In a 16th century play known as “The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Dr. Faustus,” an angel was depicted with a devil to provide competing choices. I used to be terrified that when I provided advice to an athlete, I’d be wrong. The first time I was called the Beta Angel, it was by a young 5.14 climber named Christian who was always terrified he’d turn around and I’d be there watching. I’m still scared sometimes. I still ask myself how others view me and then strive to be my perception of some sort of ideal representation of a coach. I can’t help it – I want to be thought of as a “great” coach. But this website cannot just be about my successes. Here are my arguments for why we as a community need to emphasize experimentation and failure:
As practitioners we must strike a balance between “getting it right” and action. The best corollary I can find is the U.S. Military healthcare system’s approach, referred to as “focused empiricism” in the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s 2016 report on a National Trauma Care System. Sometimes the best quality data is not available BUT data can be found AND there is a need to take actions and improve outcomes. U.S. Military medical leadership thus improve the military medical system through an approach that combines the “best available” data with experience to ensure action, and then iterates as better data becomes available to create better action and outcomes.
Here’s a quote by a data scientist over at Fivethirtyeight: “Contrary to how it’s sometimes represented to the public, science is not a magic wand that turns everything it touches to truth. Instead, it’s a process of uncertainty reduction…’Science is a process rather than an answer,’ said psychologist Alison Ledgerwood of the University of California, Davis. Every answer is provisional and subject to change in the face of new evidence. It’s not entirely correct to say that ‘this study proves this fact,’ Ledgerwood said. ‘We should be talking instead about how science increases or decreases our confidence in something.’”
This is the approach we need to take with climbing. As a result, not everything I do here is going to be perfect. After surveying most rock climbing research out there, I’m left with the unmistakable conclusion that we still have a lot left to learn. Or as Doug Hunter, co-author of The Self-Coached Climber, said to me over the phone one day: “There are coaches out there who are ahead of the research.” I want to be one of those coaches. This means I’ll need to take chances and occasionally get things wrong. And that’s okay. Call me out on it. Be civil, but absolutely tell me why you think I don’t have things quite right. I want to learn, but to do that I may have to be a little controversial.
In a recent meme I came across about the movie The Incredibles, the author amusingly describes how Edna’s (a character who designs superhero costumes) confidence is a natural evolution of making a cape which allegedly led to the death of a superhero. Allow me this small bit of paraphrased plagiarism as I channel my inner Edna to cope with the consequences of my own making: “The thing is, I need to be confident. I need to be THE BEST so that the tragedies of my past don’t happen again. I make choices. And the choices are the reason that repercussions – sometimes funny, sometimes not so funny – happen. I need to be better than I was, better than I am, so I set these standards for myself.” So yes, I have the confidence to make radical suggestions, and sometimes those will lead to failure.
In Dr. Adam Grant’s book on original thinking, he writes that: “[Creative thinkers] come up with a large number of ideas. [Psychologist Dean] Simonton finds that on average, creative geniuses weren’t qualitatively better in their fields than their peers. They simply produced a greater volume of work, which gave them more variation and a higher chance of originality.” My own way of providing this volume is to do constant alternative thinking. And to do that, I need to be both angel on the right shoulder, and devil on the left – constantly whispering the advice that will help both me, and my student, learn the most. In the halls of this reverse academy, where the teachers are wrong, you’re going to read about teachers taking risks and embracing their failures:
First, go to the Clipping Heat Maps under “Research – Data Collection” and view the information the Beta Angel team created from data on a World Cup final and Semi-final. You’ll see that our initial identification of a possible trend in the Final – that success may be related to clipping from a lower position – appeared to be wrong once we looked at a semi-final with more data. It’s an extremely small amount of data, and it’s a very low-tech method. You can do better.
Now let’s generalize a little. In the research inventory you’ll see research which is oversimplified. You will get immensely more if you can access and read the article in question. But this inventory is meant to ease the path of climbers into the science of rock climbing. And to do that, the team here felt it was alright to over-simplify. Translation, however, means we will inevitably get things wrong. Help us make it better.
You are going to hear case studies about unintended consequences. When this happens, hopefully you get a chance to hear my evil cackle. One example I can give you is with a climber I’ve taught for five years who I required to do a form of endurance training for two solid weeks prior to her Bouldering Regional Championship (Yes, I had my reasons). The training caused a very dynamic climber to lose her ability to be dynamic – badly so. On her final climb she spent the full five minutes up- and down-climbing before finally committing to the dynamic move. After the climb she stormed up to me in anger and exclaimed: “I climbed that like a ROUTE—because of YOU!” I couldn’t stop laughing at her, and she couldn’t stay mad at me for long. This is the simplest example of an unintended consequence of training associated with a concept I first read about in psychology research called “priming.” Priming works with the body as well as it does with the mind. And this example is only the tip of the iceberg.
Learning from my mistake may make me shout “No Capes!” But that doesn’t have to mean an absence of creativity.
How My Athletes Learned to Love the Beta Devil
If you succeed enough, the athletes will allow you to fail from time-to-time… possibly more. In fact, it’s possible now that I have tilted too far – that by becoming ok with failure I now take risks and experiment with abandon. My own learning requires that when I fail, I get angry with myself and own up to it – even to my athletes. This helps me control my over-confidence and even helps build the relationship with my athlete. And the next athlete will benefit even more. At this point I’m scarred from dozens of nicks and the occasional gash – and my athletes appreciate that I’m willing to take a calculated risk, and suffer a nick or a gash, in order to make a successful advance. To be their Beta Angel, I also need to be their Beta Devil.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m all about turn-in climbing. There’s just something about a really good drop-knee that brings me inexplicable joy. I consider the phrase, “this move can’t be done statically,” to be a personal challenge to my turn-in climbing abilities. If there’s any way at all to do a move turned-in, I can probably tell you exactly what that way is. And Aleksandra from the past probably would have tried to do it that way, too.
But, as it turns out, Aleksandra from the past doesn’t know as much about climbing as Aleksandra from the present, and Aleksandra from the present fully embraces turn-out climbing. My climbing style didn’t evolve easily – that journey involved many arguments, two months of climbing exclusively in turn-out for every single move, and some really annoying hip mobility exercises (thanks Taylor). However, my climbing got much better for it, and turn-out climbing is something I continue to work on. As a coach, I get to watch a bunch of kids use turn-in climbing as a crutch, and hopefully stop them from becoming too dependent on it. In this spotlight, I’m going to go through why I think people gravitate towards turn-in climbing, how that can limit your climbing, what the research says, and how you can apply all this to your own climbing.
Some quick definitions:
By turn-in climbing, I am referring to a stance where both of your knees are facing the same direction, one hip is twisted into the wall, and the pressure from the foot which is twisted inward is on the outside edge of your climbing shoe.
Conversely, turn-out climbing is a stance where your knees are facing opposite directions, the pressure is on the inside edge of your climbing shoe, and your hips are square to the wall.
Why are we so drawn to turn-in climbing?
I am going start with the assumption that when most people start climbing, for a variety of reasons (lack of upper body strength, taught in intro classes, preference, etc.) they climb mostly in turn-out or with their knees facing the wall (front-pointing).
When we pick up on turn-in climbing, it can really revolutionize our technique. Hip flexibility can be a major limitation in turn-out climbing, so turn-in climbing might be the first time you really feel yourself get your hips into the wall on an overhang! For a lot of people, this is a real “A-ha!” moment.
Once we start getting the hang of turn-in climbing, it’s not that hard to get quite good at it. Especially if you’re a taller climber, you can make your way through quite a few climbing grades before you start needing to do more dynamic moves, or before the footholds for a turned-in set-up aren’t there anymore. So it’s really easy to start to rely on turn-in climbing. It works! Really well! Until suddenly, you get to a move that doesn’t work using turn-in, and you have absolutely no idea what to do.
When does turn-in climbing fail us?
Turn-in climbing usually requires very specific foot placement. If the footholds aren’t available for that, turn-in climbing won’t work. Even if you do have the footholds, turn-in climbing usually requires more foot movements, especially if you are doing several moves in a row, since you have to switch which way your knees are facing. This can mean you’re on the wall for a longer time, possibly with a higher potential for grip fatigue.
Turn-in climbing often doesn’t work as well for dynamic moves. It often creates awkward positioning from which to drive dynamically from your legs, and changes the way your hips build momentum. If your feet cut, your legs will probably swing quite a bit, making your arms work much harder.
Unfortunately for us turn-in fanatics, as you progress in your climbing ability, you’re more and more likely to encounter climbs with fewer feet or more dynamic moves – especially if you’re a competition climber. Based on anecdotal evidence, learning to climb in turn-out is really important.
What does the research have to say about this?
For his Master’s thesis at Northern Michigan University, Saravanan Balasubramani studied the effect of climbing turn-in, turn-out, or front-pointed on arm muscle activation. He found that the three different climbing techniques did not significantly affect arm muscle activation. However, the only type of movement that was studied was a fairly easy upwards motion on good handholds and vertical terrain. The author concludes that repeating the study on more complex moves, a larger variety of handholds, and more overhanging terrain could yield different results.
For his PhD thesis at the University of Leeds, Christopher John Low performed similar research to what is described above, but with different methodology. He found that competition climbers were more likely to use turn-in climbing technique. He then concludes that there are pros and cons to both techniques. Namely, turn-out technique requires more effort at the beginning or “set-up” of the move, but less throughout and at the completion of the move. Additionally, he concludes that turn-out technique may be better for dynamic moves.
When teaching the “system move”, I never hand the graphic to students without a significant amount of explanation and practice. The “system move” graphic is not meant to be understood in isolation. Read on for a more in-depth understanding. For the most technical explanation of the move and its training, please read Rob Mulligan’s posts on system training. Or work with Chad Gilbert or Paul Dusatko – two phenomenal coaches who introduced me to the “art of the possible.” Much of my post is an intentional over-simplification in order to provide a practical lens to a complicated idea.
Look at the graphic as if you’re looking at the climber’s back. The left hand is high and the right foot is high. The left foot is not on a hold and the right hand is mid-reach. This move generally can be used on vertical to limited overhang. It involves “turn-out” position and a lack of a lower foot when reaching for the next hold with an opposing hand. The move is meant to mitigate against a feeling of instability brought on by poor hands and awkward hold placement which may prompt you to throw wildly for a hold.
The Individual Parts of the System
The left shoulder wants to lean forward – “puff” your chest to put it in the “cradle.”
Imagine a “karate chop” hand along your spine – squeeze it.
Intent is to shift the hips up and over the engaged (right) foot, BUT:
The hips may need momentum first. Kick them to the opposite direction of the target hold, and out from the wall. Then fire in and up. Fuego.
To stabilize the lower left foot: you’ll feel it in your groin and down the inside of your leg if you think about driving the force from your foot INTO the wall.
The Ripple Effects – how one part of the system effects another part
Generally, more distance between the feet laterally creates a more stable support base WHILE less distance is less support but more potential drive upwards.
The height of your flagged foot changes the height of your Center of Gravity AND distance of your hips to the wall BUT:
You can mitigate this outward effect by bending your upper left arm or lower left leg.
The big toe drives into the hold but the hamstring pulls you over your right foot BUT
The pull turns into a push from the quad at the right point – not too soon.
If the heel drops out from the wall, it points the knee into the wall, which jack-knifes the hips, changing location of your trunk and shoulders, which effects the angle at which your arms connect to your fingers, requiring more finger-strength to stay on the wall.
The heel drives up as far as you feel comfortable, which changes the biomechanical possibilities of the knee, allowing it to drive to the right and pull the hips over the foot.
The left foot’s “thrutch” up the wall helps to drive the hips upward and is called an active flag (or smear, as opposed to a passive flag for balance).
The push comes from not only the left foot, but the right hand, which can push once your hips get high enough to torque the elbow up in a way similar to a mantle.