3 November 2011
Following on from my last post about learning technique, another thought following my recent travels. I was speaking about risk and decision making in bold climbing at the SAFOS seminar at EICA Ratho. One of the other speakers was Mark Williams who gave an excellent lecture summarising some of the fascinating research on skill learning in sport right now.
Mark talked a lot about practice, it’s importance, just how much is necessary to reach your potential (a LOT) and crucially, what good practice consisted of. A key characteristic of good athletes in any sport is that they look for patterns in the vast amounts of basic data we absorb in our day to day practice and play. They don’t just take in the data, they strive to understand it, make sense of it. There’s a big difference. Understanding it means re-running it, either in the imagination (day dreaming, or in scientific terminology, visualisation) or by trying it again and tinkering with some aspect of it in order to understand it better.
In climbing terms this means trying the crux with the right foot on all the plausible options, then coming back next time and trying again, until something in your mind tells you you have ‘understood’ the move. Quite apart from the physical effort of practice, which has the side effect of getting you strong, it takes a huge amount of mental effort and focus.
After his talk I was very eager to ask Mark what, if anything, climbers could do to improve the quality of the practice since in climbing it is difficult to amass thousands and thousands of hours since our little forearms get tired and our skin wears out.
He told me that a big part of it comes down to this striving to ‘understand’ the movements. He reminded us that truly great athletes stand out because they are by definition ‘not normal’. They verge on an obsessive, compulsive need to go back and analyse every detail.
So is this trainable. Well, much as an obsessive compulsive driven athlete would find it nearly impossible to simply drop this deeply held personality trait on demand, it’s similarly hard to start acting like this if it’s just not you.
However, just by recognising that this sort of time consuming, repetitive practice and reflection is what is necessary, we can at the very least remove some inhibitions that might hold us back from this sort of approach.
In my mind, modern life demands of us the need to preform a heck of a lot of repetitive yet skilled tasks with a great deal of concentration and effort in our working lives, that are lot more boring than training for climbing. I know we are ultimately climbing for fun, but if we are serious enough even to use the word ‘training’ to describe some of our climbing sessions, then surely we can apply a hardcore work ethic and up the ante a little. It's worth noting that one of Mark's points was that even the experts who absolutely love training often feel that the best practice sessions simply have to be so systematic and repetitive that they cannot be enjoyed.
But the results of those sessions certainly are enjoyed!