Learning Good Technique or Unlearning Bad?

Often people who want to be coached want to improve their technique, which in my mind is often the best way to make rapid improvements, as improving how you climb will improve your grade and confidence without the need for lengthy conditioning through aerobic, anaerobic or strength building regimes. Often where people fall down is how to develop good techniques, and this is where the science of skill acquisition can help.

At its simpliest level there are three stages to skill acquisition – Cognitve/thinking stage ; Associative or Intermediate stage; Autonomous or Elite Stage. If you then see this as a continum rather than seperate stages then we start off as a beginner, were we are first introduce to a skill, by practicing that skill we move from the first stages of learning where we are having to think about it all the time (hence cognitive stage), to where from time to time we will associate that skill with a given task, before after more practice we can carry out that skill without consciously thinking about (Autonomous Stage).

The key to moving from the cognitive/thinking stage through to the Autonous stage is effective practice. Now many people will have heard the saying practices makes perfect. Unfortunately this simply isn’t true, a modern coaching maxim is that only perfect practice makes perfect. So the chances are that unless you have used perfect technique from the very start of your climbing you will have some less than perfect technique that you will need to over write in your brain to adapt to better technique.

What often happens when learning new technique is that you practice it in an nice and easy environment, and then as soon as you try and use it in anger for the first time on the sharp end of a hard route is that it goes out the window, and you revert back to your old bad technique. This is because you haven’t practised it enough in the right type of environment.

Lets take for instance the habit of trying to face sideways when climbing, one of the quickest and easiest of technique to practice, and great help to your climbing. Try and climb keeping your upper body facing left or right as you climb. Now if you try and practice it on hard boulder problems then you simply won’t be able to practice it enough as you will get to pumped. If however you practice facing sideways as a technique drill every time you warm up on easy routes then you will effectively have more and more practice everytime you go climbing. After a few sessions try practicing that skill in a variety of situations e.g. leading easy routes, top roping hard routes, climbing corners, climbing arete, climbing slabs, climbing walls, etc… Adding in the different places and types of climbing that you practice the skill in help to make it a robust technique that will stay with you.

Remember though it won’t all happen over night as one researcher in sports science said ‘It take 10000 hours or 10 years of practice to reach an elite level in Sport’. So keep at it, as everyday is a school day when it comes to learning technique. I still use climbing drills during my warm ups!