What do you go to the climbing wall for?

Muscle memory and how we learn, and how to use this to train smarter.
(by Sé O’Hanlon, January 2014)

The value of practice
Quality is more important than quality
Stress kills learning
What this means for climbers
Training is not training if it is not progressive
Have a project
Working the project
Placing protection

Neuromuscular facilitation is sometimes loosely called muscle memory. This term is a bit misleading and leads some people to believe that there are memory units in our muscles that learn how to do things. Not so; muscle memory is not a memory stored in your muscles but rather memories stored in your brain that are like a cache of fast, efficient communication paths to the muscles that need to be used.

It is a form of procedural memory that can help you become very good at something through repetition, but in exactly the same way it can make you absolutely terrible at that same thing. Maybe it could usefully be called movement skill.

The value of practice

If you practice a skill over and over again, the idea is that you’ll continue to improve. “Practice makes perfect” can be an accurate phrase because the more you do something, the more you build up that procedural memory and your brain can quickly instruct your muscles to carry it out.

Unfortunately the process does not judge whether you’re doing good or bad and so if you practice doing something poorly for hours on end you’re going to be really good at doing something badly.

This is not only bad because you’ve wasted your time learning to be bad or mediocre at a task and may see all this work as a failure, but because you didn’t necessarily have to fail at all.

Quality is more important than quality

The key to building good movement skills is to focus on the quality of the practice. When you practice, take it slow at first. Just like learning to drive a car, don’t rush to learn the entire thing in one go.

Break the process into parts and concentrate on learning one part really well. Practice that section slowly until you’ve got it right, then speed it up little by little until you can drive at full speed.

More broadly, when you want to learn to do something well, break it into small parts and take each part slowly until you’re able to do it very well. Take breaks. Be patient. The more you rush the big picture, the more likely you’ll be to develop bad movement skills that are hard to reverse.

Stress kills learning

As learner drivers we all went to somewhere quiet and acquired the movement skills to co-ordinate our foot and hand movements when changing gear, apply the appropriate pressure when braking, turn the steering wheel the right amount and so on. We learned each individually and then began to put them together into a coherent whole. We did not go out onto a main road to learn these things in rush hour traffic. The stress of the situation would have dramatically slowed the rate at which we acquired the skills we need and might even have led us to believe that we would never learn and give up.

What this means for climbers

This is all relevant to how we improve as climbers. We need to be aware of the techniques we need to know so that we climb with maximum efficiency and then practice them one by one in a situation where we feel comfortable until we become proficient in each. As we build up a suite of automatic efficient solutions to the problems a route presents to us it becomes easy to recognise when each technique is called for and apply it almost without thought. This allows us to move gradually through the grades and learn to apply our movement skills in more and more difficult situations.

Training is not training if it is not progressive

The key word here is “gradually”. There is no point in going to all the trouble of learning efficient movement and then going into situations far beyond our comfort zone and overwriting them with desperate scrabbling technique which is no use to anyone.

When we have the movements right we should push a small step up into new grade territory, stay there as long as it takes to become confident and fluid in our movements and then immediately push up another step.

The limit to how far we can go will be set by each of us and will depend on the extent to which we apply ourselves consciously to improvement.

Have a project

Ricky Bell told us about the importance of having a project. Make sure that you have one. Improving your climbing by improving your movement skills is a very worthwhile project.

Those of us who have already climbed outdoors will find that the skills we learn on a climbing wall transfer seamlessly to the outdoors. Those of us who have no experience of climbing on rock will find that our comfort zone when we move outdoors will be at a lower number than indoors.

Keep in mind the video that Ricky showed of Michael Duffy working at a bouldering problem until he cracked it. This is the extreme end of what you should be doing.

Working the project

When you go to the wall do not wander from route to route like a dog pissing on lamp posts. Go with an agenda of things you want to practice.

If you are climbing a route and find that you come to a move that you cannot make efficiently and in full control of what you are doing don’t just scrabble up it and move awayto another route. Stand, think, figure out the right thing to do and try it. If you fail, come back to it again and again until you have acquired a new movement skill. Don’t be afraid to get someone else to demonstrate what to do so that you know exactly what skill you need to learn.

Working a project is hard to do at a crowded wall but do not be afraid to hog a route that suits the training that you want to do at this time. You are not taking up an extra route because you would be on some route anyway.

And remember – struggling up the hardest route on the wall on a top rope and on a wing and a prayer is the road to nowhere.

It is also useful to sit down or stand somewhere and watch the best climbers on the wall. Look at their style, fluid movement, unhurried speed and get an insight into where you want to go.

Having a friend video you on a route then perhaps video someone else climbing it and comparing the two is a great way to see how you are performing.

Placing protection

It is worth remembering that the same principles apply to placing gear. If we can train our eye to find placements and assess which is the best type and size of gear to put in them in comfortable situations we can perfect the skill as we as we try to protect ourselves on harder and harder routes.

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