Is there such a thing as Natural Talent?

Just before I went away i was approach by a TV company to see if I thought there was such a thing as natural talent, they were wanting to make a show of ‘natural vs nuture’; or basically whether there is a spontaneous talent in sport or whether you have to earn it? I was reminded of this when I was rereading Super Freakonomics, which has a small section on the topic.

I argued with the TV researcher that any sport, requires ability to be earnt. Quoting the great scientific phrase that it takes 10000 hours or 10 years to become highly talented in a sport. Others go further and suggest that it takes not only those 10000 hours but that the practice needs to be deliberate.

What is deliberate practice, because if you want to get good at climbing this is after all what maketh the rock god. It has 3 major components.

1 Setting Specific Goals

2 Obtaining Immediate feedback

3 Concentrating as much on Technique as Outcome

Setting Specific Goals

You need to set goals every time you climb, sometimes even resetting those goals during the training. Short-term and immediate goals will help you to address the long-term. Of course you need to set goals that are specific to you type of climbing and overall goal. Those goals need to address the processes needed to reach your dream goals.

Obtaining Immediate Feedback

You can get feedback from many places, yourself, friends, coaches, video, etc… That feedback needs to be close enough to the actual activity that you can actually process it. More importantly you need to re-work the feedback into subsequent performance.

Concentrating on Technique as much as Outcome

What techniques are you weak at, how can i set up practice to work on those weaknesses.

Try to not look in black and white, I can or can’t do this problem or route, but more why can’t I do the problem, or how can i do that problem more efficently.

See the whole picture, rather than looking at the fact you can’t do something like climb F6b, instead look at what you can or can’t do like clipping efficiently, finding rests, work on confidence, overcoming fears, developing stamina. Whilst you might not be able to climb a grade, its the processes that lead you there that are important.

Natural Talent

My only suggestion for where natural talent might come into play in climbing, is mountaineering. There is a limited amount of research that is pointing towards a possible genetic link between the ability to acclimatize to altitude. So unless your lucky and only want to climb well at altitude, then I am afraid that you need to concentrate on getting those 10000 hours of deliberate practice. There are aspects in my book How to Climb Harder that will help with pushing along the road of deliberate practice.

In the Blink of an Eye

I have just been reading the bellselling book BLINK, its about snap decision making, and whilst not about climbing it has some interesting concepts about intuition and sub-conscious thought. For me as a climbing instructor I thought it as an interesting book. Why?

Well as a climber I often turn up to a crag and the moment I get to the bottom of the route, before I have even really looked in detail I have an immediate feeling about the route. An almost intuitive feeling of whether I am going to succeed or not. At it most basic the feeling can almost be a yes or a no, a black and white assessment of my chances of success.

I had until reading this book I had just thought it was just another trick of the mind. An initial build up to the climb. I have noticed that that immediate feeling over the years as been a very good indicator of success or failure. In that first glimpse of a route, it was like my subconscious either gave a green light or red one.

It has probably saved me on occasion, not just from getting on route but when climbing them. A subconscious alarm bell might flash through my mind, and I have choosen to back off rather than commit. I thorough recommend the book to all my readers, although it is not a tool of how to come use this part of the brain that is often locked off to us, it does help pull back the curtain quite a bit to what the brain can achieve in the blink of an eye and just how the brain can react under pressure.

As part of the book looks at decision making under life threatening pressure and give you an idea of when to trust that decision and when not to. When to think and when to go with your gut. In climbing this might be when face with a crux and a growing psychological and physiology pressure of facing a fall. Should I do a crux this way, or that way, or another way.

If I take time over that decision I might well get it wrong, but if I go with my gut, I am more often than not right. Why?

The author suggest that it isn’t a skill that we all have. Making a snap decision on lead, my subconscious has over 15 years experience to call on, as to whether it thinks it is possible or not. It is something that might be trainable, in essence I think that in climbing there are two possible areas that this decision making can help us. One is in movement decision and the other is dealing with stress. Whilst coping with stress and life threaten positions is something that needs a steady and progressive approach, movement is most definitely trainable.

In my book I cover many what I have found from various source to be fundamental climbing movements. In essence I suggest that repetitive drilling of those moves will mean that you are more likely to fall back on them instinctively. So those fundamental drills are the first step.

I wonder though that if you have these fundamentals well enough practiced, and you use say your local bouldering wall to train you intuition. Those first instinct of how you think a boulder problem should be climbed, then you might find that you can start to miss out over thinking. It is something that I might suggest to people who are already climbing to a reasonable level to start practicing, and maybe see whether you too have a ‘gut’ feeling at the bottom of a route.

I have done very little headpointing in my time, but I have done some, and I can’t even go into explain why I choose that specific day for the ascent, it just ‘felt’ right. In essence the author suggest that if a choice is needed to be made, and it is a complex choice then often the sub-conscious is better at deciding than rational thought. Although it also suggest that for simple choices the rational approach is better. Its as if after a certain amount of info our conscious mind fail to process.

There is another section in the book, that interests me so much as a climber, I am keen to research it more, and experiment with it a little to see if the theory can be applied to climbing situation, I suspect it will.

Anyway, you should read BLINK: The art of thinking without thinking, and of course How to Climb Harder!