Perching and the Science of Learning Movement
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Ever run across someone recommending you “work on your technique?” It’s kind of a catch-all, isn’t it? Absent trying to climb with “silent feet” or trying to “climb more gracefully,” sometimes it can be a little challenging to understand what you need—technically speaking—or how to approach training for that need. This summary is based on a longer write-up about a very specific technical skill as well as a general framework you can apply to other movement skills. You can read it (along with the research references) in more detail at the Beta Angel Project.
At the Dominion River Rock Competition in 2019, Arabella Jariel took first place by bypassing the “80” point hold to go directly to the hold worth “90” points. She did it by “perching” or sitting on her heel—a relatively simple climbing maneuver. But the act of perching isn’t enough, it’s what perching—and other skills like it—does for you that makes all the difference. And just deciding you’re going to perch isn’t as easy as it sounds. Here’s the bottom line:
- Your perception of what beta to use while climbing is heavily influenced by your body position at any given time. Position influences perception and perception influences position in a feedback loop.
- Certain technical positions are especially helpful toward changing beta perception, so that you can act in a different way.
- Changing your ability to (a) see these technical positions and then (b) get into the technical positions, can help you (c) use the technical positions to create an advantage.
Why aren’t you seeing beta?
Arabella perched all the time when she was a kid, but that changed as she got older. She gained muscle mass. She started throwing dynamically for holds. She built her shoulders up a lot. She got really good at using very low feet to generate dynamically, rather than high feet to rock-up over and sit on. She was already an advanced climber who competed internationally on the youth circuit. So why did she need it to win Dominion River Rock and how did she change it to begin with? Take a look at Sequence 1 to see Arabella’s first, failed attempt to bypass the “80” hold.
The advantage of perching comes from both the movement itself and the perceptions it consequently affords. The two are inextricably linked in what is called “perception-action coupling.” The sequence of pictures represents discrete points in time meant to showcase Arabella’s actions along with her perception, and how they interact to form a feedback loop at the Dominion River Rock Competition.
Before we move to Sequence 2, ask yourself a few questions: Why didn’t she attempt to reach the hold in Sequence 1? Bottom line: She didn’t trust her reach or her dynamic ability from that position. She was also closer to the end hold, and had a better visual-light and positioning-oriented sense of her own reach and movement capabilities. As a result, she perceived a mistake. Now take a look at Sequence 2.
If you’re asking yourself why she couldn’t take advantage of the incut of the wall in the first picture, part of it was undoubtedly perception—she may not have even noticed it before she was in the relatively relaxed perch position. But it also may have been based on what she was capable of executing from that position—she may not have perceived a higher foot at all due to the intersection of her own flexibility/mobility potential and perception based on that lack of mobility (i.e. high stepping her right foot). That’s hard to say, but for whatever reason, it took a new position—and the relative ease of searching in that position—for her to perceive the opportunity.
So is that it? Just perch and you’re good? Unfortunately, no. Ingraining a motor learning pattern like perching involves a lot of stuff related to first understanding the basics of the move, then understanding how the sequence-specific individual dynamics of the move change in different situations. So, how’d we teach her how to do it?
Counteracting Bella’s Movement Habits
I told you before Bella had moved away from “perching” for years. Two months prior to this competition, Arabella would not have perceived the exploratory options she was able to make from a quality perch—in fact, I doubt she would have perceived a perch at all, or if she did—she wouldn’t have been able to “fit” into it. I know this because after years of being annoyed about Arabella’s deteriorating ability to perch, she finally gave me two months to re-integrate the skillset back into her movement vocabulary. Arabella was at the tail end of this training when she went to Dominion River Rock.
Using teachings from a motor-learning textbook by Richard A. Schmidt and Timothy D. Lee, and augmented by recent work translating certain movement science over to climbing, I helped Arabella create an environment of learning centered around perching. I needed to motivate her and show her why this rather simple skill-set mattered. I like to tap into emotions to build desire. She needed dedicated practice time and scheduling with both me and viewing a more advanced ‘percher.’ I imposed constraints on previously learned behavior and showed her models of behavior for perching in video from World Cup performers. After she was familiar enough with the skill, I changed the types of “coaching cues” I gave her from internal cueing (a reference to her body, such as “get your glute to your heel!”) to external cueing (a reference to something outside her body, such as getting a piece of tape on her knee to touch a point on the wall indicated by a laser pointer while stating “tape to laser!” or just simply “shift the tape!”). I also asked her to go back to problems she had worked on, but at a later time; this is called “spacing.”
I encouraged more rest between challenging perches and manipulated certain things about hard perches very subtly in order to make her struggle with new positions, tactics which are called “variability” and “contextual interference” (designed to confuse her, which promotes learning). Also, importantly, I instituted a flexibility/mobility regimen specific to “perching.”
It’s important to note that there are ‘caveats’ to all these pieces of research which are often sport-specific, and that very few of them have been tested in a climbing-specific environment. Some amazing work by Orth, Seifert, Davids, and a few others, has shown how an ecological dynamics approach (skill acquisition based on how the athlete interacts with the environment) to motor-learning work can transfer from non-climbing related studies over to climbing. For that, I encourage you to read the bite-sized snippets on experimental training at this link to The Beta Angel Project’s Project Movement Science.
More advanced relationships between perception and action still need to be explored, and I’d be lying if I said I knew them all. But the science of motor learning is a Rosetta stone for us to understand and shape our own movement patterns. And the science on motor learning can be practical and inspiring – especially when it so clearly helps lead to a win at a large competition. To the outside world, this competition win was a case of Arabella “seeing” some unorthodox beta. In Arabella’s eyes, however: “It’s all Taylor’s fault. I’m perching on everything now.”