3 November 2011

The importance of being not normal

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!

Coaching observations

I’m just back from various coaching sessions around the UK. After a little break from coaching over the summer, I’ve come to it with fresh eyes after digesting a lot of variety in watching and doing climbs of many different types. It’s amazing how your perspective widens.
There are always some patterns to observe. Older climbers who have been going 10-20 years don’t go for the holds with nearly the same determination as the young angry lads. The young angry lads are too busy going for the (hand) holds and being angry to move their feet onto better footholds and actually use them.
Some more detail - 
Older chilled climbers: Experiment by role playing the 16 year old young angry men! Climb like you really really want to hold onto the next hold and nothing in the world is going to stop you. Grimace like you’re going to bite your bottom lip off. Don’t let go, even if you think you have no chance. The reality is that you only have no chance if you jump off the boulder wall instead of lay one on! The other point is that the learning, and training happens in the zone between success and failure.
Young angry men: Time that anger. Climbing has two stages; preparing to move and execution of the move. If your mind is fuzzing with anger while preparing to move, you don’t see the foot sequence, you don’t feel the shift of body weight that makes the difference. Learn to detach from that anger for a moment and take in the available move choices. If climbing was just about how hard you could pull or how angry you can get, the top climbers would be very different.
Both groups: Learn to be curious about finding the ‘right’ way to do moves. Whether you succeed on the problem/route, try it again using that other possibility you spotted for the move. And that one, and that one too. See which was actually the easiest. Systematic experimentation with moves makes you learn what works. Just because you got to the top doesn’t mean you did it the best way or actually learned anything about how to climb. Just because the climb is too hard for you doesn’t mean you can’t use it to learn something about movement. Even if you just watch someone else manage it. Be curious, watch others on the move, then try again yourself. Compare options, learn. This experimentation is what makes up the bulk of your bouldering sessions.