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Mastering the Mind: Unveiling the Secrets to Effective Learning and Training

In this article, I delve into the fundamental principles that guide my coaching philosophy, empowering athletes to excel in mastering new ideas, skills, and movement patterns.

Education is Key

If you don’t know what you don’t know, how can you analyze it and improve on it effectively? This is why I believe that explaining and teaching all of the concepts that I have learned over the 17 years I have been climbing is the number one most important aspect of my coaching. My level of understanding across many forms of movement, specific techniques, ideas, and practices is constantly evolving and developing. I am far more aware of my body and what dials I need to twist up or down to achieve different outcomes. 

coach charlie schreiber demonstrating tension while bouldering

For example, when I was a youth competitor, I couldn’t keep my feet from cutting in an overhang if my life depended on it! My coach used to tell me to squeeze my core and tighten up my abs, but it never helped. I would hopelessly swing off the wall anytime I had to reach far from my foot. I spent hundreds of hours and thousands of calories over the first 10 years of my climbing career obsessing over abdominal exercises in hopes that it would make my core strong enough to stop myself from climbing so inefficiently. 

Luckily, I met a climber who told me I was wasting my time with ab exercises and that I was looking at the wrong muscle group! I learned that I wasn’t engaging my posterior chain at all (mainly my calf and hamstrings), and on my first attempt at thinking about them, true tension through my lower body was something I began to feel instantly! I then watched countless videos and read literature that compared our arms to our legs and how we can use them in the exact same way to lock off, grab, twist, pull, push, and manipulate objects with the control we have with our arms. 

The more I learned, the better my tension became. I then learned that there were different exercises I could do in specific ways that would train my legs to be stronger and smarter. I saw an immediate 2-grade jump in my onsight grade and a similar jump in my redpoint/project grade. One conversation is responsible for perhaps the biggest technical improvement in my climbing to date. Had I not learned this simple idea, I would still be doing leg lifts by the thousands and cutting feet at every opportunity.

Review, Rehearsal, and Reflection

Every time we get on the wall, we make a choice as to how present we will be, what we will do, and how we will do it. We have complete autonomy over our decisions; we can make highly informed decisions based on evidence and careful thought and feeling. The degree to which you focus, prepare, and practice the movements will determine the quality of your performance. By using visualization and rehearsal of movements, we can practice without spending any physical energy. The more we practice on the ground, the more muscle memory we develop, and the better we become at the skill of visualization! We then use this more prepared body and mind to make another (hopefully better) attempt. When we come off the wall, it is crucial that we very accurately identify what factors prevent us from being as successful as possible. 

This ability to review simply by feeling is something that is only trained through planned, practiced, and highly focused, conscious movement on the wall. This skill takes a very long time to develop; it comes much more easily to some than it does to others. That is why I believe that everyone should start and continuously use video analysis to compare their thoughts to reality. How did you think you moved versus how did you actually move? I firmly believe that this is the most overlooked and underutilized skill in climbing: visualization. Since we are performing a sequence of choreographed movements on the wall, we need to prepare if we want it to feel and look good.

An analogy I like to use is an actor in a play—the ultimate performer. The best actors read and re-read their scripts over and over. They spend weeks or months becoming their characters, walking, talking, thinking, and acting like them in every single way. 

When the best actors get on the stage, it is a beautiful piece of art. It feels right, looks right, sounds right, and captivates our attention as we watch something truly impressive and wonderful. Yes, we are impressed by how “talented” they are, but their true talent lies in their ability to prepare. If a highly reputable actor got on stage and only read their lines once before and never went to a rehearsal, it would be nowhere near the quality they were capable of. They would stumble through their lines, forgetting them and pausing to think (hmmm, where’s that foothold again?), not be in their spots on stage at the right times (oh man, do I go left hand or right hand to this?), and provide the audience with a terrible show (man, I need to read this again). All they needed to do to avoid this low-quality performance was to execute more discipline and sit down and prepare. Some people out there may only need to read the script a few times and watch a video of the play to remember it all and be ready to go! Some may need 100 read-throughs and full rehearsals. Everyone is different; know who you are and give yourself the best chance possible to make the most of your time and energy at the gym or crag.

Repetition and Frequency

When improving on or learning new techniques or movements, we need to start at the correct point on the learning curve. If we practice something too easy for us that does not challenge us at all, we will gain very little from it. If it is too difficult, we will not have a close enough frame of reference or the foundational skills needed that will allow us to achieve frequent success (if any at all), which is crucial for learning new skills. Therefore, making sure that we start at the correct difficulty, intensity, and complexity is crucial to properly moving up the learning curve.

 As we perform these skills more often, we learn them and become ready to increase the demands of this skill and try harder variations. However, simply discarding old forms of training once we feel ready for the next level is an inefficient way of progressing at the most rapid rate possible. Skill learning takes two main forms: adapting to new demands and mastering old demands. However, these older skills will offer us less and less the more simple they become to us. Therefore, the frequency of their occurrence in your training should decrease over time. This should be a perpetual cycle that occurs throughout all of your skill training.

Example: Learning to switch feet...

1st month: 20-minute session on easy foot switches, 2 times per week. 10-minute session on medium foot switches once per week.

2nd month: 20-minute session on easy foot switches once per week. 20-minute session on medium foot switches once per week.

3rd month: 20-minute session on easy foot switches 1 time per 2 weeks. 20-minute session on medium foot switches twice per week.

4th month: 10-minute session on easy foot switches 1 time per 2 weeks. 20-minute session on medium foot switches twice per week. 20-minute session on medium foot switches once per week.

And so on...

In summary, education plays a pivotal role in climbing improvement. Understanding the nuances of movement, techniques, and strategies is crucial for enhancing performance. Additionally, continuous review, rehearsal, and reflection allow climbers to refine their skills and correct mistakes effectively. By starting at the appropriate level of difficulty and gradually increasing challenges while incorporating repetition and frequency, climbers can steadily progress and master various climbing techniques. You have all of the power to take control of the rate of your climbing improvement, use it! 

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