How to Become the Best Climber in the World

How skill and luck may be making (or breaking) your climbing career

So you want to be the best? You see yourself atop podiums or clipping chains, making headlines and racking up insta followers. Maybe you won’t save the world, but the world will know your name. Here’s how.

At 46, Sweedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson was among the first to offer a formula for being the best. In his 1993 study, Ericsson evaluated the role of deliberate practice in expert performance. His study has since been cited over 9,000 times. The conclusion: “Practicing more intensively than others… is probably the most reasonable explanation we have today not only for success in any line, but even for genius.” 

Ericsson’s findings was the basis for many other studies and discussions in books, including Malcolm Gladwell’s popular 2008 book, Outliers. Gladwell famously contended that to be great at anything, you have to put in approximately 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. 

Deliberate practice means working on weaknesses, trying new things and consistently trying really freakin’ hard. People can drive for 10,000 hours but still suck at driving. Deliberate practice is anything but going through the motions. It almost always involves a coach, research, short-term sacrifices and lots of failure. The best climbers in the world are well aware of their weaknesses and they practice them all the time.

Four years after the release of Outliers, Macklemore dropped the hit song, Ten Thousand Hours, which further popularized the idea that practice equals performance.

“The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint

The greats were great ’cause they paint a lot”

-Macklemore and Ryan Lewis- Ten Thousand Hours

Naturally, many were and still are skeptical of the ten thousand rule. The classic nature vs. nurture debate arose, among others. What about the things you can’t control? Genetics? Psychological disposition? Upbringing? The underlying theme: Can you really become the best by practice alone?

A famous counter argument to the ten thousand rule was brought up by Brooke N. Macnamara in 2014. In her study, Macnamara painted a very different picture of hard work and success. The study was a meta-analysis that included the results of 88 other studies and over 11,000 participants. The activities evaluated included music, games, sports, professions and education. According to the results, deliberate practice explained a mere 26% of the variance (i.e. difference) in performance for games, 21% for music, 18% for sports, 4% for education and less than 1% for professions. 

You read that right—time spent training only accounted for 18% of the variance in sports performance.

What’s more, in a study published earlier this year by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, “Studies focused on similarities and differences in athletic performance within families, including between twins, suggest that genetic factors underlie 30 to 80 percent of the differences among individuals in traits related to athletic performance.” According to the study, it’s likely that a large number of genes dictate athletic performance, with each individual gene only slightly changing the game. By how much and which genes matter most is to be determined, but what’s clear is that the game is, in fact, changed with optimal genes.

True Score theory is the theory that for every activity, the outcome is the result of true skill plus luck. In Frans Johansson’s 2012 book, The Click Moment, Johansson proposed that achievement owes much more to luck than previously believed. He suggested that hard work only really matters when the environment is stable. In other words, practice is more likely to equal performance when the rules never change. 

Hold types, wall angles, boulder/route length, body positions, movements and scoring are all factors that affect the stability of the climbing environment, not to mention genetics, attitude, home life, etc.. These factors affect lead, bouldering and speed in different ways. 

All told, when applying the ten thousand hour rule to climbing, things get blurry.

Ultimately, the ten thousand hour rule is more complicated and nuanced than popular culture previously held. This reveals an interesting thread in society. Unexpected things happen all the time. And yet, when it comes to sports, we all desperately cling to the idea that anyone can make it, just so long as they put the work in.

“Luck,” said E.B. White, “is not something you should mention in the presence of self-made men.”

We all want to be in control, to adhere to the image of a rising star grinding it out in the rainy night, but the fact is that many other factors matter.

As a kid, my dad always offered me sage advice in response to my rants about social justice. “Life isn’t always fair,” he’d say, “but it works out in the end.”

There’s a name for his colloquialism—it’s a statistical phenomenon called “reversion to the mean.” It means that when an extreme event occurs, a less extreme event is more likely to follow. In other words, when something unlucky happens, luck may not be far behind.

The ultimate takeaway: Work as hard as you can and keep a patient eye out for lurking leprechauns.  

Feature Image Daniel Gajda

  • Delaney Miller is a three time U.S. Champion in the open Sports Climbing Series. In total, Miller has won 12 Championship titles between youth and adult, National and Pan-American competitions. She has three years of coaching experience and a degree in Health and Exercise Science from Colorado State University.

    • Show Comments

    • rjm

      This is a good think piece. Mani the Monkey’s Youtube channel has some good episodes on this question.

    • LW

      Well written article Delaney. More balanced with supporting links than most stories. Very apropos choice of Tomoa on the cover – Meichi is also up there, though we’d guess that both brothers train a similar amount.

      As to the overall point, I think both sides are right: 10k hours does produce great results for anyone. But to win at the very top levels, genetics is 2 to 3x as important.

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