Introducing our "Toes to Knows" Climbing Academy

Introducing our "Toes to Knows" Climbing Academy series--covering climbing from footwork to mental preparation.

Toes to Knows is my climbing skills coaching progression I've been using for a few years with my youth climbing team. I progress from toes to fingertips in how to use your body, then offer some tips on mental prep as well--that's the "Knows" part.

Climbing is a skill sport.

Say that to someone, and they’ll shake their head in agreement, then in the next breath they’ll ask you how they can get stronger, or get better endurance so they don’t fall off the wall when their forearms explode on their project.

New climbers will see the quickest improvement by focusing on improving their skills. Skills continue to matter to more advanced climbers, but strength plays a bigger role as you get better– sometimes you just have to be strong enough to bear down on that half-pad crimp!

Acquiring skills is fun and obvious when you’re a beginner. Gains come quickly as you learn basic things like staying in balance, efficient weight shifting, or how to place your foot on a hold.

Skills are also important as you move up the grades, but they’re harder to acquire and much more subtle in their nature. Knee scums, body tension, or flared hand jams, for example, take a lot of practice to habituate into your climbing movement.

Most climbers, both beginner and expert, don’t explicitly train skill acquisition. To be sure, merely climbing, and especially climbing hard projects, is an excellent way to acquire essential climbing skills. However, intentional skills practice can accelerate the process.

Over the past few years of coaching my youth team, I’ve written up a series of around 30 different skills that I think are useful in climbing. Examples include good foot placement, forearm positioning, visualization, hip rotation, core tension, etc.

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I start each practice with my team asking them to focus and practice one of these skills during their warmup and try to draw on the skill during the climbing session. I’ll admit I have some mixed results with this approach—it’s hard enough to get teenagers to remember a coat when it’s snowing outside, so remembering a specific skill when they’re in the middle of a crux can be a tall ask, but we make slow and steady progress on skill acquisition.

I find these useful during my coaching sessions, so I’m going to take some time over the next few months and post these to this blog for your reading pleasure. Hopefully a few folks will find them useful.

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