Climber laying down and observing a route
Climbing uniquely challenges athletes to accurately perceive and combine multiple movements into feasible action plans. This study investigated how expertise influences such tasks in climbing.

Climb Bytes #1: Perceiving Your Capabilities in Climbing

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Climb Bytes is a series and regular newsletter where we briefly summarize scientific research on rock climbing in plain terms so that anyone can learn diverse topics in climbing science. We believe that science and climbing should be accessible to all.

Research Article Information

Title: Expertise effects on the perceptual and cognitive tasks of indoor rock climbing

Authors: Whitaker et al.

Year: 2020


Study Report

Climbing is a complex sport where people engage in athletic activity and perform cognitive tasks while accounting for their body and physical capabilities in relation to the environment (i.e. wall, holds, etc.).

This study investigated how climbers’ level of expertise influenced their perception of action capabilities, visual memory of holds, and memory of planned and performed motor sequences.

Two experiments were conducted: 1) Examination of climbers’ perception of their ability to utilize target holds on a climbing wall, 2) Assessment of climbers’ abilities to predict and remember the motor sequences planned to use on the climbing wall.

Experiment 1: 34 adult climbers (18-34 years, 14 males) with a range of abilities (V0-V10, M=4.14, SD=2.64) and 0-20 years of experience (M=5.06, SD=4.23). Participants judged their own ability to complete climbing moves and the level of difficulty they thought the move would be. They also rated the move after completing.

Experiment 2: 20 adult climbers (20-45 years, 8 females) with a range of abilities (V3-V13, M=7.1, SD=2.43) and 0.5-25 years of experience (M=7.65, SD=6.87). General visuospatial working memory was assessed by a test that showed an arrangement of blocks on a screen that disappeared and had to be recalled by the participant. After a 1-minute preview of 3 routes on a climbing wall (within ability, challenging, and out of ability range), participants were given a grayscale image the climbing wall and had to mark the holds belonging to individual routes (visual memory) and their predicted motor sequence of moves (sequence prediction). Participants were then given 5 attempts on each route and performed the visual memory and sequence prediction tests again.

Regression analyses and multilevel modeling was conducted for Experiments 1 and 2, respectively. The experiments demonstrated that more skilled climbers are better at perceiving their action capabilities, have better visual memory of holds, were better at predicting their intended climbing sequence, and were better at recalling the sequence compared to less skilled climbers. Additionally, general visuospatial memory was not better in skilled climbers — their visuospatial memory is specific to climbing.

No research study is without limitations. Some from this study include the interpretation of over- and under-confidence, use of self-selected routes based on ability, inability to control order of tasks, and analysis of only indoor (no outdoor) rock climbing.

“In conclusion, our results provide evidence that expert climbers more accurately perceive what their body is capable of in a climbing environment, remember visual aspects (holds), and both plan and remember motor sequences for routes.”

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