involving a limitless combination of body movements over a surface, from slab to vertical to overhanging. Different rock types and formations create a vast array of features and varying coefficients of friction. Climbers of different shapes, sizes, and strengths all must solve the puzzle of the rock differently. Strength is useful, yes, but there are many more important lessons to learn.
To be able to climb well and smoothly, according to the book Performance Rock Climbing, by Dale Goddard and Udo Neumann, climbers must build a library of “engrams”—scripts for movement etched in the brain through physical practice. “Even when climbing a route for the first time,” Goddard and Neumann write, “a vast library of engrams allows you to recognize the moves that a particular arrangement of holds requires.”
How better to add engrams to your library, then, than to climb as many different types of rock and experience as many different movements as possible? In light of this, “Just get out and climb” doesn’t seem so glib. It might actually be the fastest route to improvement!
Interestingly, studies suggest that physical practice isn’t the only way to learn. Watching activates very similar pathways in the brain as does doing, which is what Kristin must have been picking up on. A 2009 paper by Scott T. Grafton, M.D., showed that the same regions of the brain are activated while performing an action and watching someone else perform it. “When we watch a video of a dancer, motor areas of the brain might activate automatically and unconsciously—even though our bodies are not actually moving—to find familiar patterns that we can use to interpret what we are watching. In other words, some sort of resonance takes place between the circuits for observing and for doing.” The study also showed that experienced dancers’ brains lit up more when watching familiar dances, suggesting that the connection between observation and action strengthens with experience.
Watching and then doing and then watching and then doing—could it be a kind of feedback loop that allows for a more rapid development of body awareness, of mental and physical connections between the way a movement feels and looks, and the results it yields on the rock? In a video recording his climbs at the 2014 Hueco Rock Rodeo, Sean McColl explained that he selected certain problems because he had access to footage of himself sending them in the past. Being able to watch himself climb a problem successfully likely helped Sean refamiliarize himself with the movements faster, reactivating brain pathways that had lain dormant without requiring him to actually get on the problem.
What I take from all this is that climbing with climbers better than yourself is one way to improve, and not just because their sick skillz inspire you to try harder. Plus, now you don’t have to feel guilty about spending so much time watching climbing videos—you might actually be upping your game in the process.