It doesn't matter if you're climbing 5.4 or 5.14, there are some things you should be doing to improve your overall climbing ability. Regardless of how long you've been climbing or how good your technique is, do the following to break through a plateau and improve your overall climbing capabilities:
Athletes often observe one another to increase their understanding of a sport or athletic event. It's a commonly used coaching tactic that has shown to improve performance (Mattar, 2005). You can benefit from observing better climbers than yourself. If you notice someone flash a difficult route, ask yourself some questions. What did they do differently than me? How can I climb like that? The guy climbing a 5.14 might be physically stronger than you, but there is a lot to be learned from analyzing technique. Watching videos of professional climbers is another good option, really analyze professional climbers and emulate their movements the next time you go out.
You don't need to watch professionals to benefit from observing other climbers. On the contrary, it's even more beneficial to examine someone of a similarly skill level to yourself. While learning a new task, novice amateurs improved by observing other untalented noobs. But what’s really impressive is that novice students were able to learn more by watching each other than by observing a professional (Zimmerman, 2000). This is because you can learn from the mistakes of your peers. Next time you're out watch someone of similar ability climb a route. While you watch, ask yourself what are three things they are doing right? What are three things they are doing wrong? This type of mental exercise can help you understand the mistakes you're making, because chances are you look similar to your peers. Learn from the mistakes of others before you ever have to make them yourself.
Watching a video of yourself climbing is a fantastic way to receive immediate feedback. Yet when I ask climbers if they've ever taken the time to do this, the vast majority say no. Research shows that individuals who receive video feedback improve their performance more drastically than individuals who exclusively receive verbal feedback (Palao, 2015).
Next time you're working on a bouldering problem or making your way up a climbing route, have someone take a few videos of you (never have your spotter or belayer film). The immediate visual feedback will help you understand exactly what you're doing wrong, and will help you make adjustments.
I'm a big believer in having mentors. These gurus can share stories of their mistakes and adventures, hopefully making the learning curve a little less steep for you. Mentors may also have the ability to drag you up routes you wouldn't have been ready for otherwise. Never consider yourself too skilled or knowledgeable to have a teacher. Renan Ozturk was an established climber with remarkable first ascents when Conrad Anker accepted him as a protégé.
Admittedly it can be difficult to find the right teacher. It's usually a matter of being in the right place at the right time. So put yourself in the right place at the right time. Stop by the climbing gym on a rainy day, be friendly and start a conversation with the guy flashing 5.13's.
As a rule of thumb I encourage people to have a short-term (this month), mid-term (6 months), and long-term goal (1+ year). Each objective should be attainable but push you a little bit out of your comfort zone. Goals can come in many forms and should be tailored to you. Maybe your ambition this week is to get off the couch and get outside three times. Maybe it's to climb 100 pitches this weekend. Whatever yours is, make the commitment and achieve it.
Goals are an easy way to stay focused and keep yourself moving upward. Without them it becomes easier to get stuck in a rut and flounder in the same place. Make sure you achieve your objectives, success will build on itself and propel you to whatever the next level is for you.
An ideal partner is someone who is always stoked to climb, a similar skill level to you, and is a trustworthy belayer. Having a good climbing partner will inevitably mean you get pushed out the door and climb more often. Like the Guru, a perfect partner can be hard to find. Spark conversations around the gym or at the local crags, climbers are friendlier than you think.
This seems intuitive, but it needs mentioning. Like any athletic event, you need to practice if you want to improve. If you're only getting out the door one day a week and have reached a plateau, try roping up two or three days a week. On the days you do climb, get more pitches in than you have in the past. Running laps is a fantastic way to increase your volume, set up a top rope and see how many times you can climb a route in 10 minutes. Finding a gym with an auto-belaying system is another great way to get more climbing in, you don’t have to have a partner to get dozens of pitches done.
If you want to improve, I’m asking you to approach climbing in the same way any athlete approaches their sport. This concept is new to some people. Observe other people climb to make changes to your own technique. Watch film of yourself to improve your skill even further. Find a guru/mentor/coach to advice you while pursuing goals. Climb as much as you can, all the observation in the world means nothing if you don't get out and practice.
Oh and don't forget, have fun. Because that's what it's all about.
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