Research > Syntheses > “Climbing Affordances”

Seeing perches, perching, and seeing from the perches


At the Dominion River Rock Competition in 2019, Arabella Jariel took first place by bypassing the “80” point hold to go direct to the hold worth “90” points. To the outside world, this is a case of Arabella “seeing” some unorthodox beta. In Arabella’s eyes, however: “It’s all Taylor’s fault. I’m perching on everything now.”

Arabella Jariel driving dynamically from a “perched” position to hit the “90” hold. Pay close attention to the “80” hold which she skipped, and the location of her right foot. Image by Jennie Jariel

“Perching” is a relatively simple climbing maneuver, and considering how bad the climbing world is at standardizing their terms, you might know it by some other term. It refers to sitting on your heel, or butt-to-heel. Getting into this position. People normally do it because it puts a lot of your weight directly over your foot.

However, what I want to discuss is why it helps you “see” new options, called “affordances” in the climbing research literature–but only if you can identify and execute the perch to begin with, which requires habit changes, or “motor learning” to help you “see” and “fit” into demanding perches.

Arabella sucked (past tense) at Perching

Some people do it a lot, others do it very little, most of us at least recognize it’s a thing. Arabella perched all the time when she was a kid, but that changed as she got older. She gained muscle mass. She started throwing dynamically for holds. She built her shoulders up a lot. She got really good at using very low feet to generate dynamically, rather than high feet to rock-up over and sit on. She’s already an advanced climber who competes internationally on the youth circuit. So why did she need it to win Dominion River Rock and how did she change it to begin with?

Why she won — climbing affordances

Figure 1

A climbing “affordance” is academic speak for perceiving an opportunity to undertake an action. In other words: can you detect information about a move? Several foundational studies in rock climbing discuss perception within the context of climbing movement. These studies include observations like: (a) better rock climbers may explore their environment through a larger range of limb coordination patterns,[1] (b) giving climbers a “choice” of holds induces new exploratory behavior,[2] and (c) better climbers may be more likely to transfer what they learn from hip exploration (rather than touching holds) to new situations.[3]

Figure 2

Arabella saw how she could bring her heel up to her hand as a heel hook. More importantly, she pulled her body up and over the heel in order to sit on it. This changed the location of her center of gravity (CoG) — pay attention to a location centered roughly just above her hips. This is implementing better perception through positioning. See Figure 1.

In Figure 2, we get our second obvious shift upwards of the CoG — from “Low-CoG” to “Mid-CoG”. She eyes the “90” hold from her new “Mid-CoG” position, but doesn’t like her chances for the deadpoint. In the research literature this is called “exploratory movement” – or an action used to find new information.[4] Pay special attention to the location of her right foot which will eventually differentiate her “mid-CoG” from “high-CoG” positions.

Figure 3

In Figure 3, you can see Arabella drop back and sit on her heel to reassess her situation. She glances back at the “80” in the top picture to consider it, and then glances down. It’s at this point that she notices a new “foot” from her higher “position.” The foot is the outward-sloping part of the wall incut just below the “80” hold.

Human information processing changes as we change positions. It changes for a variety of reasons. One of which is that optical patterns from objects change as our location changes, giving us new information.[5] Our ability to gather new information is sometimes as simple as gaining a new perspective.

When Arabella first pulled up to throw in “Mid-CoG”, she had a previously defined response, such as “I can get to within striking distance”, but in that new position, she found she was in error. Then she took stock, was presented with new information, like “I didn’t take this incut of the wall into account.” We may need additional time OR a new vantage point to consider new information, or we may need both as in the case of Arabella.

How the body uses this information is complex. Motor learning theorists describe how identifying information leads to the use of information which determines the need for a skill in a kind of “Information –> Opportunity –> Action” framework. [6] Climbers execute their “learned movement” — except when they need to undergo “exploration” at which point they appear to drink in proprioceptive (movement and positioning), haptic (touch), and visual information in order to “perceive” the affordances. Once a potential opportunity is identified, they try to take advantage of it.

Figure 4

In Figure 4, we see Arabella start to act on the new information – called performatory movement, in order to distinguish it from the aforementioned ‘exploratory movement.’ She brings her right foot up, then she begins to push out from it which brings her to her “high-CoG” position. From this location, with a bend in the knee (increasing “push”) and a (relatively) stable foot (than the previously used wall surface), she now has a better sense that a deadpoint will allow her to hit the distance for the “90” hold — and then some: due to the 90’s direction of grab, she has to overshoot it slightly in order to avoid sliding back toward her right hand. This was all previously learned movement once she identified the opportunity, but she needed two things to make that identification work.

In the research literature, one model used to define the amount of time used to execute some kind of movement “response” involves a stimulus, our reaction time [RT] to that stimulus, which then begins the period of movement [MT], finally culminating in the end to said movement.[7] This model suggests that reaction time (and movement time) may be an important factor related to (1) exploration of holds, (2) exploration of your “fit” within the context of those holds, and thus (3) important toward the perception of “affordances.” Put succinctly, we can say that:

  • from a higher (in this case) or different position, we have the opportunity to observe new information.
    • I use “XYZ” to indicate where I want my athletes to position themselves once they’ve successfully identified their beta. This helps them explore lateral (x), vertical (y), or perpendicular (z) hip movement and ultimately alternative positions.
  • with more weight over the foot, we have more time to gather information and make decisions.

These information cues and motor “decisions” may happen in the blink of an eye or may take significantly longer if you’re either (a) unsure of what to do, or (b) counteracting a learned response.

How she won — Learning to Change

Two months prior to this competition, Arabella would not have perceived the exploratory options she was able to make from a quality perch — in fact, I doubt she would have perceived a perch at all, or if she did — she wouldn’t have been able to “fit” into it. I know this because after years of being annoyed about Arabella’s deteriorating ability to perch, she finally gave me two months to re-integrate the skillset back into her movement vocabulary. Arabella was at the tail end of this training when she went to Dominion River Rock.

In my experience, it takes a lot of time to “unlearn” certain “learned” responses — a learned response is any typical trend that you make with movement. Examples for your feet could include whether you typically use lower, higher, or outside feet, or even “better feet” – at the expense of worse feet at different positions, or two feet vs. one foot with a flag. My own hypotheses (meaning they’re unconfirmed) involve potential future studies on: morphology (such as length of the legs), mobility through specific muscle groups of the low- to mid-sections of the body and back, and even the shoulders, relative location of mass compared to the mid-line (or some other measure) of the body, and strength within the upper arms.

Changing habits

Irrespective of my own unconfirmed reasoning, however, I decided I wanted her to relearn the relatively simple “perching” skill. Schmidt and Lee are authors who describe a deliberate practice model that I’ve found helpful.[8] The model involves both (1) ‘preparatory considerations’, such as motivation, verbal information, perceptual learning, observational learning, and mental practice, and (2) ‘practice conditions’ like the distribution, variability, scheduling and differentiation of practice, and guidance. Here’s how I ‘jumped’ this information over to climbing:

I needed to motivate her and show her why this rather simple skill-set mattered. I like to tap into emotions to build desire. She needed dedicated practice time and scheduling with both me and viewing a more advanced ‘percher.’ I imposed constraints on previous ‘learned’ behavior and showed her models of behavior for perching. I gave her instructions using “external cueing” (a reference to something outside her body) and asked her to go back to problems she had worked on, but at a later time; this is called “spacing.” I encouraged more rest between challenging perches and manipulated certain things about hard perches very subtly in order to make her struggle with new positions, tactics which are called “variability” and “contextual interference” (designed to confuse her, which promotes learning). Also importantly, I instituted a mobility regimen specific to “perching.” It’s important to note that there are ‘caveats’ to all these pieces of research which are often sport-specific, and that very few of them have been tested in a climbing-specific environment.

Some amazing work by Orth, Seifert, Cordier, Davids, and a few others, has shown how motor-learning work can transfer from non-climbing related studies over to climbing. [9] [10] [11] [12] My interpretation of this work from a practical standpoint involves the importance of challenging stable movement patterns, of repeating routes (up to a certain amount) in order to improve the desired skill-set within the context of certain measures associated with climbing efficiency (hip jerkiness, the “complexity” of their path up the wall, the amount they stop, and hip/hand exploration). This last point has a lot of potential, and shouldn’t be understated.

Finally, as I coached her, I generally helped her to learn how to “explore” her own body’s ability to position within the “constraints of the problem.” This required her to understand how to execute exploratory movement (in practice) and mitigate it (in performance) – a key component of climbing – all within the context of the properties of the holds and their placement on various wall angles.[13] Finding affordances, or opportunities for action, with a perch often involved her identification of a foot with the movement necessary to “fit” the skill — all so she can see the opportunities when they present themselves during performance.

If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, I’ll be teaching a class on it at the Canada Strong Climbing (CSC) coaching symposium from August 6th – 9th in Ontario, Canada. I’ll be going over case studies more complicated than perching and I’ll be expanding to a greater depth on the movement interventions I use and the science behind them – both climbing-related and non-climbing related.

[1] Seifert et al, “Skill transfer, affordances and dexterity in different climbing environments” Human Movement Science 32 (2013) 1339-1352

[2] Orth et al, “Constraints representing a meta-stable régime facilitate exploration during practice and transfer of learning in a complex multi-articular task,” um Mov Sci. 2018 Feb;57:291-302.

[3] Ibid Orth (2018)

[4] Renshaw et al, “The Constraints-Led Approach,” Routledge (2019)

[5] Gibson (1966) as discussed in RA Schmidt, TD Lee, “Motor Control and Learning: A Behavioral Analysis.” Human Kinetics (2011)

[6] Ibid Renshaw (2019)

[7 Ibid Schmidt (2011)

[8] Ibid Schmidt (2011)

[9] Arguably my favorite study for its implications of the intersection of skill and efficiency is “Behavioral Repertoire Influences the Rate and Nature of Learning in Climbing: Implications for Individualized Learning Design in Preparation for Extreme Sports Participation,” by Orth et al (2018).

[10] A meta-analysis was done on 42 papers titled “Coordination in climbing: effect of skill, practice and constraints manipulation,” by Orth et al (2016).

[11] The very first study I’m aware of that the rest built on was “Entropy, degrees of freedom, and free climbing: a thermodynamic study of a complex behavior based on trajectory analysis,” by Cordier et al (1993).

[12] For work on the intersection of learning, route preview, and efficiency, see “Role of route previewing strategies on climbing fluency and exploratory movements,” by Seifert et al (2017)

[13] Authors conversation with Ludovic Seifert, co-author of “The Science of Rock Climbing and Mountaineering,” Routledge (2017) and numerous research papers on climbing learning.