Research > Syntheses > Developing Climbing Talent > “Identifying Talent”

Note: this is #3 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. It 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 whether we can really see “who’s got it”.

  • One model suggests identifying talent in climbing may be more challenging than you think.
  • As a [supposed] “expert” in performance on climbing, “I’m mostly clueless” when trying to identify, as opposed to develop, top-level talent.
  • Development may be a better use of resources than identification.
  • There are a lot of caveats, and I encourage discussion.

Many of us see children crushing our projects all the time and say “damn, that kid’s got it.”  Sometimes this is a form of “in-group favoritism” – a bias – when we speak to others about kids at our gym, or the talent we happened to meet at the local crag. Sometimes this is part of a a second bias: “survivorship bias.” We remember the ones who made it, and forget the “talent” who didn’t. Take your ego out of the equation for a moment, though, and ask yourself how many kid crushers go on to win the World Championships, entire World Cup seasons – or even individual World Cups – or (some of us would say more importantly) push the grade of climbing onsights or red points?  This is a haunting question.

Whether a coach, club, university, or national federation should put more resources into identifying (TID) or developing (TDE) talent is a question discussed at length in the research literature.  It’s challenging to find consensus, but multiple researchers suggest that identifying talent is challenging and more resources may be better served in developing talent (see “Is Climbing an Early Specialization Sport” for a nuanced perspective on this point).

How easy is it for us to identify talent in climbing? Below is a theoretical argument based on a talent identification model proposed by Vaeyens et al. in 2008.[i]  See the Figure and refer to the bullets below to orient yourself. 

Recreated from Vaeyens et al. (2008) for the express purpose of exploring climbing
  • Draw your eyes to the lower left-hand square which represents the “present” on the Z-axis.  The middle-square represents a near future, and the upper right square represents further in the future. 
  • The X-axis of each square represents the number of things (e.g. finger strength) which are essential to climbing on a range of Low (Left) to High (Right). 
  • The Y-axis of each square represents the extent to which our sport is influenced by its environmental surroundings on a range of Open (more influenced) to Closed (less influenced).

Where does Climbing Stand?

Vaeyens et al. (2008) give rowing as an example of a sport with few essential things and relatively closed to the environment, while field hockey is given as an example of a sport with many potential important things and influenced by human interaction and the environment.[ii]  So what might climbing look like?[iii]

“I’m mostly clueless.”

Tl;dr from the peanut gallery (personal opinion incoming) – climbing is probably far closer to having low predictability than high predictability. For this reason I would prefer to rely as little as possible on “expert choice” of who I should put resources into. Instead, I prefer an “organic growth” model where we attempt to nurture as many as possible, and individuals rise up from a large pool. We also attempt to avoid those who “fail” from truly falling out of the sport. Give them every opportunity to keep showing us “they’ve got it.” In general, the evidence suggests to me — as a supposed “expert” of “performance” in climbing — that I should know my limits in identifying (as opposed to developing) talent. At the top level (e.g. world championships, grade pushing, etc.) — a safe assumption to make is that I’m mostly clueless.

Caveats

There are a lot of caveats to this analysis.  First, I’m unsure about how much climbing can be defined as an “open” vs. “closed” sport for the Y-axis.  Second, the main assumption with the models used for the X-axis is whether rock climbing transfers to competition climbing.  Performance climbing likely has some distinctions in performance attributes –the social media debate begun by Nalle Hukkataival as a result of Udo Neumann’s quote on the importance of power in an Eddie Fowke article is a fun example. 

Additionally, research in climbing typically attempts to differentiate between levels of climbing, rather than within the elite level of climbing.  For example, one of climbing’s early researchers, Dr. Phillip Watts, a retired Professor at Northern Michigan University, showed me evidence that VO2max is required to “enter” the elite world of marathon running, but doesn’t appear to show who does better “within” the elite world.[iv]  For example, in a 2019 review by Ericsson and Harwell, cognitive ability and chess performance were correlated at the beginner level but not at the “highly-skilled” level.[v]  In fact, Ericsson and Harwell go even further to argue that while cognitive ability may have a strong genetic component, the de-linking of cognitive ability with performance as skill level increases suggests not only a distinction in important ‘things,’ but also trainability. Dr. Watts argued to me that he believes a similar relationship — or rather a lack of a relationship between components required early on, and components required at higher skill levels — exist for the components of climbing, and suggested we needed more research on large samples of elite climbers in order to identify what’s important.[vi] 

Direct testing of specific “things” in climbing is uncommon, and it’s exceedingly rare to do that testing within the elite (or super elite) group, or even to understand how those things change over time.[vii]  This is partially the “correlation/causation” argument.   For example, we know little about how much improvement in the strength-to-weight ratio will improve how much performance, and specifically at what level. 

Additionally, the method used to measure performance in research is typically to identify a climber’s red point grade.  This method does not take into account self-selection into specific climbs at certain grades based on a climber’s individual strengths and weaknesses, or how they compensate for those strengths and weaknesses.  In competition climbing, a climber cannot self-select their climb.  It’s also “onsight” (routes) and/or timed (bouldering).  Additionally, no one’s “building” the routes outside – unless you’re a fan of chipping.  As a result of these points, prediction may be easier for outdoor climbing than competition climbing. 

The assumption used for the Y-axis is being able to compare between sports.  At this point, I haven’t identified a method of doing so quantitatively other than through the criterion of human interaction and environment change.  Finally, there is simply no data on how performance requirements change as a competitor gets older or competitions change, making the Z-axis a best guess.

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] Vaeyens et al. (2008)

[ii] Supra Vaeyens et al. (2008)

[iii] List of references: Vaeyens et al. (2008), Nieuwenhuis et al. (2002), Grant et al. (2001), Grant et al. (2002), Binney (2002), Bourne et al. (2011), Magiera and Rygula (2007), Magiera et al. (2013), author’s conversation with Dr. Watts (2019), Yu et al. (2016), and author’s conversation with Dr. Martindale (2018).

[iv] Supra Ericsson and Harwell (2019)

[v] Author’s discussion with Dr. Phillip (Phil) Watts, Professor Emeritus in Sports and Exercise Science at Northern Michigan University (Retired), referencing “Applied Physiology of Marathon Running” by Sjodin and J. Svedenhag (1985).

[vi] Author’s discussion with Dr. Phillip (Phil) Watts, Professor Emeritus in Sports and Exercise Science at Northern Michigan University (Retired)

[vii] For a great discussion of world class routesetter trends within the context of climbing components, see this video of the IFSC Meirengen Worldcup in 2019: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=26SOYIKPyOM