Highlight: Canada Strong Climbing – 2018 Coaching Conference


Canada Strong Climbing

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.

Taylor | Director of the Beta Angel Project

Climbing Sport Psychologist analysis of Taylor and Bella’s interview with Power Company Climbing

Intro from Taylor:

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

From Madeleine:

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?

Madeleine Eppensteiner | Climbing Psychology

Beta Angel is in the News: Rock & Ice Magazine, TrainingBeta, and… Brazil?

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.

You can read more at this link to TrainingBeta’s website.

Option 2

Rock and Ice Magazine

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.

You can read more at this link to Rock and Ice Magazine’s website.


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.

You can read more (with the help of a translator) at this link to Blogdescalada’s website.

Some interesting notes

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.

Taylor at the the Beta Angel Research Project

This Website is Going to Take Risks – and that’s Okay

This Website Will Embrace Failure

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.’”
  3. 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.

“No Capes!”

Scene from the movie The Incredibles
Unknown Creator

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

Photos of Arabella Jariel and Taylor Reed
Left: Taylor with Arabella Jariel in the early years. Right: Arabella embracing the Beta Devil in the later years.

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.

A Public Service Announcement About Turn-In Climbing


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.

Aleksandra Dagunts demonstrating "turn in" climbing
It’s pretty hard to find pictures of me climbing in turn-out. But here’s some in turn-in.

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.


Aleksandra Dagunts demonstrating "turn out" climbing on the lift and "turn in" climbing on the right
Turn-out, (2) Turn-in. Guess which one worked. (Trick question. Neither of them worked.)

What can you do about all this?

If you’re someone who is overly reliant on turn-in climbing, here’s some things you can do to break the habit:

  • Take a hiatus from turn-in climbing for a while. Commit to figuring out how to do every move in turn-out.
  • Seek out climbs with more dynamic moves and fewer foothold options to force turn-out.
  • Do hip mobility and strengthening exercises.
  • Watch climbing competitions and compare how different climbers (especially climbers of different stature) do the same move. See if you can figure out when turn-in or turn-out climbing works better.
  • Do the above exercise watching other climbers at your gym and/or recorded videos of yourself.

The System Move

Climber on system board

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.evolv principles diagram_042412-01

The Context

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.