Research > Syntheses > Developing Climbing Talent > “The Path”
Note: this is #2 of 8 different write-ups on LTAD available at my website. For the overview, click here.
Let’s catch you up: this is one part of an overview of research into athletic talent. This research is usually referred to as Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD), Talent Identification (TID), or Talent Development (TDE) research. This research has implications for everything from “who’s got it” to “will I reach my potential if I didn’t start when I was 4” to the “secret sauce”. So let’s talk about the “secret sauce”.
Instagram workouts are the rage!
Instagram workouts are the rage! I love them. You love them. So good. But finding the right workout is only one part of of programming. While they’re certainly effective at reducing boredom and burnout, other elements of programming include everything from form, to identifying individual needs, to planning periods. And programming a good plan is only one part of what it takes to create an elite athlete, or a super elite one. There’s also coaching, the science of practice, developmental phases, talent hotspots and the social environment, motivation, personal challenges, mindset and certainly many others.
More specifically, what do I mean? If we look just at individual performance-related factors that are fairly specific to climbing, they are potentially quite large. One group of researchers found that 44 variables explained 93% (91% corrected) of climbing, with 10 of those variables best differentiating between the different levels of climbers.[i] The lead author for that study then led a separate study 6 years later that categorized 43 variables into three different buckets (physical, technical, and mental — a nod to Eric Hörst’s categorization scheme) and found the different buckets explained performance in climbing similarly, if unequally — physical variables were 38%, technical variables were 33%, and mental variables were 28%.[ii]
However, a systemic perspective beyond climbing may be required to truly understand performance. In a review of male Football (soccer) performance identification and development, the authors had this to say:
“there is a complex relationship between the tactical, technical, anthropometric, maturational, physiological and psychological factors according to each age, maturational status and specific playing positions. This complex interaction should be carefully considered by those involved in the process of identification and development of talented football players. Moreover, an optimal balance between specialisation (e.g. deliberate practice) and diversification (e.g. deliberate play) appears to be related to higher levels of performance at both early ages and adulthood. Finally, close attention should be paid to the supportive psychosocial environments created in the sport academies for developing players.”[iii]
Climbing-specific Performance Factors
Remember those factors which researchers say explain climbing performance? Here’s a bit more specificity from multiple sources:
- The International Rock Climbing Research Association (IRCRA) has compiled an IRCRA Battery of climbing-specific performance tests. They are summarized below:
- Finger strength & endurance, a climbing-specific foot raise, a power “slap”, strength and endurance in a bent arm position, strength at different ranges of arm motion, core strength and strength/endurance through the knees/hips.[iv]
- An incomplete list of climbing-specific factors I briefly looked up on the Beta Angel Project’s Research inventory include[v]:
- Morphological adaptations such as finger pulp;
- Traditional and non-traditional finger capabilities such as maximum voluntary contraction, rate of force development, as well as more energy-system specific measures: critical force (CF) and the energy-store component (W’)
- Psychological characteristics such as the level of cognitive and somatic anxiety, attentional differences, and the role of emotion in thinking;
- A debated relationship between performance, BMI, height/weight, and injuries;
- Technical efficiency characteristics such as exploratory movement, the geometric index of entropy, and hip jerk;
- Extrinsic motivators to begin climbing but intrinsic motivators to continue climbing;
- Perception of feature and hold climbing opportunities to take advantage of;
- Factors influencing parental introduction of their children to the sport, such as main-stream sport dissatisfaction;
- Contributions from both the local (forearm) aerobic capacity and general (body) aerobic capacity, and a role for using oxygen consumption as a measure of performance.
Now, let’s look at what non-climbing specific performance factors may look like.
General Sport Performance-related factors
Earlier we outlined a study with 44 variables that outlined 93% (91% corrected) of variance in climbing. Some of those variables are fairly general, such as arm strength and arm endurance. Some can be reasoned to be helpful in multiple sports, such as the % of fat tissue, or the anaerobic power of the upper and lower body. Some, such as the mobility of the hips, are a little more focused to very specific sports. Here are some points where researchers have identified a bridge between climbing and more typical training-related factors that don’t require a climbing wall to train.
- Core training (both dynamic and isometric) likely improve climbing performance. However, it’s important to note that two of the exercises were climbing-specific. In some ways they resemble both a combination of core and posterior chain exercises.
- General aerobic ability may be as helpful as specific aerobic ability for the forearms — at least when on a treadwall.
- Mobility may be helpful in certain areas. For more on the science behind mobility, see Project Movement Science (MoveSci): Climber Mobility.
- Co-contraction of the finger flexors and upper arms may be an important element to take into account during training.
- The relationship of classic resistance training to climbing performance has a nuanced perspective. One set of researchers compared pulldown, seated bench press, seated rowing, seated shoulder press, biceps curl, forearm press and forearm curl in a low intensity-high repetition group vs a high intensity-low repetition group. Neither group improved their climbing performance, but both groups maintained their climbing performance in spite of a 50% reduction in actual climbing. Draw your own conclusions.
- The power element may be an important element, which can certainly be trained (to an extent) on a typical gym bar (at least when it comes to the upper-body prime movers in climbing — usually considered the back and upper arms).
- The shoulder girdle may be under-appreciated as it’s been identified as a discriminating factor in climbing and a potential trend in climbing injuries.
- While technical considerations may be challenging to train off-the-wall, strategies to improve emotional self-regulation and motivation, and route visualization may be worthwhile to improve outside of gym training sessions.
- Recovery after climbing as well as nutrition.
- How often do you change the stimulus?
- Tom Randall (Lattice Training) has suggested to me that since climbing has so many trainable factors, changing up the stimulus may be one of the most important factors in assessment and planning. This concept is echoed in a more specific way by Dr. Eva Lopez, who suggested in her early study on MAW-MED finger training protocols that one type of 4-week protocol may be necessary to create adaptations in a second protocol, and is echoed more generally by the concept of peaks and plateaus.
- Relatedly, but potentially different: some performance factors may be more important at one level vs. another.
- In a personal conversation with Dr. Phil Watts about methodology in climbing, he imparted on me his hope that we would in the future be able to better differentiate performance factors by level. For example, ask yourself how important your maximum ability to pull-up weight is at the elite vs. advanced level, or is there a certain % of body weight one should be able to deadlift, with further gains potentially unnecessary?
But what about the really complicated stuff? The stuff that we don’t normally associate with a direct causal explanation of performance? Let’s dive into the stuff that science says affects athletic performance but you may not have thought much about in the past.
Create a more supportive environment.
- “Environmental” factors which promote “generic” sport success exist and have been laid out in an article on what the authors call “the talent development environment.”[vi] Read more about the Beta Angel Project’s exploration of the Talent Development Environment Questionnaire (TDEQ)[vii] in addition to a case-study collaboration with a program in Oregon. Some of the factors which make up the “environment” include:
- Taking a long-term development focus that includes fundamental training skills, rounded development to include other sports, ongoing opportunities, and a de-emphasis of winning.
- Including quality preparation such as mental preparation when things go wrong, having a coach who cares about the athletes’ well-being, and balancing all aspects of the sport and life.
- Having a phenomenal support network which not only includes parents, different professionals, coaches, and schools but also the approachability of those people and institutions.
- Bidirectional communication between coach and athlete on topics related to the “why” of training, incorporating feedback and athlete input, and what it takes to get to the top level.
- Being constantly challenged while also supported, by the support “network”, other performers, and coaches.
Athletes that are challenged make for better athletes
- Introduce your athlete to the Rocky Road (but be gentle?)!
- Including ‘constructed’ challenges, naturally-occurring challenges, and “structured trauma” (clarification: I’ve kept the original term used by the authors, but what they mean is comparatively low key sport-specific challenges, not actual trauma such as a car crash or abuse) may be important to facilitate success at the high-end of performance.[viii]
- The authors later updated their research design to qualify their original conclusion surrounding challenges: that it was the reaction toward challenges that differentiated performance, with high performers not necessarily receiving more challenge, or significantly worse challenge, but rather the way they approach that challenge, the extent to which they attempt to overcome it, and the way that they are supported in overcoming it.”[ix]
- In a further update, the authors reflect and provide recommendations for developing psycho-behavioral skills, coping skills, and social support “to ensure that adversity is interpreted as a positive growth experience.”[x]
- The authors go over three approaches to overcoming adversity: (a) the level of challenge in life experiences which occur naturally (e.g. you wait for them and hope to deal with them well); (b) emergent attitudes, such as “grit”, facilitated by “self-discipline, will power, persistence, and the ability to defer gratification, which also have down-sides such as non-productive persistence; and (c) skills such as the Psychological Characteristics of Developing Excellence (PCDEs) or self-regulatory skills.
- The authors recommend the skills-based perspective taught & developed in conjunction with both “constructed-“ and “naturally-occurring” challenges. Examples of constructed challenges may include training at higher-level competitions, or a cycle of training with higher-ability and/or older performers then similar-ability and/or like age performers.
Practice… Practice… Practice…
- Three skill acquisition frameworks
- Deliberate practice — sits within a framework built by Ericsson (1993) and eventually updated (2019) to include deliberate practice, purposeful practice, structured practice, and naïve practice. The former two involve goal-oriented practice with varying levels of feedback from a coach, while the third is less feedback-oriented but still focused, while the final type of practice (naïve) is more focused around play or not working on a specific element of performance.
- The constraints-led approach — research papers, books, and even climbing-oriented science (see anything by Seifert, Orth, and/or Davids) discuss a science-based approach to teaching movement and sport expertise. This framework discusses how the environment “constrains” the athlete, and prides exploration and (similar to the deliberate practice model) feedback.
- Motor-learning — a model described in detail in a book by Schmidt and Lee (2011) on “motor-learning” or how we learn and process movement. This model involves both “preparatory considerations” and “practice” conditions, and uses the science of motor-learning to suggest how things like motivation, cueing, variability contextual interference, spacing, and many other techniques can influence skill acquisition. I wrote an article on how this approach helped me teach an athlete of mine to use a skill which led directly to her winning a competition.
Building Personal Assets
- Read more about the Personal Assets Framework with this PowerPoint or a research paper here – a model which suggests that improvements in an athlete’s competence, confidence, connection, and character occur within the context of three overarching every-day areas: (1) Personal Engagement in Activities, (2) Quality Relationships, and (3) Appropriate Settings. These changes have the potential to facilitate improved sport outcomes, such as performance, participation, and personal development (3 Ps).
- Personal Engagement in Activities: Youth / Adult Driven Activities; Intrinsic / Extrinsic Value; large early diversity (not only between sports, but shifting the who/what/where) of sport experiences (before specialization) and high volume of play (over practice).
- Quality Relationships: Coach / Athlete relationships; transactional coaches vs. transformational coaches who embody trust and respect, inspire motivation, push intellectual stimulation, and consider the individual needs of the athletes. Peer relationships, support, etc. may also follow this model.
- Appropriate Settings: Team/Club Success; Birthplace effects suggest smaller cities influence both physical environment and behavioral patterns more positively.
- Coaching Success – a three component model within the context of the Personal Assets FrameworkCoaching Knowledge, Athlete Outcomes, and Coaching Contexts
- For a thoroughly fascinating discussion on coaching competence as stage-based rather than linear, see this blog post from Dr. Richard Bailey, an author who cites his work (yes!) and apparently loves Lewis Carroll (yes!).
Motivation — Where is it? Can we find it?
- The “Three Worlds Continuum” is arguably a separate framework with which the LTAD framework may or may not sit comfortably.[xi] The continuum suggests that each athlete may have different motivations based on where they are in their development, and these are: (1) Personal Well-being (PPW); (2) Personal reference Excellence (PRE); and (3) Elite Referenced Excellence (ERE). In other words, this “continuum” is a maturational model associated with an athlete’s individual psychological motivations, which may help prepare the athlete in a different way, perhaps better or perhaps not better, for athletics.[xii] This continuum has the potential to change over an athlete’s life.
- Self-determination theory identifies three basic psychological needs which, when met, incentivise commitment and effort in athletes and, when thwarted, cause frustration. These needs are: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. With autonomy, we want to give athletes choices. With competence, we want to encourage hard work and skill mastery. And with relatedness we want to create stronger bonds between teammates.
- Achievement Goal theory suggests that athletes have both ego-related goals related to outward performance, as well as task-related goals related to mastery of skills. Some athletes focus more on one type of goal vs. the other. One way to look at this theory is to ask whether the athlete prioritizes new skill and seeks out challenges, or do they focus more on the endgame (e.g. a podium, or their image in the eyes of others).
Recipe: Psychosocial concerns, environmental factors, early diversification, and deliberate play
The highly popular Developmental Model of Sporting Participation (DMSP) focuses on psychosocial concerns, environmental factors, early diversification and deliberate play.
Do all the stuff, build the psychosocial, and build the strength!
The Youth Physical Development (YPD) model and Composite Youth Development (CYD) model are an attempt to address some of the concerns regarding the traditional LTAD’s emphasis on ‘critical-training windows’ and the lack of its inclusion of a psychosocial development component. It includes an emphasis on multiple characteristics, is maturational-dependent, has slightly differing characteristics than the LTAD’s Five S’s (e.g. power), and has a more streamlined, simplified stage-based format.[xiii] [xiv] It also emphasizes development of muscular strength.[xv]
SO MANY MODELS!
The only attempt to integrate different models I’m aware of used a resistance training model and a fitness-specific model and attempted to understand the types of training which should be done at different maturational levels. The resistance training model encompassed different resistance training skill competencies, weight training, and plyometrics across 4-6 stages of development. The fitness-specific model included technical competencies as well as strength, power, speed, agility, and aerobic fitness across 3-4 different stages.
Acknowledgment: I’m indebted to Dr. Russell Martindale, Associate Professor at Edinburgh Napier University, Dr. Phillip Watts, Professor Emeritus of Sports and Exercise Science (Retired) at Northern Michigan University, and Dr. Shannon Siegel, Co-Chair of the Department of Kinesiology at the University of San Francisco, for their review of different sections of this write-up. They were very generous with their time, advice, and recommendations. They are not responsible for any mistakes, omissions, or poor arguments on my part!
[i] Biometric model and classification functions in sport climbing by Magiera & Rygula (2007)
[ii] The structure of performance of a sport rock climber by Magiera et al. (2013)
[iii] Talent Identification and Development in Male Football: A Systematic Review by Sarmento et al. (2018)
[iv] International Rock Climbing Research Association Multi-Centre Test Research Battery Version 1.6 (2015)
[v] Access the Beta Angel Research Project’s Inventory at https://beta-angel.com/research/research-inventory/
[vi] Effective Talent Development: The Elite Coach Perspective in UK Sport by Martindale, Collins, and Abraham (2007)
[vii] Development of the Talent Development Environment Questionnaire for Sport by Collins et al. (2010)
[viii] The Rocky Road to the top: why talent needs trauma by Collins and MacNamara (2012)
[ix] Super Champions, Champions, and Almosts: Important Differences and Commonalities on the Rocky Road by Collins, MacNamara, and McCarthy
[x] Putting the Bumps in the Rocky Road: Optimizing the Pathway to Excellence by Collins, MacNamara, and McCarthy
[xi] Participant development in sport; an academic review by Bailey et al. (2010)
[xii] Participant development in sport and physical activity: the impact of biological maturation by Ford et al. (2011)
[xiii] The Youth Physical Development Model: A New Approach to Long-Term Athletic Development by Lloyd and Oliver (2012)
[xiv] Long-Term Athlete Development – Part 1: A Pathway for All Youth by Lloyd et al. (2015) and Long-Term Athlete Development – Part 2: Barriers to Success and Potential Solutions (2015)
[xv] Eccentric Resistance Training in Youth: Perspectives for Long-Term Athletic Development