Mountain Project Logo

Athleticism- trainable or inborn?


Original Post
Mark E Dixon · · Sprezzatura, Someday · Joined Nov 2007 · Points: 549

I've been lucky enough to climb with some very good climbers recently. One of the things that struck me was how good they were as athletes, not just as climbers. Often high school and college athletes, often at high levels. And just better at simple things like walking to the cliff!

I've been thinking about what athleticism even is, because it's not just strength and not just coordination.
My sense is that it is primarily body awareness.
Understanding intuitively what this or that move will feel like and then making it happen.
This implies a constancy in performance which I feel I lack.
Depending on how fresh I am (or am not) I often don't know whether I can latch a particular hold or make a reach until I try.

Part of this may be due to differences in rate of detraining as well.
I know folks who can go months without climbing and still perform near their max.
If I'm off a week, I notice an impact. Again making it hard for me to 'know my body'.

Kind of just throwing this out there.

highaltitudeflatulentexpulsion · · Colorado · Joined Oct 2012 · Points: 35

Mark,

The first time I went through school (PE), we discussed this sort of thing a lot. How skilled movers tend to be skillful throughout a pretty wide array of skills. It's also pretty hard to overcome a childhood of not practicing movement skills.

We also talked a lot about body people and ball people. Most climbers are probably body people or will be if they stick with it long enough.

Dan Austin · · San Francisco, CA · Joined Oct 2010 · Points: 0

Agreed that there's some skill -- call it body awareness, graceful movement, or general athleticism -- that is highly transferable across seemingly unrelated sports.

As with everything in sports training, there's probably a little bit of genetics and a little bit of practice from a young age that account for some people just seeming to possess this gift.

Most people probably haven't maxed out this skill from a genetic potential, suggesting it's something you can train. The best training for this particular skill would probably be to pick up a lot of different t sports so you practice a wide range of movements. But that's not going to make you a better climber.

Something that I think CAN be tremendously helpful for climbers working on this skill is video. There's often a huge discrepancy between how I feel I'm moving (smoothly, like a leopard!), and what the video shows (jerkily, like a... jerk?).

Brassmonkey · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jan 2012 · Points: 115

I just love arguing nature vs nuture, there's always such a clear winner in the end. :)

Jon Nelson · · Bellingham, WA · Joined Sep 2011 · Points: 4,675
Mark E Dixon wrote: I've been thinking about what athleticism even is, because it's not just strength and not just coordination. My sense is that it is primarily body awareness.
Maybe a blend of coordination and muscle memory?

A few in my family can pick up and remember dance moves right away (as well as different sports), whereas I keep forgetting where to put my feet. I also have poor memory in general, so memory might be a big part of it.
Ted Pinson · · Chicago, IL · Joined Jul 2014 · Points: 190

Well, obviously there's lots of people who want to be Adam Ondra, but only one Adam Ondra...so clearly there is a genetic component. There's also a lot of crossover between the two factors, as there is a genetic component to how your body responds to training as well. Most people couldn't train as hard as Ondra even if they wanted to, as they would just end up injuring themselves.

Mark E Dixon · · Sprezzatura, Someday · Joined Nov 2007 · Points: 549
Dan Austin wrote:Something that I think CAN be tremendously helpful for climbers working on this skill is video. There's often a huge discrepancy between how I feel I'm moving (smoothly, like a leopard!), and what the video shows (jerkily, like a... jerk?).
This strikes me as a great idea.
Not so much to review the video and explicitly critique my performance, but rather as a way to have another sensory input into the climbing process. Which the brain can then internalize and automate.

By watching my bad habits, I worry a bit that I'll just automate them.
teece303 · · Highlands Ranch, CO · Joined Dec 2012 · Points: 598

I suppose my initial response would be:

Athleticism: mystical or real?

  • What* is athleticism?
highaltitudeflatulentexpulsion · · Colorado · Joined Oct 2012 · Points: 35
teece303 wrote:I suppose my initial response would be: Athleticism: mystical or real? *What* is athleticism?
To rehash a debate that I started on some forum like 15 years ago, I'll lay out my personal definition.

An athlete is someone who accels in multiple sports and disciplines. This is the kind of person Mark is talking about. Good a climbing, a pretty solid trail runner, probably fast on a bike, even a guy who'd turn some heads playing softball and volleyball in the park. To me that's an athlete.

To be good at one thing or two similar things isn't an "athlete" so much as a skilled mover. You can be a highly skilled mover. In fact, many of the olympians and pro's across a lot of sports are highly skilled movers but not an athlete in my narrow narrow definition.

Now if we assume my definition is correct (it's isn't really, but lets assume it is for this) then athleticism would be the spectrum upon which we all fall in regards to our ability to pick up any new sport and do it well.
highaltitudeflatulentexpulsion · · Colorado · Joined Oct 2012 · Points: 35

I never really answered the OP I realize.

I think it's largely trainable but at an extremely young age. The 34 (or even 24) year old simply cannot make up for those under utilized years.

When I was a PE teacher, I had a student who was on the US Junior Olympic ski team. Funny thing, he couldn't be bad at anything. Yoyo, football, lacrosse, the only kid in the school who I worried might beat me when I challenged each grade to a mile run (he was 12 and I was a 27 year old bike racer and he nearly took me to task). I'd imagine wherever he is right now, he's better than nearly everyone else around him.

Had the same kid played video games and nothing else and decided to get moving at age 19, I don't think you'd ever see him develop to the same degree.

Even my wife who started when she was 3 has noticeably better footwork than me who started at 17. Those childhood years matter.

Tony Monbetsu · · Minneapolis, MN · Joined Jan 2014 · Points: 560

I'm the kid who played video games and was inactive until my mid-twenties, and I do think it takes me a much longer time to pick up and adapt to any kind of movement pattern or physical skill. I can put on muscle or build endurance as well as any reasonably fit 31 year old, but yeah, in terms of coordination and movement, I fell behind.

I hated traditional sports as a kid, still do. I hope more kids today are given the opportunity to explore more sports like climbing, skateboarding, or whatever else. There's got to be something for everyone!

Ed Wade · · Hermann, MO · Joined Aug 2012 · Points: 750

I have a teenage son who is an amazing athlete. He has always been athletic even at an early age. He is a naturally talented baseball player since he started t-ball in 1st grade. I watched him turn an unassisted double play when he was in 2nd grade. He now, at 17, throws in the mid eighties and is being actively recruited by a half a dozen colleges. His basketball coach thinks he can get a scholarship in that sport too since he can dunk and hit the threes. He used to skateboard quite a bit, doing all those tricks ( kick flips, shove its, etc.). He even has a you tube video of him doing tricks with a yo yo. He also plays guitar fairly well. He works pretty hard at what ever he is into but it seems to me that most things come a little more easier for him then it does for me or a lot of his friends.

He has been climbing with me for most of his life, but not as frequently as I would like since we live in the middle of Missouri. We frequent the gyms in St Louis and now he is climbing a grade harder than me. That's gym climbing only. I still do all the leading on trad routes outside. That soon will change and once he can apply himself a little he'll be dragging my old ass up the climbs. Last year when we were going to the gym quite a bit he entered a youth competition and placed second. I do believe that being a natural athlete helps considerably when it comes to climbing and taking it to a higher level. I think some folks are just born with it and some are not. I always considered myself somewhat of an athlete but I truly pale in comparison to my son. It might be trainable but I truly think athleticism is something your born with.

Brandon.Phillips · · Portola, CA · Joined May 2011 · Points: 55

Trainable. All the high school athletes I know are now overweight couch potatoes.

Sure some people may have more natural ability, but when you think athleticism wouldn't the basis for that be a high level cardiovascular fitness and good coordination? Both are trainable, and the individual who trains these skills has vastly greater potential then the person who is "born with it."

And how many naturally gifted people have you met that get bored or quit when they get to the point that they actually have to work hard for something? Anyone we consider a great athlete has probably put in the time and effort, regardless of their natural ability.

JulianG · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Oct 2009 · Points: 130

In my opinion an athlete is some one that trains both their bodies and minds to compete and test themselves against others. The HS couch potatoes are just guys that play a sport.

I had a friend in NYC that could climb 5.13 without training. He is Austrian and climbed/ski all his life. He is not a runner but day of the NYC marathon he decided to go run it. He climbed the side of verrazano bridge and started running, he did better to the entrance of center park than most people.

Yes it does help to be an athlete before climbing. Lynn Hill was a gymnast before climbing

JNE · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Apr 2006 · Points: 1,940

I think it is a bit of both.

When we talk about athleticism in a general sense, it seems to me speed is importantly and indirectly referenced: the speed/power combo with running/hitting in football, baseball in terms of both moving the ball around and hitting/running, the ability to cover ground and jump high with basketball, everything with gymnastics, dynos and deadpoints and any brief lock-offs in climbing, etc.

Thus I think a primary determinant for athletic performance is the ability to fire off a lot of muscle fibers in any given muscle in a short period of time, and thus I think the primary determinant for athletic performance is ones innate ratio of fast twitch muscle fibers throughout ones muscles.

I think that one can train this ratio into maximal performance, and that one can also incrementally advantage that ratio through training, though I would imagine it takes a lot of work to get just a little gain. I also think that work at a young and developing age in this direction goes a lot farther (to the point that even mild training makes for huge differences later in life) than work at any other age, and that this also goes for the other aspects of the neurological wiring of any individual, including movement and general body awareness.

Robert Michael · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Aug 2014 · Points: 156

Of course it's some of both, but there's no doubt that outstanding natural athletes start with an advantage and can go further.

As I'm sure the rest of you have, I've seen first-timers come out and be able to tell that they'll never climb above 5.6, and I've seen first-timers come out and just be able to read the rock and make the moves, and I know they'll be strong climbers if they want to be.

I've sometimes said that Michael Jordan had to train to be as great as he was, but that no one could train enough to be Michael Jordan.

For you twenty-somethings here, Jordan was this basketball player. ;-)

And some people also seem specially wired for certain things. I once read that some guy named Chris Sharma wasn't particularly good at anything until one day when he tried climbing.

Aerili · · Los Alamos, NM · Joined Mar 2007 · Points: 1,970
JNE wrote:When we talk about athleticism in a general sense, it seems to me speed is importantly and indirectly referenced: the speed/power combo with running/hitting in football, baseball in terms of both moving the ball around and hitting/running, the ability to cover ground and jump high with basketball, everything with gymnastics, dynos and deadpoints and any brief lock-offs in climbing, etc. Thus I think a primary determinant for athletic performance is the ability to fire off a lot of muscle fibers in any given muscle in a short period of time, and thus I think the primary determinant for athletic performance is ones innate ratio of fast twitch muscle fibers throughout ones muscles. I think that one can train this ratio into maximal performance, and that one can also incrementally advantage that ratio through training, though I would imagine it takes a lot of work to get just a little gain.
All those poor, world class, endurance non-athletes. Who should tell them?
reboot · · . · Joined Jul 2006 · Points: 125
Aerili wrote: All those poor, world class, endurance non-athletes. Who should tell them?
That they aren't athletic?

Seriously, I kind of agree w/ Justin, especially in OP's context: there's little doubt we're not talking about endurance, not when it's an aspect that can be improved and even peaked well into the to the 30'. Try that w/ any power sports.
Mike Lane · · Centennial, CO · Joined Jan 2006 · Points: 905

Nothing more than a function of how much Nephalim DNA you have.

Emil Briggs · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Sep 2013 · Points: 105
reboot wrote: That they aren't athletic? Seriously, I kind of agree w/ Justin, especially in OP's context: there's little doubt we're not talking about endurance, not when it's an aspect that can be improved and even peaked well into the to the 30'. Try that w/ any power sports.
Power can be improved into the 30's as shown by powerlifting world records.

With both power and endurance genetics plays a huge role. Numerous studies have shown that people can have a huge difference in their response to either power or endurance training.
reboot · · . · Joined Jul 2006 · Points: 125
Emil Briggs wrote: Power can be improved into the 30's as shown by powerlifting world records.
It may be called "powerlifting" but that doesn't mean it's power at all. Try Olympic lifts, those are actual "power" lifts.
Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

Post a Reply

Log In to Reply