“… to understand the complex nature of talent development, researchers and practitioners must look beyond the individual athlete and include the environment in their investigations and practice.” – Henriksen, Stambulova, and Roessler in Riding the Wave of an Expert (2011)
Climbing needs to up its game. Lately, I’ve been reading talent development studies to understand what researchers of more established sports are doing to understand the factors which contribute to success. One approach these researchers use is looking at the overall environment, as opposed to the specific individual, to understand success at the elite level. Today, I’m going to tell you about an easy-to-use questionnaire that can help us better facilitate success in our sport’s athletes – both at the elite level and below.
The Talent Development Environment Questionnaire (TDEQ) is a tool used by researchers and practitioners to assess whether the athlete’s environment can be more supportive than it currently is. I found it useful because there are 59 questions, and each question is based on peer-reviewed research with supporting evidence. Below I’m going to provide you with instructions for the questionnaire as well as some potential uses. But first, here’s a look at one part of the questionnaire:
The first step is to provide the questionnaire to an athlete. Each of the 59 questions is classified under 7 different overall headings, called “factors.” The factors are:
Does development facilitate long-term success;
Communication between coach and athlete;
The coach’s understanding of the athlete;
The athlete’s support network;
The challenges and supports in the environment, and;
Key features of the foundations of development.
Each question is answered on a 6-point scale from “agree strongly” to “disagree strongly”. Several of the questions are reversed, however, so that an answer of “Strongly agree” actually ranks a higher score (6) rather than a lower score (1). A lower overall score is better. In theory it’s possible to score as low as a 59 (all questions scored as a 1) or as high as a 354 (all questions scored a 6).
I spoke with Dr. Russell Martindale by e-mail, the researcher involved with developing the questionnaire. He recommended the easiest way to use the questionnaire is to have the athlete fill it out and then go over any items that are answered in a concerning way (e.g. such as a “5” or “6” on the scale) which may indicate weaknesses or areas for improvement. He also recommended highlighting which areas are strengths for the athlete.
I gave this questionnaire to a few of my athletes, scored them, and then sat down with them. They said it took about 15-25 minutes to complete. Scoring their answers took me only 5 minutes but speaking with them about 10-20 of those answers took about 1-2 hours. As a result, there is ample opportunity to turn this into a great multi-session opportunity to improve the athlete’s overall environmental structure of success.
I was primarily concerned with answers in the 4, 5, and 6 range, which usually (but not always) were associated with disagreeing with the question. On a few items, like “My coach is good at helping me to understand my strengths and weaknesses in my sport,” one of the kids who I consult with only “agreed a little” – a score of 3. This athlete has multiple coaches and I happen to pride myself on analysis of strengths and weaknesses. I was expecting a 1 or a 2 and instead had a rude awakening. Surprised I admitted this? Please don’t be. The Beta Angel Project prides an open culture to improve. It turned out, I had been teaching this athlete advanced concepts but had neglected to provide them feedback on what they were good and bad at. Mea culpa.
You don’t necessarily need to score the entire questionnaire to make use of it. In fact, coaches can simply read the questions to get an idea of what they could be doing differently without ever handing it to one of their students. This questionnaire provided a significant amount of personal reflection for me.
One challenge you may come across is trying to figure out how to prioritize the weaknesses or areas of improvement. Possibilities to prioritize include:
Prioritizing within factors. Look at the order of questions. The questions are ranked based on a statistical method called “factor analysis”, which essentially determines how important each question is to the factor. If you have two questions which ranked poorly, and one is the first question and the other is the tenth question, then consider prioritizing the first question.
Another area of interest may be comparing between athletes or comparing athletes between sports if you happened to have scores from other sports. This may help us determine what environmental problems are more prevalent in climbing.
Comparing between factors. If you score each of the factors separately, you might be able to get a sense of the relative priority. However, you would at the very least have to change each score into a percentage to compare due to differing numbers of questions per factor, and even then, it’s not what’s called an “apples-to-apples” comparison so consider this option last.
I wanted to know whether it would be acceptable to use this tool with climbers, so I asked Dr. Martindale. Dr. Martindale wrote to me: “Although it is clear that there are sport or context specific elements of development environments, the TDEQ is not designed to capture these. The only caveat to that, is that climbing wasn’t one of the sports that was used to develop the questionnaire. However, until there is something else more applicable, then I would say it is useful to use it.”
Dr. Martindale gave me a few papers on how researchers are diving into specific environments in order to analyze the elite level of a particular sport. These research studies include soccer (sorry, Dr. Martindale, U.S. audience) where researchers in the UK used this questionnaire to analyze the characteristics of that particular sport; and kayaking, where Danish and Swedish researchers used one analytical lens to describe the kayak-specific environment, and a second analytical lens to identify what factors provide the specific environment (in this case, a kayaking school) its success.
To make a long story short, researchers in the climbing world now have a new tool to analyze climbing success and coaches have a new tool to help their athletes. I recently provided the questionnaire to James (name changed to protect the innocent), a head coach at a climbing gym. James and I had a phone call discussion after he had gone through the questionnaire with some of his athletes. James not only found highlighting the strengths of an athlete’s environment to be particularly helpful, he was able to identify trends for improvement across multiple athletes. I was pleasantly surprised at several innovative approaches and resources he developed for his program as a result of using the questionnaire.
We have a great opportunity to keep pushing our sport and validated research can help light the way. It’s not perfect for our sport yet, but who knows, maybe an enterprising researcher will read this and decide to change that. Perhaps it’s my next project. Dr. Russell’s research is available to be read for free at this link.
What have I been up to today? Skip to the end to read my opinions about this research within the context of strength training for climbing overall.
Today, I worked on re-writing a short summary of one of the most important research contributions to date on the impact of strength training to climbing performance. The summary I had originally written wasn’t particularly good. I didn’t have access to the article so what I wrote reflected my own confusion over the training protocols. Thankfully, a beta angel eventually sent me a copy of the research so I could peruse it. However, it also represented a learning situation for me.
Espen Hermans, the Norwegian researcher who worked on the study, had e-mailed me months ago to help me but unfortunately I hadn’t returned his e-mail. I may have had over a dozen projects and a full-time job at the time, but I pushed back replying because I had struggled to understand. I normally respond quickly to researchers and climbers who contact me, but I failed on this one. Rather than ignore the fact that I was dense and slow, I’ve decided to constructively chastise myself by doing a short write-up and showcasing my mistakes, along with the research, to the world. The older pre-change summary is transcribed below:
The effects of high resistance-few repetitions and low resistance-high repetitions resistance training on climbing performance
Author: E. Hermans, V. Andersen, AH Saeterbakken | Year: 2016 Summary/Results: Researchers tested the impact of two experimental protocols: a high-resistance, low-repetition protocol vs. a low-resistance, high-repetition protocol in low- and intermediate-grade climbers over the course of ten weeks. The study also included a group that climbed/trained as “usual”, and all groups had their training controlled for intensity. While both experimental protocols showed improvement in climbing performance in spite of a 50% reduction in climbing, the improvement was not statistically significant. Beta-Angel note: We’re particularly interested in how this related to the control (“usual” climbing) group. However, we don’t have access. Note, the same author who completed “Effect of maximal- and local muscular endurance strength training on climbing performance and climbing-specific strength in recreational climbers: a randomized controlled trial” was also responsible for this study. More information on the protocols and results would be helpful. Please contact us. Reference:Eur J Sport Sci. 2017 May;17(4):378-385. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27863457
And here is the new summary:
Summary/Results: Researchers tested the impact of two protocols: a high-resistance, low-repetition protocol vs. a low-resistance, high-repetition protocol in low- and intermediate-grade climbers over the course of ten weeks. The exercises included pull-down, bench press, rowing, shoulder press, biceps curl, forearm press and forearm curl. The study also included a group that climbed/trained as “usual”, and all groups had their training controlled for intensity. Tests for performance as a result of the intervention included: climbing performance on a route, time of a 90° bent-arm hang, time of a 25 mm deadhang, and a 12 repetition pull down on a machine. While both protocols suggested improvement in climbing performance in spite of a 50% reduction in climbing, the improvement was not statistically significant. It may be more accurate to say that they “maintained” climbing performance in spite of a drop in climbing volume. Interestingly, improvement was significant for the deadhang tests across both experimental groups (however, this effect was mitigated by a post-test analysis that controls for statistical errors). Beta-Angel note: UPDATE! Received the paper! Psyched! Note, this is the same author as that of “Effect of maximal- and local muscular endurance strength training on climbing performance and climbing-specific strength in recreational climbers: a randomized controlled trial” which was presented at the IRCRA conference in 2016.
More importantly, however, is that this write-up was sent to Espen and he thought I captured the right aspects of his work. If he had hated it, thought I missed something; preferred I emphasize something else, he then could have e-mailed me and said: “Taylor, you’re being dense.” Then it’s my job to get that information to the practitioners: athletes, coaches, climbers who want to strength train, Fjord horses. My audience all.
Now, please don’t go run and take this blog post to your nearest Coach and say: “Look, Taylor showed me research that proves strength training doesn’t improve climbing performance!” That is NOT what this particular study was designed to prove. The most interesting aspect of this research was how climbing performance was able to be maintained IN SPITE OF a drop in climbing volume in both protocol groups.
Science is and always must be iterative. The author of the above study recognized a number of issues with their own work, including a smaller than desired sample size, low climbing volume among the experimental and control groups, and an inability to prove their hypothesis that their particular strength and/or endurance training protocols definitely improve climbing performance. We must all be reflective on our time and work so that science builds.
And in spite of the author’s constructive criticisms of their own work, this research is really fascinating! It is much more nuanced than my simple summary can do justice. The interesting insights came in numerous places: it used a route with progressive changes in difficulty to assess climbing performance over the period of the study, but didn’t stop there, preferring a suite of measures to test aspects directly related to climbing performance. The actual analysis is top notch, and they ran post-analysis checks to protect against certain statistical errors. And most importantly, it’s a new protocol which can be used again and improved. The authors suggest that future changes could:
“Emphasize the importance of having similar climbing training volume between the training groups;”
“Include participants with a better climbing performance level,” and;
“Examine training interventions with greater transferability and specificity than the current study by focus[ing] on local forearm fatigue training.”
Indeed, a community of climbers I am involved in saw the summary and made some constructive comments. Former Bouldering national champion, Sports Medicine Expert, and champion of strength training, Dr. Natasha Barnes, suggested that it could be interesting to do the same protocol with free weights as opposed to machine-based exercises to see how the results change.
I recently began a collaboration with Tom Randall from Lattice Coaching and Training. Here is the post which we collaborated on, as well as some of the practical options and considerations which the Lattice Climbing community came up (see the “from Taylor” section at the end) with to help develop provide a direction for additional Rate of Force Development (RFD)-related protocols.
Recently we’ve been in touch with Taylor at the Beta Angel Project about a cross-collaboration. We’d noticed that he’s equally as psyched about climbing research as we are!
To introduce you to his work we’re going to start on a very popular topic: the rate of force development in the fingers, or what is commonly thought of as contact strength.
While this is a relatively new measurement, compared to assessing finger strength, there is some existing work on the subject. Below is a short synopsis of the research. It’s a little over-simplified but hopefully communicates the information.
If you’re short for time then the key points are:
Rate of Force Development (RFD) is a relevant indicator of climbing performance when it is measured later in the contraction phase.
At least one protocol has been tested on elite-level Boulderers and was found to be effective.
It may be a good measure of fatigue in Lead Climbers, as well as a discriminator of skill level in Boulderers.
If you love delving into the details then read on!
Researchers have measured the RFD at different points in the contact of the hold. Working with the French National Team they have designed a specific protocol and have found that the measure may have utility in measuring fatigue in the fingers. They have compared how this measure (and other more traditional measures) fare when correlated against climbing performance. They have also looked at how training RFD may transfer between grip types. A collection of the existing research on this subject is available on Beta Angel.
Two articles (Levernier & Laffaye, and Vereide et al.) presented at the 2018 International Rock Climbing Research Association conference in Chamonix, France are not in the inventory yet as they are not available to the public. Both papers looked at different ways of measuring RFD to find out which worked best, such as Average RFD, Relative Peak RFD, RFD at 95% of maximum finger force, and an interval of time blocks between 0-300 ms. They found that Average RFD associated well with performance and that the best associations with climbing performance happened later in the contraction. They concluded that lead climbing isn’t a particularly explosive sport when it comes to contraction, but that there are major distinctions between skill levels when it comes to bouldering (possibly more so than finger strength).
So what do you think of this research? Where can it go and how can we use it? A few questions Taylor thought we might be interested in: is it worth trying to improve the logistics of measuring RFD and incorporate it into Lattice’s suite of measures? Do you see relevance for it as a measure of fatigue in addition to its use as a measure related to finger strength? Given the relationship with the speed of contraction and other climbing-related injury research suggesting potential associations between shock-loading and injury, he is also curious how the training community perceives the risk (possibly at different skill levels).
The resulting conversation trended to the practical: how do we train it. The community considered three protocols but also how to measure the fatigue aspect. The three protocols were as follows:
(1) A hangboarding protocol used on the French National Team which was built and studied by researchers.
(2) Campus Boarding
(3) Limit bouldering (possible with a carefully-designed System Board)
The Hangboarding protocol from the Levernier/Laffaye research had a 40 minute careful warm-up with time to familiarize themselves with the test edges, and they controlled for circadian rhythm and temperature. It involved a one-arm hang at a 90 degree lock-off. An update from the lead researcher showed me that they trained on two different grip types (open-hand, half-crimp) but measured three: open-hand, half-crimp and a full crimp. The grips were apparently between 25 – 6 mm. If they held for longer than 6 seconds, the researchers would increase the difficulty by changing the hold. If they fell below 120 degrees of flexion in the elbow, the attempt was discontinued. The fact that the researchers appeared to be careful about attempting to monitor and minimize injury, and that this has only been used on elite-level Boulderers, led me to be reticent regarding recommending this particular protocol in the absence of an experienced trainer.
The community also discussed campus boarding. One note I made to the community regarding the campus board was the potential I’ve anecdotally noticed for climbers to treat a campus board as more of a lock-off and gentle “grab” rather than a fast reaction requiring a quick “hit”. On the one hand a “lock-off” may increase the time on the anchored hand, but it could also increase the time of the contact which may not be productive. On the other hand, injury research is pretty clear that a shockload in a crimp position is one of the primary mechanisms of injury to the pulleys. I also had questions: “would doing a small move then a big move be better? The reverse? A double clutch? I’m not familiar enough with the RFD literature from other sports to even hazard an “evidence-based” guess.”
The idea of limit bouldering (LB) represented interesting potential. Only doing a handful of moves at your maximum would simulate the 4-6 second max contraction, although it might also increase the uncontrolled nature of the shockloading. Additionally, the community was concerned about measuring it for reproducible results. The community recommended combining LB with a carefully-designed, possibly symmetrical system board which could improve the measurement potential by allowing “control of hold size, move distance, and and problem creation” (Lattice Community Discussion). It could also provide more specificity to climbing. The Lattice Trainers considered the possibility of looking at a force plate combined with a climbing hold. I noted that the researchers of the French National Team study used a “Power Grip Manipulandum” dynanometer.
Lastly, we looked at a few of the results of some studies which suggested that RFD may fatigue quicker than maximum voluntary contraction (MVC). One community member thought it may be useful to look at the ratio of MVC to best boulder problem. He/she hypothesized that as an imprecise but potentially suggestive metric: “Climbers with a high MVC but low max send might indicate underlying strength without the ability to turn it on quickly. In those climbers training RFD might be more important. High send, low MVC…might mean more hang boarding to raise MVC, less campus/limit bouldering” (Lattice Community Discussion).
It was an interesting discussion. I look forward to more work with the Lattice Training Community.
In a small town of 9,000 permanent residents and 80,000 hotel beds nestled in the conifer-forested Alps and towered over by the 15,777 ft. “White Mountain” or Mont Blanc, climbers from 29 countries came to nerd out, climb, and drink wine. And the Beta Angel Project partook in all of the above. I wish I could highlight all of the research, but this article is focused on the research that is the most practical for my needs as a climbing coach. However, there are some pieces of research (notably RFD and hangboarding) I remain cautious about as a youth coach even as I note their utility for older athletes. Additionally, the intent of this summary is not to point out flaws in any of the research – there were plenty of challenging questions to researchers at the conference, most of them warranted. Rather, it’s to give you a taste of how I intend to be a little more creative in my approach to high-end athletes on both rock and in competition.
Science, and its application toward practice, builds. I may get something wrong here, or I may go further than the researcher intended. If you are a researcher or climber and have a question, comment, clarification, or … most important, a practical consideration associated with the research, please e-mail me at Taylor@beta-angel.com. In September of 2018, I’ll be publishing any comments I get to my website’s spotlight section: https://beta-angel.com/spotlight/. I’ll include responses in an attempt to be as transparent as possible.
Foresight into Training
Before we get into the research itself, let’s imagine for a moment, how a coach might see the practical implications of the work he viewed at a research conference. Arabella is six clips up a sport route. Through her earpiece, Arabella’s coach whispers an oxygen stat he’s monitoring from the ground which is being fed from a non-cumbersome cordless monitor on her forearm. He presses a button and a hold lights up to her left which she transitions over to. After a minute of recovery the hold switches colors and a new path up the wall is illuminated. The route has changed to suit her physiological needs. She finishes the route, and lowers off. Her coach sets a tablet in front of her transfers his eye tracking data to it from the glasses he’s wearing. Arabella watches herself climb; a shrink-wrapped cone maneuvers around her while climbing fluency statistics pop up on the screen for hip jerk, geometric entropy, and stationary time on the route. Her eyes flit back-and-forth in split-screen mode to a previous attempt where she’s able to compare measures of fluency. Little clouds of green, orange, and red coalesce around certain parts of her body as she moves, indicating the eye tracking technology her coach uses to track what he’s looking at any given time.
The route Arabella is training on has been specially-crafted with both ergonomic holds and route-setting designed to avoid injury. However, sometimes you push it just a little too hard. Jennifer has her feet on a specially-designed platform and she monitors the amount of force being put into the hangboard through an app on her phone connected to the platform which is electronically adjusted for her weight. She’s using a protocol that involves one arm hangs in order to shore up weaknesses in her non-dominant arm. She finishes the set and steps off the platform, placing her forearms into a specially-modified cold water bucket that allows her fingers to stay above the water but helps her forearms recover between sub-maximal hangboarding which stresses her fatigue resistance. Jennifer isn’t sure if she should continue her protocol due to a tweak in her finger. The gym she’s at has a professional physio who’s there during major training periods to monitor athletes and take questions from gym members. The physio tests Jennifer’s finger using a series of pinches, palpations, flexion/extension, and questions about pain developed by national level climbing team physios. Jennifer is told to cease hangboarding for the night but that that the injury is minor and she’ll be able to get back to climbing shortly using the physio’s evidence-based rehab protocol.
The physio returns to monitoring Darren who is about to race up a speed wall. Darren shouts encouragement to Jennifer: “You’ll come back stronger than ever!” Jennifer shouts back: “You’re going to break 6 seconds before I’m hangboarding again. You’re so close!” Darren’s coach flips two drones on which track Darren from the side and from the back. Darren sails up the wall. Each hold he touches measure split times and the drones tracking him provide three dimensional data relayed to his coach. The coach checks the data against a model who uses the same beta to identify areas of improvement.
The preceding three paragraphs followed potential training ideas for the three disciplines of the Olympic combined format: lead climbing, bouldering, and speed climbing. Every single idea within those paragraphs is technically possible at this point, and shouldn’t stress your imagination too much. What they represent are areas coaches, athletes and normal gym members have been challenged by: getting finger diagnoses, more effective hangboard protocols, ways to measure climbing efficiency and technical effectiveness, and improving the accuracy and uptake of information.
Trends in Research
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics
The significance that the international community is placing on the Olympic combined format should have been obvious to anyone in attendance. Marco Scolaris, President of the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC), opened the conference to discuss the history of how climbing was recognized as an Olympic sport, while Pierre-Henry Paillasson (French Federation of Mountaineering and Climbing – FFME) opened the training day to discuss training for the Olympics. There was also a keynote by famed climber Marc Le Menestrel. Yasui Hiroshi, the Japanese national team’s head coach, came out to discuss Japan’s “secret training” for all three disciplines. In addition, there were three presentations on the Olympics, from the medical considerations to the performance structure to an analysis of the controversy in France.[i] There was also at least one panel which touched on the Olympics.
Injury research: still ahead | Canada, Germany, and Switzerland
Pulley injuries make up a majority of finger injuries but they don’t represent all finger injuries. Researchers are both deepening our understanding of how to treat pulleys but also diving into other areas of finger pain. Isabelle Schöffl introduced a new method for reducing potential loss in bone integrity after a pulley surgery.[ii] “So what’s it called?” I asked. “I haven’t named it!” she replied. She laughed appreciatively when I reminded her that everything needs a name.
So what are those other areas of injury that need some thought? They inlude the lumbrical muscles. Conservative therapy (see Figure) was shown to have success on tears to the lumbrical muscles, which occur usually after pocket pulling of the ring or middle fingers in isolation. A Canadian presented a case study on the second surgical stimulation of an epiphyseal (growth plate) fracture after 9 months of pain in a 13 year old elite climber.[iii] A Swiss team identified the cause of these fractures as coming from bone movement on either side of the PIP (second joint back from the tip of the finger) joint during crimping.[iv] Additionally, a survey of 18 adolescents with 22 epiphyseal fractures showed that the adolescents had an average age of 14.1, that the injury was overwhelmingly in the middle finger during use of the crimp grip, and that all received their fractures during the period where they were growing the quickest, with bouldering being the most “remembered circumstance of the injury.”[v] The authors also suggested that smaller numbers of growth plate injuries in females may be due to different levels of a particular hormone (in addition to the fact that more males climb).
Field Medics | Austria, Canada, Germany and the United States
The doctors are concerned about the field! With a medical doctor power team (Germany and Canada) recommending more careful, evidence-based, sports-specific medical supervision of elite sport climbers in their review of the new Olympic discipline, one librarian and two practitioners stepped up to provide some great information for medical practitioners. [vi] The two physios, associated with their respective country’s national teams, provided practical ways of assessing climbing injuries, and the librarian looked at where climbers get their injury information from. The librarian identified where we as climbers are looking for injury care and prevention. Injury-care information came from: “a general health website (47.4%), general doctor (42.1%), a climbing-related website (39.5%), and a friend (39.5%).[vii] Injury prevention on the other hand mostly came from climbing-related magazines and friends (56.7% each). Of particular interest for me: “participants in this questionnaire did not consult a climbing coach.” My key takeaway: coaches, gyms, and physios can do better to integrate their work.
Can you field diagnose the severity of an A2 injury? Carrie Cooper from the USA provided a diagnosis guide for the A2 pulley involving four steps: (1) pain using a 0-10 scale, (2) active range of motion from extension to crimp and back, (3) resistance tests of the flexor muscles and the A2 using specific grip positions, and (4) palpation of the finger at the A2.[viii] Klaus Isele from Austria developed a pilot protocol based on osteopathic (addressing the interrelationship of the body’s nerves, muscles, bones and organs)[ix] therapy when climbers present with finger pain. Klaus requires 48 hours of break from climbing and three optional treatment methods: increasing traction (or pulling) force of the joint, triggering the sensitive points on the finger (e.g. at muscle insertions), and engagement of the finger while under pressure.[x] Klaus has been on the World Cup competition circuit for years but is perhaps best known as the gentleman supporting Adam Ondra during his epic ascent of Silence (5.15d).
More Power, Please | Belgium, France, and Poland
Who hasn’t heard a climber say: “I need more power”? Please contact me and invite me to your island. I was pleased to see Polish researchers validate the use of “post-activation potentiation”, (sometimes known as complex training but not to be confused with coordinated-muscle resistance training) with climbing-related workouts. By beginning a workout with hard resistance training, the climber gets a small window of time in which the muscle can take advantage of explosive training, such as the use of plyometric training. The Polish researchers who did the study used 5 pull ups with weight at about 85% of their one repetition maximum followed by a 4 minute rest, then a campus-like exercise involving three maximal reaches (10 second rest between each) which saw average improvement of 3.11 cm.[xi] We’ve known about these tools within the context of other explosive sports, such as sprinting and jumping, but this is the first time I’ve seen a study with a climbing protocol.
Power has a technical component, however. A collaboration between Belgian and French researchers analyzed coordination between the lower body and the upper body during dynamic movement.[xii] They compared the ankle, knee, and hip between a dynamic movement and a squat jump, and also compared the shoulder, elbow, and wrist between a dynamic movement and an explosive pull up. They found the points at which joint angle changed in relation to the time of the dynamic move. Their work has implications for the ankle and shoulder in generating more effective movement and power generation.
Contact Strength | Norway and France
In my review of 2017 research for Rock & Ice I mentioned a relatively new measure known as the rate of force production (RFD), which is more or less a way of measuring power in the fingers. Think of power as strength combined with speed. The Norwegians came in and demonstrated multiple measurements for RFD, and showed that the best correlation to climbing performance came in the later phases of force development (after 100 milliseconds, with increasing correlation up to and past 300 milliseconds), similar to jumping but distinct from sprinting. In other words, climbers require more time to generate force.[xiii] The French, not to be one-upped, measured a protocol of RFD on the French national bouldering team. Their four week protocol (which I described in my post on Rock & Ice) was sufficient to increase RFD for elite boulderers. One of their more interesting suggestions was that it may not be necessary to train in the full crimp grip to increase RFD in that position.[xiv]
Climbers love their hangboards | The Czech Republic and France
While RFD is showing promise, researchers also looked more in-depth at traditional finger strength measurement. For example, ever wondered about the effect of a hangboard on the fingers and pull-ups? What is the difference between pull-ups on a large climbing hold and a gym bar? The researchers found that combining hangboarding use with pull ups allows you to train finger force capacity even if the force applied through your fingers are inferior to their maximal capacities. Additionally, pulling up on a smaller hold may provide less value for your pulling muscles due to a slow-down in pulling ability, potentially to compensate for body swing and movement.[xv] This finding has implications for finding a balance between maximizing power with the upper arms and gaining finger and/or contact strength. Positive effects include greater forearm fatigue resistance training as the hold size goes down. Finally, pulling up on a large climbing hold may be more specific than a gym bar because it requires compensation of body movement more similar to climbing.
Climbers are apparently good at cheating when it comes to measuring finger force. Many of the climbers across multiple studies confounded researchers by being particularly good at increasing the amount of force they could generate into a force plate by manipulating their shoulder or elbow to increase torque. As a result, there were a few side conversations regarding the relatability of finger strength data when not controlling the position of the arm.
Eva Lopez, arguably the most thoughtful human being on hangboard training, was in attendance. She presented on a finding that showed lower strength climbers take more advantage of fingerboard training (both in endurance and strength) than higher strength climbers, and also that “the smaller strength gains obtained by [Higher Strength Climbers] were paired with a reduction in endurance.”[xvi] The positive effect of cold water immersion on hangboarding may also be impacted by the strength of the climber. Perhaps surprisingly, cold water on your forearms may increase your performance in hangboarding under some circumstances. One study sought to clarify a previous finding on the effect of cold water (59°F) on hangboard training. Hangboard protocols to exhaustion which use a cold water protocol may increase the time to exhaustion on the second, and to a lesser extent, third set.[xvii] The effect did not apply to everyone, however, and the researchers hypothesize that it’s more likely that better climbers can take advantage of this protocol, likely due to adaptive structures in the forearm.
Recovery on the route | The United Kingdom and the USA
Adaptive structures in the climber’s forearm built around oxygenation are integral to climbing performance. This research conference showed just how important oxygenation is to climbing. From Simon Fryer’s work in understanding oxidative capacity and the restoration of haemogloblin within the muscle tissue (for more on this, see my summary of 2017 research on Rock & Ice’s website), to Eric Hörst’s assertion to close out the symposium’s training day that the forearm’s role in our sport is unique in the sporting world given the size of the muscle, the use of isometric forces during sustained and repeating contractions, the closing down of the larger blood pathways (called “occlusion”) and the role of high capillarity and mitochondrial density.[xviii] Eric moved to refer to sport climbing “as an intermittent near-maximal effort activity” which requires short bursts of explosive movement using the anaerobic alactic system punctuated by multiple-but-short and/or fewer-but-long periods of recovery which take advantage of the aerobic energy system.
Collaborative Speed Smarts | France
Speed climbers may benefit from research more than other forms of climbing due to the fact that the route doesn’t change (at least for now). This means researchers are learning a lot about movement and timing. French work has been facilitated by excellent access to one of the top speed climbers; Anouck Jaubert, and her coach Sylvain Chapelle, who gave a presentation about his training methods.[xix] These researchers identified 8 sections of the current speed climb, each with unique dynamics: the start, the turn, the first acceleration, the first dyno, the second acceleration, the second dyno, the last three holds, and the final move.[xx] Then they identified how energy produced from each acceleration phase (start, first, and second acceleration) is removed due to the turn phase, the first dyno, and the second dyno, and believe this knowledge can be used to work on reducing the impact of these phases on acceleration. Relatedly, the Beta Angel Project did an analysis of a coach’s identification of speed “lag points” compared to a computer in order to help coach’s determine the extent to which they can “eyeball” these lag points. Additionally, these speed researchers implied that using a hip marker was a valid approximation of the climber’s center of mass, important because it’s a lot easier to track a hip marker than to estimate the center of mass using 3D mesh modeling. It is also an important aspect of climbing economy in sport routes and may alleviate future concerns about video analysis.[xxi]
Nutrition Up! | United States
The Beta-Angel Research Project’s inventory has only five articles on nutrition. This conference alone had four more, including one survey that looked at the eating habits of female rock climbers and compared them to other sports to get a sense of the relationship of climbers and food. In the survey of 604 climbers (116 of which were female) 17% of females appeared to have “disordered eating,” defined as abnormal eating behavior.[xxii] When the researchers looked at just the most advanced female climbers, the number reporting disordered eating increased to 43% (9 of 21). As a community, we have struggled with understanding how eating affects climbing. While Mary, Cate, and Missy at Crux Crush posted an analysis of a survey on body image several years back, this is the first survey (to my knowledge) to quantify the prevalence of abnormal eating in climbing.
Build the brain, up and out | France, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom
Expert coaches can help us understand the key inputs to climbing mental strength. Researchers from Spain and the United Kingdom sought to identify these factors: basic processes to capture and process information, such as creativity and learning ability, motivational aspects such as self-realization and autonomy, and emotional mechanisms, including self-regulation and frustration tolerance.[xxiii] Other measured factors include the idea of “vigilance”, defined as the ability to sustain attention and important in previous research which suggested that the reduction of cognitive resources may impact rock climbing performance. [xxiv] Indeed, the researchers found an association between climbing ability and scoring highly on a test of the ability to “maintain attention over time and the ability to respond appropriately to relevant stimuli” when testing intermediate to elite climbers.
Moving to a level of analysis beyond the individual, a sport psychologist from France approached the athlete’s mental game holistically. He is integrating the work of the athlete with the work of the coaches and the overarching federation by looking at factors which impact across all three levels. These factors include coaching and organizational stressors which affect the athlete, and the interrelationship of goal setting between the three.[xxv] This research has immense practical potential even at the local commercial gym’s team level, where a gym and team member may have very little direct communication but may impact and become impacted upon by one another.
Changing strategy in competition is a fine segue between the mental ability to understand the need to do something different and the physical ability to do it. I am personally a big fan of video analysis and data (so I am very pleasantly including a plug to growing the data collection section on my website). Researchers from Germany analyzed the rate of an athlete’s success on a boulder problem after either changing or not changing their strategy during a World Cup competition. They found that the rate of success in changing strategy was five times higher, depending on the attempt. Their advice? Quit after the third attempt if you can’t figure out a new idea![xxvi] While I may qualify this advice (especially in the case of a coordination move) from a practitioner’s standpoint to say consider spending more time thinking after your third attempt rather than quitting, I appreciated the creative categorization, use of video, and the quantification of attempts.
Measuring and Teaching Grace | Australia, France and the United Kingdom
Efficiency certainly has a mental component, but some researchers from the United Kingdom created a list of items which practitioners can use to help assess and teach the physical side of climbing fluency. The list includes 14 measures divided into 5 categories and based on a 5 point scale.[xxvii] These include “connection points” (2 measures; e.g. precision of feet), “transitioning” (4 measures; e.g. balance control), “coordination” (2 measures; e.g. movement initiation from lower or upper body), “technique” (2 measures; e.g. bent arms at inappropriate times), and “tactics” (4 measures; e.g. tempo or pace). The list appears to be a very practical way of assessing the quality of climbing movement and providing feedback in a structured way.
Slightly less practical but no less interesting, researchers are measuring climbing fluency through the use of accelerometers, inertial measurement units, and code to determine the amount of jerk in the hips, the amount of excess movement as you move up a route, the amount of time spent stationary on a route, the amount of time on a route, the amount of ‘exploratory’ vs. ‘performance-related’ movements used on a route, and others.[xxviii] While most of these measures are not new, researchers are looking at how these different examples of fluency are impacted by certain factors, like how they change across attempts on a route and ability level.[xxix] These conclusions will impact our ability to better maximize a given measure of economy on a route for a given ability level.
Climbing fluency is about more than just one measurement. A critical review of climbing economy measures found that a combination of measures (different combinations being helpful for each discipline) are necessary to measure fluency, and they must be paired with an attempt to understand a climber’s intentions, or in the words of Ludovic Seifert, the results “may be mistakenly concluded as dysfunctional.”[xxx][xxxi] Even just a basic understanding of many of these measures can help coaches and climbers learn how to better their own economy, and this represents an area ripe for translation to teaching.
Technology, growing | France, the Czech Republic, and the United Kingdom
Technology, like the aforementioned accelerometer or inertial measurement unit, is starting to get rather interesting and helping us measure. Companies like Beast Fingers and Lattice Training had members in attendance showing off research, and one enterprising young Canadian had a particularly novel set-up for a hangboard you heard about earlier in the “Foresight into Training” section. A website called “the Crag” is an online database with their own take on what goes into a “climber performance rating” system. An important sponsor for the conference was Luxov® (http://www.luxov-connect.com/en/home/), a leading hold manufacturer in Europe that had a tent set up for Chamonix’s lead and speed climbing World Cup. In the tent, they had a small section of the climbing speed wall set up with holds which took down split times between each hold.
Technology is helping us measure, and also helping us find out what to measure. We have known we can impact route preview and also climbing efficiency by focusing on certain strategies through the use of eye tracking technology, and now researchers from the UK are conducting an exploratory study of eye tracking technology use by coaches that when coupled with coaching interviews should help novice coaches see what expert coaches see.[xxxii] The speed climbing research I mentioned earlier is being facilitated by mesh suits and drones, and according to personal correspondence with Jan Gajdošík from the Czech Republic, a muscle oxygen monitor which uses an method called “infrared spectroscopy” is undergoing a validation study to see how we may better regulate our training through a real-time window of oxygenation in our forearms.
Find your try hard | France and the Netherlands
The value of perception in climbing may be underrated: both in terms of our ability to “perceive” moves and our ability to train in different zones. For example, researchers in the Netherlands found better climbers had more complex visual search strategies, possibly due to finger strength and/or because they are “sensitive” to the potential grabbing options and opportunities across holds and movement.[xxxiii] This shows the interrelationship of strength, technical potential, and the ability to “see a move”. Another area where we can better take advantage of, and influence, our perception is by using a scale called “rate of perceived pump” or RPP (also called rate of perceived exertion or “RPE”) which asks you to rate your pump on a 0 (no pump) to 10 (maximum pump – eminent failure) scale.[xxxiv] A heart rate monitor coupled with RPP may provide us an even better indicator for how hard we’re trying.
Power Centers of Research | France, Germany, New Zealand, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States
Climbing has a small community of researchers. For this reason, and because new researchers seek guidance from a small cadre of well-known figures, certain names are having an outsize effect on the climbing world. This master research group includes those who put the conference on and run the International Rock Climbing Research Association: Nick Draper (New Zealand) and Pierre Legreneur (France). The French are particularly interesting to me because of the work I do with some of our country’s elite youth athletes. Several French researchers were able to get access to the French national bouldering and speed teams to do research (see the speed and contact strength sections). Nick and Pierre also understand the outsized importance of injury research in climbing, which makes up the lion’s share of research at almost a 6th of all articles within the Beta Angel research inventory. The injury world is small but mighty: Volker and Isabelle Schöffl, Christoph Lutter, and Andreas Schweizer all collaborate and guide and are starting to increase the breadth of injury research even as they continue to deepen the work on pulley and growth plate injuries.
Andreas is our lead-in to the Swiss. I had dinner with the Swiss contingent one night, a group of soft-spoken but powerful voices: the aforementioned Andreas, Peter Wolf, and Frieder Wittman. Frieder collaborated with Peter on a study of a cost-effective climbing sensor which can measure forces in three dimensions.[xxxv] Andreas and Peter, along with Ludovic Seifert, edited the 2017 scientific game changer: The Science of Rock Climbing and Mountaineering. They also hosted the second Congress in Pontresina, Switzerland. From a movement perspective, Ludovic (France) collaborated on five of the seven pieces of research categorized under motor control at the conference.
While climbing is often called a movement sport, finger and forearm dynamics represent an extensive piece of the equation. A partnership between the UK’s Gloucestershire and Derby universities and Spain’s Cadiz University under the name of the C-Hipper (Climbing High Performance International Project) Climbing Project has the potential to cross multiple boundaries for our sport, but includes some of the world’s experts on the dynamics of fingers and forearms, and includes studies on everything from forearm oxygenation to nutrition to vigilance (mentioned above). Finally, the team of Phil Watts from Northern Michigan University organized the Congress in Telluride, Colorado in 2016. Northern Michigan University sent a strong contingent, including Scott Drum and Lanae Joubert.
Clusters and pockets of information
The practical implications of these power centers is that I expect more of the “building” on past research to be centered around these clusters, even while excellent isolated pockets of research continue to pop up. The clusters will bounce ideas off of one another, and use one another to further the research. If I ask a question of a researcher in the Czech Republic, and he doesn’t know the answer, he may be working with someone in the UK (note: this happened a few nights before submission) who we can bring into the conversation. This has the potential to get me from what is an “interesting question” that may be just outside of the researcher’s scope to the holy grail of practitioner uptake – direct application to my students.
The next Congress will be in 2020, in either Tokyo, Japan or Cadiz, Spain.
Taylor Reed is a policy analyst who coaches on the weekends. Taylor teaches Arabella “Belle” Jariel, Ashleigh “LEAF” Kazor, and Charlie “Skittles” Osborne, and consults with a small handful of elite kids from half a dozen states. When not coaching he’s preparing to coach, collaborating with other coaches, and working on his website: www.beta-angel.com. Taylor is married to a gorgeous soldier named Jennifer, lives in Maryland South Carolina, and is sponsored by Evolv sports.
[i] “Sport Climbing: Medical considerations for this new Olympic discipline” by Lutter, El-Sheikh, Schöffl and Schöffl; “Analysis of the performance structure of the Olympic combined climbing format” by Augste; “The Introduction of Sport Climbing at Tokyo 2020’s Olympic Games: analysis of the controversy in France” by Rogeaux and Rech
[ii] “Feasibility of a new pulley repair: a cadaver study” by Schöffl, Lutter, and Schöffl
[iii] “Surgical Management of pip joint repetitive stress epiphyseal fracture nonunion in elite sport climbers” by El-Sheikh, Lutter, Schöffl, Schöffl, and Flohe
[iv] “PIP joint contact incongruity in different grip positions as a trigger for epiphyseal fatigue fracture in adolescent climbers” by Schweizer and Bärtschi.
[v] “Epiphyseal stress fractures in the fingers of adolescents: biomechanics, pathomechanism, risk factors, and ultrasound” by Schöffl, Simon, Lutter, and Schöffl
[vi] “Sport Climbing: Medical Considerations for this New Olympic Discipline” by Lutter, El-Sheikh, Schöffl, and Schöffl
[vii] “An examination of climbers’ information-seeking behaviors for injury care and prevention” by Casucci
[viii] “A potential classification schema and management approach for individuals with A2 flexor pulley strain” by Cooper and LaStayo
[x] “Treatment of finger problems in climbers with the local-osteopathic Isele-method: a pilot study” by Isele, Hay, Schrank, and Schweikart
[xi] “The acute effects of weighted pull-ups on campus board power and power endurance exercises” by Sas-Nowosielski, Kandzia, and Magiera
[xii] “Role of lower and upper limbs in dyno maneuver” by Legreneur, Thevenet, and Bels
[xiii] “The association between different rate of force development-measurements and climbing performance” by Vereide, Saeterbakken, Kalland, Hermans, and Andersen.
[xiv] “The rate of force development: a new biomechanical key factor in climbing” by Levernier and Laffaye
[xv] “Effect of climbing hold depth on biomechanical arm action during pull-ups” by Vigouroux, Devise, Cartier, Aubert, and Berton
[xvi] “The effects of a weighted dead-hang training program on grip strength and endurance in expert climbers with different levels of strength” by Lopez-Rivera and González-Badillo
[xvii] “Individual responses to cold water immersion on handgrip performance” by Baláš, Kodejška, Gajdošík, Giles
[xviii] “Hemodynamic responses to rock climbing” by Fryer, and; “Qualitative analysis of two of 2017’s greatest ascents and a proposed conceptual model for maximum-difficulty sport climbing and energy system requirements” by Hörst
There aren’t a lot of coaching conferences. I know of only a handful: in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Canada’s conference is coming up! Thanks to Tiffany Melius (an Australian training for the Olympics with the Canadians!) for pointing it out to me. It’s called Canada Strong Climbing and it will take place September 20th through the 23rd in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. It’s organized by Chris Neve, a Canadian coach I met in Austria at the Youth World Championships in 2017.
A few examples of the conference speakers: Steve Bechtel of Climb Strong – if you haven’t heard him speak before I recommend it. His website has a wealth of information on it. The conference will also include Andrew Wilson, the national head coach of Canada’s climbing teams. Andrew has a significant amount of experience (here’s an interview that’s semi-recent) and is someone I want to prioritize learning from in the near future. Some of the topics at the conference will include mobility training, movement patterns, injury prevention, and mental performance. You can find a longer list of speakers and topics at this link. You can also visit their Facebook page by searching for “Canada Strong Coaching Conference 2018”.
Early bird registration ends on August 19th at which point the cost increases, so take a look and see if it’s right for you. As a coach from the United States, I personally appreciate the opportunity to get out of my box and learn new ideas from the international arena.
Know of other Coaching conferences? Shoot me an e-mail and I’ll be sure to highlight them.
I wanted constructive criticism of my interview with Kris Hampton of Power Company Climbing (see the full interview here). So I reached out to an Austrian sport psychologist by the name of Madeleine Eppensteiner who has a masters degree in sport psychology, has represented Austria as both a youth and an adult climbing athlete, and (my most important criterion) also happens to cite her references using synthesis between the research and the subject. Her website can be found at: Climbing Psychology.
It is certainly a little scary to ask someone you respect, but don’t know, to analyze the relationship between you and your athlete, but I’m glad I did. Her remarks are below. From discussing why athletes should take an active part in their own training, to finding a balance between autonomy, flexibility, authority and trust, to an excellent point about focusing on an athlete’s emphasis on their self rather than others, Madeleine’s perspective is insightful reading and eminently practical.
Though Madeleine’s comments about me are positive, on self-reflection I believe I can strive to effect my athletes in a more positive way even as I continue to offer opportunities for their own self-reflection. Thank you, Madeleine, for your insightful (and well referenced!) analysis.
If you don’t have a lot of time, skim through the bold parts below. With the podcast, you can skip around to save time. Here are some highlights – Athlete/coach meshing: 8:25 – 10:15 | Humility: 12:20 – 14:12 | Failure at Worlds: 15:10 – 17:15 | Mutual decisions: 21:00 – 22:05 | Stress: 23:30 – 25:15 | Belle Pushing Back: 29:15 – 30:45 | Outside Climbing: 35:30 – 39:55 | Belle embracing her discomfort. 45:05 – 46:30
I just listened to Taylor and Bella’s interview on the Power Company Climbing, talking about their coach-athlete-relationship and how they became as successful as they are. Taylor is an American coach who just recently started the website www.beta-angel.com – a page where research about climbing from all different fields is shared. Of course I was interested in collaborating! I listened to his and his athlete Bella’s podcast and commented on it from a sport psychological perspective. Here’s my statement:
Bella and Taylor seem to have a healthy athlete-coach relationship. Before I go into more detail on why I think so, ask yourself, how would you describe your athlete-coach-relationship? How would you describe your leadership style?
To be fair, there is no right or wrong, as long as it fits the relationship and both parties. However, there are some important, scientifically proven factors on the part of coaches that enhance a positive, long-term and healthy coach-athlete relationship. Such characteristics of a coach are being empathic, being highly competent in what you’re doing (such as climbing), being trustworthy, giving positive subjective feedback and also offering the possibility of talking about something outside sports – such as school or maybe the first girlfriend/ boyfriend (if the athlete wants to talk about it). The older the athletes become the more they should be supported to become autonomous and e.g. get involved in creating a training plan. Training plans should be more flexible and athletes should be encouraged to listen more to their own body and needs. Trust goes both ways – the athlete has to trust the information given by the coach, and the coach has to trust the athlete’s self-efficacy and ability to know what’s best for them and their body in the moment. Let’s give an example: if e.g. the athlete had an exam at school that was really hard, or if they did badly at the last comp and therefore are emotionally, mentally and maybe even physically not in the state to exactly execute what was planned, they should have the freedom to decide to do something different in a training session. Another classic example – which most of us might have experienced themselves in some way – is giving beta to other people. Don’t get me wrong, it can obviously be really helpful to get advice for how a move can be done. However, it’s always still up to the athlete to execute the move. Even if I was a great coach and I was really good at giving beta and anticipating moves, I’d still not be in my athlete’s mind and body. To use a metaphor “we can only open the door, but the athletes have to go through it themselves“. I have experienced coaches saying to their athlete that “this is the only right way to do a move“, “come on, do it like this” and in turn, athletes not trusting themselves enough or feeling intimidated by the coach “because he/she always knows better/ best; he/she is always right” so they forget to listen to their own body and make a decision based on how this move feels right for them. A good coach-athlete relationship means that coaches allow themselves to not always be right, give their athletes space to e.g. discover moves themselves, and also don’t see it as critique of their coaching abilities if the athlete doesn’t do something exactly the way they had said, e.g. executing a move. So much for autonomy and flexibility. From what I can tell about Taylor’s and Bella’s relationship by listening to the podcast, they seem to have a great balance of autonomy, flexibility, authority and trust. There is no “misuse of power“, both are equal in their relationship (Frester, 1995 – old but still contemporary research!).
Another important factor in a healthy coach-athlete relationship, particularly for female athletes is an increased emotional and empathic attention. One great example is the Youth Worlds in Innsbruck last year, when Bella was really devastated after not having achieved her goals. If we are in such a vulnerable state of mind because we are overwhelmed by negative emotions caused in this case by a bad competition, we might not be open to feedback right away. There are different ways of dealing with negative emotions – may that be breathing exercises to control our emotions and calm down, taking your time to calm, walking away from the setting, music, talking with friends, etc. (again, classic psychological answer: there’s no right or wrong). It’s important for athletes to develop their own strategies and not suppress their feelings. And in turn, it’s important for coaches to learn their athlete’s need in these moments. In Bella’s situation that would have been: no constructive feedback directly after the competition. By Taylor starting to talk about his own failures, he shows his own vulnerability and trust which in turn helps Bella to open up as well and talk about mistakes and what she can learn out of it. Again, other athletes might need some space and time, or positive feedback and care. Do you know what your athletes need? How can you support them in the best possible way? What do they positively react to?
Generally, I like the approach of both Taylor and Bella trying to learn the most of every competition. In sport psychology, you call what Taylor’s trying to create a “mastery-based climate”. Coaches are responsible for the creation of an “atmosphere” or a training climate in a training group. We distinguish between ego-based climate and mastery-based climate. In an ego-based climate the coach focuses on an inter-individual comparison. Athletes get attention and recognition based on their results and achievements compared to other athletes. Instead of seeing individual progress, progress is always put in comparison with other athletes. A mastery-based climate promotes evaluation of competence based on effort, learning, and self-referenced improvement and therefore focuses on intra-individual progress – what has the athlete improved on? What can the athlete still learn? You wonder what climate might be more effective, particularly in competitive sports group and individual sports? Isn’t it good to always compare your athletes to everyone else? Well, by coaches focusing on the individual progress of their athletes, they foster development of intrinsic motivation, enjoyment of activity, they minimize fear of failure, they put emphasis on effort, persistence, improvement, hard work which in turn can increase self-esteem in athletes (Erickson & Côté, 2016).
All of a sudden, effort becomes the key of success – and effort, we know, opens up a whole room of action. Effort is something that is totally in our control (which in turn, leads – as said – to increased self-esteem and motivation and…). And the long-term effect: a mastery-based climate leads to faster and better skill development, as well as a higher performance. You might say now it’s not always possible to not create an ego-based climate. Yes, you’re right – there will be times when we are directly compared to others (such as in competitions), and to sometimes create such a climate in training in order to prepare your athletes for a competition might be a good thing. But in the long run, a mastery-based climate is proven to have a greater positive impact and influence than an ego-based climate (e.g. Adie & Jowett, 2010; Allen & Hodge, 2006; Erickson & Côté, 2016).
To come back to the podcast, instead of going “well, that was a complete failure”, critiquing each other for who did what wrong or what everyone else did better, they focused on the learning experience – what’s their lessons learnt? What is their take-home message? What can they do differently next time?
This is a really healthy approach and should be supported by coaches for athletes from a very young age onwards. It helps athletes to develop a progressive attitude – something proven to not only be important for being a professional but also in our everyday life, at work or at school. To add to the list of “what characteristics trainers/ coaches should have” – giving (and receiving) constructive feedback is another essential one (Frester, 1995).
Losing or not achieving set goals is part of the game if you’re competing. Like Chris Sharma said: “The reality is, we spend 99.9% of the time not succeeding….” We often forget that results are influenced by many different (also external) factors, some of which we can’t control. Climbing in particular – compared to e.g. athletics or swimming – is defined by its randomness, such as route setting in general, highly coordinative moves, grip on holds, etc. If we have a close look at very successful athletes, we see that they have a very positive approach towards failure or losing, such as Michael Jordan, the best and most successful basketball player of all times, who says he has missed more than 9,000 shots in his career. He has lost almost 300 games. 26 times, he has been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. He has failed over and over and over again in his life. And that, he’s saying, is why he succeeds. – Again, learning from failures, gaining new experience, making the most of a situation. Or let’s take some climbers as a positive example: Sachi Amma once said in an interview “disappointment is something that I experienced very strongly. It hits me really deep inside. I can only deal with it if I find the cause and a solution. It eventually becomes possible to avoid the situation that caused the disappointment in the first place.” It’s natural – and therefore absolutely ok – to be disappointed or feel other negative emotions when we lose, fall in a route or fail in a competition. However, we have to learn to accept the situation – we can’t change it any more right now (normally, the more successful and the mentally stronger the athletes are, the quicker they can accept and “tick” a negative experience). In a second step, we can start searching for reasons and what we can improve in the future. Another example by Sean McColl is: “If you don’t like training and you only like to win at competitions, then you are probably not going to have a good time. Usually the people that win love training. If I don’t do well at a competition, I try to figure out why that was.” There are obviously many more examples of highly successful athletes and how they deal with failures, these are just a few.
Another way of dealing with negative experiences at competitions – particularly, when we realize that it might have affected the athlete’s self-confidence – is the following: When we experience failures or competitions that didn’t go the way we expected, we often tend to only focus on the negatives or “get stuck” with everything that didn’t work.We rarely focus on (little) improvements or personal little achievements. We take one mistake that possibly influences our result as a summary for the whole competition or as a negative reflection of training, often – as said – forgetting that results are influenced by many different (also external) factors, some of which we can’t even control. This focus on the negative puts our “inner scale” into an imbalance – negative thoughts, feelings, feedback always weigh heavier than positive experiences. To become more open to progress and learning from the experience, it can also help to put the focus on positive parts of the experience. Even if we had a horrible competition, there still might have been some positive parts. So start asking yourself the questions:
What did you improve compared to last year’s competition/ Youth Worlds? What did you enjoy about this competition? What were/ are your strengths – as an athlete, as a person, in a competition, etc.? What did you like about the competition – and what didn’t you like? Was it the whole competition or only parts of it? Which parts need to change so you’d like it again? How could you enjoy these parts nonetheless?
Trainers and coaches can do their bit by confirming positive development and improvements and not only focusing on the negatives. At this point we have to distinguish between grown-up athletes and young athletes. Adults normally have a more stable self-confidence and self-efficacy. They therefore might not need that much external positive feedback. However, positive confirmation plays a big role for the youth athlete. Since the self-confidence of young athletes (kids and adolescence) is not as stable compared to grown up athletes due to their psychological development, they need a lot more external positive feedback and confirmation to build up their confidence. Negative comments/ feedbacks by coaches/ parents, etc. can have a long-term negative impact on the development and self-confidence of young athletes. Also note that young athletes who develop self-confidence and good mental strategies to deal with pressure at a young age are more likely to become professional athletes as adults (e.g. Erickson & Côté, 2016; Omli & Wiese-Bjornstal, 2011).
In another part of the interview Taylor and Bella talk about Bella only focusing on climbing before the Youth Worlds and therefore having a break of going to school. This in turn, caused a lot of pressure for Bella and she found herself doing better, preparing for the PanAmerican Championships when she also went to school. What happened? Having a “back up” instead of putting a focus solely on one project can take away a lot of pressure. When I work with athletes, I try to anticipate different scenarios before a competition, the so-called “what if’s”: “What if this happens? What do you do?” The better we are prepared for any situation, the less stressed we will feel – we already know what to expect and what to do; if something happens. It’s hard to be or work as a professional athlete. Sponsors and fans expect results of you and you have to perform. What if you don’t deliver? Having a back-up (may that be school or outdoor projects if you don’t perform well in competitions for a season) can help a lot to relativize a single competition (such as e.g. the Youth Worlds). Jernej Kruder, who regularly was on the podium in the Bouldering World Cups this year, is a great example for this. Last year at the popular outdoor climbing festival, Melloblocco, in Italy, he said to me that he realized that bouldering results aren’t everything – he can also do really hard routes outdoors, on lead, deep water soloing and the more he enjoys all of it, the better he also performs in competitions. Sponsors support him for not only having good results in bouldering comps, but also for other projects which take away pressure compared to if he was solely focusing on bouldering comps.
As a coach, you can help your athletes find out what causes their pressure. Do they have a plan B? What happens if different scenarios take place – at a comp, in training or in general? How are the athletes prepared? Do they need support? And if yes, how can you as a coach support them?
Again, the answers to these questions might vary between athletes. Every athlete is different and therefore need to be supported differently. Also, their “plan B’s” might look completely different.
I have to admit that I don’t know Taylor in person. However, there were many incidents during the interview where I thought “Well, this guy must be really self-confident“. I’ll give you some examples of why I thought so and secondly, why I think this is an essential trait to have as a coach. At one point they mention that Taylor supports Bella to see other coaches down in Atlanta and train with them, he talks about his own mistakes after a bungled comp first before Bella does, etc. To do that takes a lot of guts – and from my experience is unfortunately rather rare. Only if we have confidence, we will help develop confidence in those around us. Only if we feel worthy as a person, we will recognize worth in others. Only, if we care about ourselves, we will more likely care about others. Our success as a coach is strongly related to our self-esteem and to how we value ourselves. This is a really sensitive topic because very often, coaches are judged by their athlete’s results – but as we also all know, we are not in control of our athlete’s results, well not even what they do, whether they solve a problem or top a boulder or route, and this lack of control influences our stress level. Coaches who therefore build up their self-confidence on their athlete’s success and results, build up their self-confidence on a really unstable base which in a long term can have negative effects on both their athlete’s and their own health and self-confidence (Martens, 2011). If you are a coach you can ask yourself: What are your strengths, competencies and worth? What distinguishes you from others? What do you contribute to your success?
The site has gone live to the world and it’s beginning to see media attention. Below are a selection; two that I wrote which are highlighted on TrainingBeta and Rock and Ice Magazine’s respective websites and one international article you may have to use google translate to read.
Let’s start with the general: Matt Pincus and Neely Quinn over at Trainingbeta were kind enough to give me a soapbox to tell you: “why Beta Angel.” A brief summary: the website is intended to showcase research and identify the practical implications of that research. It highlights three examples of areas of the res
earch that have informed my coaching: pulley injuries, fatigue in contact strength, and female shoulder training. Finally, it provides a few examples of how you can engage: “like” the Facebook page and comment on posts about research with ideas about how to make it more practical. Read the blog and scan the inventory, then use the contact page to tell me what you’re interested in.
Rock and Ice Magazine’s Michael Levy was kind enough to showcase what research came out of 2017. There were 33 research articles which were published in 2017 (that I could find). While the largest percentage continues to be published on injuries, 2017 had some fantastic examples of climbers building on research to offer us more information on climbing economy and the use of energy systems. Several practical examples include: temperature effects finger endurance more than finger strength, you can use a hangboard to influence at least one measure of contact strength, and incorporating principles of adaptation to uncertainty in a climbing move may be beneficial for training’s translation to performance.
Finally, a website out of Brazil (I think) called blogdescalada.com picked up on my website. I was a huge fan of their suggestion that my website is essentially designed to combat the Dunning-Kruger effect. Here’s the quote I liked the best: “Americans interested in also providing scientific knowledge, to stifle the voices of those who have illusory superiority, created the site The Beta Angel Research Project.” To say we’re amused would be to put it mildly.
On any given day international visitors make a surprising percentage of visitors. Brazil and the UK are high on that list, likely because of the blogdescalada article and because a handful of coaches in the UK managed to find my website before I made it public. The Data Collection and Research Inventory pages flip back and forth on any given day as the #1 and #2 visited sections.
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.