Cueing yourself for climbing skill & power

Even a simple climbing movement is wildly complicated in biomechanical terms. Every time we grab a handhold or shift our balance, we’re automating a bunch of tasks. This gets easier as we do more and more of the same basic moves. As movements get more complex and unique, less of the task is automated, and we need to focus more to develop new skills. This is an oversimplification, but a functional one.

In science, specific cues appear useful for developing skills, or for improving one element of a complex movement. Cues outside the body seem better than ones inside the body for force production, while cues inside the body may be useful in the learning stage. Climbers can probably relate to this; specific beta and instructions are a lot more useful when we’re on the ground, between efforts. During efforts, general encouragement is more productive.

On difficult climbing, just focusing on the task of not letting go usually absorbs so much of our attention that there isn’t space for complex concepts. Pain, anxiety, and environmental constraints all add noise to this challenge. Maybe you’ve been there, desperately trying to press out a mantle, while your buddy is yelling something obscure at you about your center of gravity. I know I’ve been both the mantler, and the misguided buddy in this scenario.

On a related note, telling a study participant that a grip challenge was about to change resulted in a 12% reduction in stability (Tillman & Ambike.) Is it any surprise that when we realize the next gear placement is further than we thought, there’s an emotional and physical response that we have to deal with? Often, no cue at all is going to be best. This is especially true for beginners. They have enough to deal with already, and further cueing may just add to the cognitive strain of the situation.

You don’t need to be a coach for this to be useful. Every climber cues themselves. Whether you’re aware of it or not, you are giving yourself instructions each time you perform a task. It’s possible these instructions are simply “grab that crimp” or “keep the foot on when I move left.” Think about what instructions you give yourself, especially when you review video of yourself. (You are taking video of yourself… right?)

Suggestions for good cueing

  • Keep cues concise
  • Remember cues that work for you
  • Skill learning cues may be effective if instructional and motor-related in nature
  • Cues for performance may be more effective if they’re simple, qualitative and emotionally charged (the “let’s F—ing GO” principle)
  • Develop an intuition for whether you are performing a task wrong, or just need to try harder, so you know which to use

Some specific climbing cues that work well for me:

  • I find words like “snatch”, “snap”, “pop”, “smash”, “float” useful when going through moves in my head. I look for words that have a descriptive carryover to the expectation of the motor sensations of the task, perhaps even onomatopoetic in nature. “Dyno,” for example, doesn’t really feel like anything, so I don’t usually use that term internally.
  • I try to focus on taking powerful gaston moves with my pinky, even if I don’t actually hit pinky-first. I think this helps me internally rotate at the shoulder, and engage my back. Cue “pinky.” Note that I do not cue, “rotate the shoulder” or “engage the back.” Those things happen naturally.
  • On powerful compression, I often think of a pec deck – a funny term for that machine in the gym where you squeeze two arms together against load. This helps me bring my elbows towards my torso and turn my chest on. Cue “pec deck”
  • When I hit a rest point where I can disengage most of my body, I often just think “skeleton.” This helps me relax my muscles, which might be overactive from previous difficult climbing.
  • On moves where it’s easy to let my shoulders sag and disengage, I cue “stay high on the holds.” I have also used “don’t lose your neck” but I find this to be too internal of a cue.
  • After years of deadlifting, I do not need a cue to generate a lot of core tension. However, before I deadlift, I do occasionally use the physical cue of rapping my fists on my abdomen to start pressurizing with the breath. This can also be useful for climbing although I don’t know if I call it a cue.

There are many, many more, but these are a few simple ones.

There’s a nearly infinite amount more to say about cueing. Just searching pubmed for “verbal cue” produces a trove of interesting studies. Here are a few I found useful while brainstorming this post:

Bressel et al 2008

Driedger 2003 (a jumping-off point for a ton of studies)

Marchant 2010

Tillman & Ambike 2017

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