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Gym Climbing

Want to Improve Your Onsighting? Try This.

How personality traits and hangdogging can be leveraged to make you a better first-effort climber.

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For the last five years, I’ve climbed with a tight-knit, early morning crew. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, we met at the ungodly hour of 6:00 a.m. (some of us more prompt than others). We kept one another painstakingly accountable, shared beta (both welcome and unwelcome), and shit-talked more than any group I have been a part of. I felt lucky to have them.

In those early morning sessions, our goal was always clear: try to get as many pitches in as possible before work. True to form, we tended to abide by a strict “two take rule.” Valuing mileage over absolute difficulty, onsights over redpoints, often pushing for ten to fifteen pitches per session, our crew perfected the efficient art of back-to-back route climbing.

The problem? 

Within a year of climbing with them, my endurance was off the charts, but my grades weren’t necessarily improving. I was practically lapping “the torch,” our gym’s crazy long, overhanging testpiece, but I was stuck in 11d/12a (7a/a+) purgatory. More than that, onsighting felt like it played to my weaknesses.

By any definition of the word, I am a “planner.” A Type A, calendar-obsessed, three-moves-ahead kind of planner. It never really occurred to me that this personality trait could impact my climbing training, let alone my climbing performance.

The two-takers of the group loved the conquest of the onsight, the rivalry, the endorphin rush that they were rewarded by when they sent. They were obsessed with onsighting. But for me, climbing was less about adrenaline and more about figuring it out, a journey toward executing the moves perfectly. There was never a doubt in my mind that climbing was a physical sport, but the mental challenge was what kept me coming back on the days I wasn’t sending.

So eventually, to the consternation of my belayers, I started trying harder routesand hangdogging more.

When I started hangdogging, the moves didn’t magically reveal themselves to me like I naively hoped they might. In fact, from the outside, it looked like I got a lot worse before I got a lot better. Many days, I spent much more time hanging on the rope than actually climbing. I would sit at the draw, completely perplexed, flailing around on the holds in every way I could imagine remotely possible.

My partner was supportive, but I could tell he was skeptical, along with the rest of the climbing crew. “What’s going on up there, Jackie?” one of the old timers yelled whenever I took for more than half a second. “You know that is 25 push-ups per take, right?”

The author figuring it out. (Photo: Frank Spasaro)

Worse than the un-avoidable ridicule, I completely disrupted the climbing order. I was getting five routes in on a good day, a third of that we were getting previously, and I began to sense that people didn’t want to tie in with me, instead opting for more… efficient climbers. The only blessing: I was never relegated to a group of three on days we had odd numbers, simply because the odd man never wanted to risk spending thirty minutes waiting for me to finish my project before they climbed.

My main partner, Bobby, and I were constantly pushing one another to approach climbing differently. He was a staunch two-taker, who was being forced to experiment in order to match the pace of my new climbing program.

“But the next moves just look so hard…” I had often complained in the past, peering up at the next set of daunting holds on the climb. “Yeah, but how do you feel right now?” he would yell back, “make the next move and decide how you feel then.”

I challenged him to project more. It was clear he favored onsighting, and he excelled at it. His onsight grade was competitive with mine, although I had years of climbing experience on him. Still, I often found myself reminding him of his beta on his second or third lap up a route. And when I urged him to study the route beforehand, he often stood below the climb, looking up at it, and then said, “I just can’t envision how the moves will feel… I just need to get on it. I just need to try it.”

Hangdogging (Photo: Frank Spasaro)

But, as it turned out, I liked projecting. After months of patience, I was finally getting better at reading intricate sequences and was more powerful on hard moves.

It was like my climbing vocabulary was opening up; I was learning how to visualize and then execute novel moves with more ease. At later stages, before I started a new route, I could glance up at the wall and feel myself moving between the holds that I’d never yet touched. Meanwhile, I was getting stronger by pushing outside my ability level on really hard routes. And my fear of falling was drastically decreasing after taking safe forced falls over and over again when trying unfamiliar moves repeatedly.

That autumn, shortly after I finished my hardest route to date, a new wave of crew members began to buck the two-take rule, hangdogging our way through long projecting sessions and only completing a fraction of the climbs we tried. Still, many two-takers held out. And I began to sense that there was more to this than simple climbing gym preferences. Being a psychology junkie, I guessed that this might somehow be related to differences in personality. So I did what I do when I have a question I want answered: I consulted Google. Which is how I stumbled upon the work of Maria Stefania Ionel.

In her research about climbers, Maria Stefania Ionel, a Clinical & Sport Psychologist (M.A.), head of mental health at Climbing Psychology, and P.h.D. candidate at Babes-Bolyai in University Romania, has found that “openness,” one trait of the widely-used “Big Five” personality trait framework, and “grit” are both correlated to higher sport climbing performance. “Openness to experience is a personality trait associated with curiosity, creativity, liberal attitudes, and openness to engage in intellectual pursuits,” she wrote in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, adding that this openness may lead climbers to try new training methods, new approaches to technical or mental skill development, and new beta all of which increase their resilience, their strength, and their overall climbing ability.

Grit, which is defined as “perseverance and passion for long term goals,” then becomes openness’s perfect complement, pushing the climber to stay committed to those methods, train regularly, and stick with projects over long periods of time. 

After reviewing her research, I emailed Maria, explaining the differences between me and Bobby, the onsighters and the two-takers. A week later, we spoke over Zoom. It was just after dawn and I sat uncomfortably on my bedroom floor in my small apartment, wary of disturbing my sleeping sister in the room next door. Maria, located in Eastern Europe, sat in her office, listening as I explained the great divide between two-takers and onsighters in the gym. She asked a few follow-up questions to define our terms, and then, after taking it all in, she told me that this was very classic and is something she sees in her coaching. 

Her opinion, though, is that climbers should project hard routes to improve their onsight level. Specifically, she believes that by trying really hard moves and routes, we improve our ability to plan ahead for the wide variety of moves and sequences we might find while onsighting. She suspects this also may be related to openness, climbers who are open enough to try things at or above their limit are exposed to and experiment with types of movements that they have not seen before. Even as the physical difficulty makes them stronger, they also gain technical skills.

“How hard should my routes be?” I asked.

“For climbers climbing in the 5.10 (5c-6b) range,” she replied, “I would recommend you not being able to do about 70% of the moves on the first try. For more elite level climbers, I would drop this percentage to 30-50%.” 

I was shocked. I had gravitated toward really tough climbs intuitively, but I was still probably only failing on 30% or 40% of the moves on my first try. And though I’ve climbed far harder than 5.10, I hardly consider myself “elite.”

“In many ways I look at onsighting and projecting as two opposing, but complementary areas of climbing,” Maria continued in her Eastern European accent. “People may gravitate toward one or the other because of personality, but you must train both, just like you must train both power and endurance.”

When I explained Bobby’s preference toward being fully present rather than planning for the moves, she said,

“Yes, exactly. You must project, project hard, but you must also find the time that is right to onsight. And that requires a different skillset. You must grapple with the unknown. You must be able to execute. You must be fully in the moment.”

Liam chasing that first-go send. (Photo: Frank Spasaro)

We probably all naturally gravitate toward either projecting or onsighting. The reality, however, is that we can all benefit from working on our weaknesses. The onsighters in the gym would benefit from working hard projects into their training, developing the ability to think ahead while exposing themselves to more types of moves. 

But it also meant that, after exclusively projecting for months, I had to learn to just go for it on a first-try effort again.

So I jumped on a new purple route I had been eyeing, a long, slightly overhanging, technical 5.12b (7b). It wasn’t technically an onsight, since I had seen multiple members of the crew fall off on what was evidently a crux bulge, and I had also seen a few people skip the last bolt, but I didn’t know much about the actual movements. I chalked up and jumped on the climb. Knowing it was safe, I attempted to turn my brain off, stuffing the anxiety away and relying on my more primal intuition. To my complete surprise, I flew through the physical crux, probably because I’d spent most of the last few months doing far more physical moves. Relief pulsed through my body.

But then came the mental crux, that long pumpy section with the difficult clip some people skipped. “Breathe,” I told myself, “breathe.” I climbed past the bolt and my legs began to shake, not from strain but from fear. The next draw looked miles away. The next moves taunted me. I paused. 

All of the sudden, something in my brain flipped, like a light going on. 

I took a breath. I took another step. A voice rang in my head.

How do you feel right now?

“Fine,” I responded. I made another move.

And now?

“Fine… actually strong. 

I exhaled.