The Hierarchy of Performance

We are all time poor, from the elite athlete to the weekend warrior. No-one has an infinite amount of resources to spend on training, climbing, getting better. You are either limited by your availability or directly by the physiological limitations of your body. So as a coach we are consistently trying to pick the low hanging fruit, priorities the effort and uncover the weakest link.

Deciphering the puzzle of performance allows us to prioritise efforts and get the biggest bang for our buck. Weak links can be anything from finger strength to ankle instability, so how can we hope to uncover these and then how do we prioritise them?

The beginning of my journey down prioritisation was developing a physical testing battery with Pat Klein from Concept Climbing (makes amazing hangboards and training walls, check him out >here<). The testing battery is similar to the testing battery that many climbing coaches employ, like the lattice assessments. I still utilise this and as with other sports, this data allows us to see how well particular training interventions are performing. How well did that hangboard program increase your finger strength, how well did that core program improve your core stability and strength etc etc. Which tests we use and how accurate they are is an issue for another post, but these types of tests are the cornerstone of sports science. Test, train, re-test….. (it is probably really, ‘understand’, develop test, test test, then test…. but anyway).

While these testing batteries are exceptionally valuable, they still don’t give us the answer of how to prioritise efforts. One answer may come from fundamental sports science, strength then power. You need to have strength in order to develop it into power. I mean power is defined by force and time, strength and speed. You can’t have power without strength. But what if you are already strong? Or worse, what if you are new to climbing and you are weak…… everywhere? Steve Maisch does a really great job of outlining ideas and numbers around strength benchmarking (find it >here<), which can be used as a guideline for how to figure out some strength priorities for climbers. Just pick the one you are furthest away from, or the three, or five…… this still presents an issue.

As said earlier, what do you do if strength isn’t the issue? If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say they just needed to be stronger, I’d be rich. I’d probably be almost just as rich if every time someone had said that to me, they were wrong. If it wasn’t strength they lacked but something else.

This question has led me to many places looking for an answer, formulae or a notion that would help me help the climbers I coach. Enter Abraham Maslow and his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation”. In this paper, Maslow outlines his theory of human needs, or “Maslows Hierarchy of Needs”. The concept is that until the lower tier is satisfied, a person is not motivated by the upper tiers, eg. If you are hungry you aren’t really motivated to understand the universe, you want to eat first.

So the idea here is to create a hierarchy of needs for climbing performance. What is the very basic requirement in order for someone to climb?

The theory that I suggest (note I say theory, this is my suggestion based on my experience) is as follows:

  • Headspace – Without the appropriate mental state, it is impossible to climb to your potential, which means that it is impossible to uncover your physical limitations as your mental state doesn’t allow you to fail physically. This could be from fear, distraction, laziness, or any other self-limiting headspace. What is your self talk like?
  • Finger Strength – If you can’t hold on, you’re gonna fall off. This potentially falls down when it comes to slab, but my argument here is that to learn the techniques to climb slab well, you have had to practise this while holding on. Also, slab is only one small facet of climbing. In addition to this, in order to learn good footwork, you need to be able to hold on long enough to deploy it.
  • Technique – Technique is a very large and long term project, but in essence is all about understanding how to climbing technique works, then understanding when to deploy it.
  • Pulling – Once you can hold on and you know what to do, the next barrier you usually face is the distance between holds which usually requires some pulling. How well you can do this will sometimes determine if you can get there or not.
  • Core – Our penultimate tier is core, which is all about maintaining tension from our toes to our fingers, getting or keeping our feet on the wall and generally ensuring that our lower half stays in touch.
  • Injury Prevention – The final tier is a funny one that I have decided to call injury prevention. This tier is all about the details within our climbing practice. Everything from shoulder stability to risk assessment can be put here. The idea of this is basically figuring out how to get everything to work together to keep us in one piece as we get stronger fingers, better technique, bigger biceps and an iron core.

So, there you have it. The climbing hierarchy of needs. The magic pill that will help you unlock your potential…… Well…… not really. But an interesting thought experiment, that might help you uncover what is really letting you down when it comes to performing your best.

Good luck out there and chat soon

Will