I started piano lessons when I was around seven years old. While I’ve forgotten the gritty details, I remember one characteristic of my lessons distinctly: I did a lot more practicing than playing those first few years. I hated practicing, but even at seven years old I understood the importance of building fundamental skills. Image the opposite approach. Sure, if I had dedicated 300 hours to Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”, I probably could have bypassed a lot of the work put into learning scales, chord structures, music theory, etc., and still pulled off a passable performance of the piece. But that wouldn’t make me a good piano player. Without any fundamentals, I would have to start from scratch with the next piece.
I think this is a great analogy for rock climbing. We’ve all grown accustomed to Sharma thugging his way up boulder problems in Dosage 4, Alex Puccio’s rippling muscles in ABS highlights, and Jimmy Webb’s ridiculous surplus of power as he flashes every V11 ever. It becomes tempting to classify climbing as a primarily physical sport, but there is so much more to it than that. Sure, if you want to climb hard, you have to get strong. But you also have to get good, and that requires lots and lots of practice.
Back to the piano analogy. If playing piano = just going climbing, and obsessing over the Moonlight Sonata = beating your head against your first .13a for four straight seasons, then where does practicing fit into the picture? After all, we don’t have scales, chords, or music theory for rock climbing…
How to Practice Rock Climbing
One simple, yet critical quality separates practicing from just going rock climbing: your mindset. With focus and intention, every bit of climbing you do becomes an opportunity to practice. Don’t just climb the warm-ups, master the warm-ups. Don’t just climb the easy section up to the crux before focusing in on what you have to do, try to be perfect up to the crux. Aim to be perfect, always. Practice, always.
Here are a few techniques I use to make the whole practicing thing a bit more tangible:
- Skills. Pick one.
I try to practice rock climbing with every route I do, but I don’t try to practice every skill at once. There are dozens if not hundreds of skills to learn in climbing, and starting up a route with the mindset of “I am going to practice being a better rock climber” doesn’t help with focus very much. Instead, with every route that you do, pick one skill to focus on, and let the rest of you go on autopilot. Warm-up routes are a great time to practice skills like pacing, breathing, moving with momentum or moving statically, clipping bolts, matching hand holds, matching footholds, edging, back-stepping, flagging, climbing short, climbing tall, being precise with your hands, being precise with your footwork… the list goes on and on.
Redpoint burns demand more of your focus and are a good time to practice the skills that come into play when you are in performance mode: things like climbing with confidence and intention, using your breathe, giving 100% when it’s time to fight hard, and relaxing when it isn’t…
Pick one skill. Practice it. Improve it. Then pick another.
- Aim Small, Miss Small
One of the most apparent qualities of a really good rock climber is the way he or she uses holds. They not only know which little edge to put their left foot on as they leave the shake at the 5th bolt, but they know exactly how to use the edge, with a very specific part of their shoe meeting a specific part of the hold. Good climbers do this at the crux of their long-term project. Excellent climbers do this all of the time, with every move they make, every trip up the wall.
This should be practiced always. Technical climbing areas, like Smith Rock, Yosemite, and many of the granite areas in Washington and Colorado, almost demand practice of this skill. Many of the local climbers at these areas naturally become excellent rock climbers, but have to do supplemental training to get strong. Climbers who spend a lot of time at steep juggy areas or climb a lot in the gym have to be a bit more intentional and discipline with their practice. My favorite drill is to do all of my warm-ups or volume climbing pretending the holds are smaller than they are. Instead of slapping your foot up on the next red blob protruding from the wall, pick a very specific spot on the hold to aim for. Aim small, miss small, and repeat.
- Watch and Learn
We all like climbing movies right? I certainly do. What better way to get psyched for a coming trip, or pass a rainy Sunday than by watching Dosage, King Lines, or Progression?… again..
Next time you throw in a climbing flick, think of it as research. Instead of slumping in your Lazy Boy and lusting over the landscape of South Africa’s Rocklands, study some rock climbing. This day in age, we have more access to footage of the best rock climbers in the world than we can even keep track of. Watch what they do, how they move, how they breath, how they rest, how they clip, how f***ing hard they try…
Same thing goes for the crag. If you see somebody at the crag who is way better at rock climbing than you, pay attention! This is where you get the behind the ‘behind the scenes’ stuff. Watch how they warm up, how they work their projects, how they get focused for a redpoint go…
Find some really good rock climbers, watch them and learn from them. Then start practicing what they do.
- Try Everything
All of the best climbers I know have climbed a lot, for a long time, in loads of different places and styles. You look at pro climbers, and they all have an incredible foundation of sends under their belt. Adam Ondra is likely the greatest example. So he’s done over one hundred 9a’s or harder. Old news. Well as of this moment, he has also done TWO HUNDRED AND FIFTY-FOUR 8a’s. Not and harder. Just 8a’s. Talk about a foundation, that dude’s climbing resume is anchored in bedrock.
But he gets to climb all over the world, right? Most of us are anchored to one city or town most of the year, and are limited to the boulders, cliffs, or gym’s we have within our local areas. We figure if we could travel around and climb all the time, we could try a wide variety of routes and get really good at rock climbing.
Here’s the thing: most of the climbers I know don’t even utilizing the very limited number of rock climbs at their local crag. It amazes me to see how many climbers avoid the 5.11c next to their long-term .13a project because it doesn’t have draws on it, or because it has a bit of moss on one of the holds, or because they have never seen anyone climb it.
Here’s my advice: next time you go climbing, get on the 11c. Maybe it will suck and you’ll totally regret it; but maybe, just maybe, you’ll learn a little something. Keep this approach up long enough, and eventually you’ll have learned a dozen little somethings, or a hundred! Or two hundred and fifty-four…
Two hundred and fifty-four little somethings would probably make you a way better rock climber.