Open discussion

So, like many, I recall very vividly the first time I was blown away by a child prodigy.  Chris Sharma had just climbed Surf Safari 5.13d/14a and I was working diligently on my 5.9 in the gym.  Mind you, he had been climbing for nearly two years already but still, I thought “Jesus, 5.14? “

Like most at that time, I thought 5.14 was reserved for those of Olympic strength and years and years of scientific training behind them.  It was Chris who first showed me what was possible at an early age.  And I believed.  What is it about Chris Sharma, was it that he trained harder? Or did he listen to his coach better?  Did he eat organic? What?  Me, I don’t think it’s hard to explain, Chris is just strong. He was built well for climbing with a grip strength to weight ratio that was higher than any other California climber at the time, he was already better than all of them, and a year later, he was the best in the country winning the Nationals Open category.

Today I am writing a short report about Sean McColl, one of the countries most talented free climbers.  Surely you’ve heard of him.  But as I was doing a bit of research, I stumbled upon this old clipping about his first 5.14a on – here is what it read…

“Ever heard of Sean McColl from Canada? If you hadn’t yet, then you have now, and you are likely to be hearing a lot more of him in the near future.  Sean started climbing three years ago, at the age of 10, and by the time he was 12 he´d already red pointed “Pulse” (at Cheakamus Canyon, Canada), weighing in at the magical grade of 5.14.a (8b+). Not content with stopping there, Sean’s notorious power and determination has recently seen him firmly stamp his mark on the world scene, by becoming the youngest person ever to climb an 8c.

Continued…Mike Orr’s route “Captain America” (5.14.b / 8c) is a link up of two existing routes, also at Cheakamus Canyon. Having already seen four ascents by “seasoned 5.14 climbers” the route is considered solid at the grade. Although Sean had climbed the two independent lines previously, it is still impressive to note that it took him only four tries, in two days, to send the link up of “Captain America”.  Sean plans for his future to encompass both outdoor climbing as well as indoor competitions. He is also proud to have reached Grade 8 on the Piano.  Where do you get fingers like that from?”

OKAY, so then further down, I noticed this….

“Adam Ondra, from the Czech Republic, also looks on course to turn a few heads over the coming years if he keeps things up at this rate! Having already on sighted half a dozen 7c’s over the past few months, Adam has now added an impressive on sight of “JSFK” (7c+) at Misja Pec. Climbing at that level would be pretty impressive by anyone’s standards but, amazingly, Adam is still only 9 years old!     Not only an on-sight climber, Adam recently red pointed “Funky shit”, at “Paklenica”, to join the prestigious group of elite climbers who have climbed the once magical grade of 8a.         It looks like a case of watch this space.”

And this space as we all know has erupted.  Adam Ondra is likely the best all around free climber in the World right now.  So this brings me to my question.  When a child prodigy is “discovered” for lack of a better word, is it because they want it more, because they train harder, or have better body awareness, or is just simply because their body allows them to be better than everyone else, they just are?  Maybe its rapid development, they have access to better cliffs, training facilities and coaches?  Sure, all climbers work hard and develop our skills over time and we hope to reach our potential, the way Chris has done with his new 5.15’s, but what about the early years,  I mean after only a few short years Chris was the best climber in North America, beating everyone who had twice the skills and twice the experience.  What is that?  How much of our sport (or sport in general) is based on genetics?   I read in a ski magazine that the average retirement age for a professional free skier is 25, and that’s OLD.   I invite you to join me in this discussion, I would love to hear other comments if you have any.

Where these climbers born strong or did they develop it?

  • You bring up an interesting point. I believe genetics does have some weight in determining our maximum potential as climbers (more on this later), however I do not believe it is the end all. The further and deeper I experience climbing as a lifestyle and sport, the more I realize it is much more about will, determination, and perseverance. In the end we are all a product of our interactions and environments. It seems to me these child prodigies are raised in such a way that they have mental strength to overcome a certain amount of physical barriers that have been placed in there way, although it certainly helps they are genetically inclined to be great climbers. I have also known children whose body types fit climbing well, but their mental aptitude did not.

    As for genetics, there is a small tendon named the Palmaris longus muscle which is present in ~16% of humans. We have evolved out of it, but it is originally used for exposing claws. An extra tendon in the forearm and hand certainly wouldn’t hinder grip, probably help it. However this is all hearsay, who knows perhaps these child prodigies, and strong climbers have this extra tendon.


  • T

    It seems to me they all started climbing at an early age, prior to entering adolescence for most of them. Being that young you simply learn quicker and better, factor in the proper context/environment (parents, coach, etc) and an undeniable aptitude for it and there you go. It’s a mix: natural strength + development + passion. You might be gifted and showing a lot of promise but then again you have to keep motivated and working towards reaching a full potential without burning out, all the while growing up…

    There, my 2c.

  • elias

    Wow!!! great topic for discussion dude!!! actually i’ve been thinking a lot about it too, and reminds me of Ronaldinho(yeah that brazilian football marvel), i saw him on video at age 8 playing on a little playground….and holy crap!!! the little fucker was better at 8 than i will ever be. impressive!! how can it be??? well , here’s my explanation:

    1.- Parents educating little siblings about sports at a verly early age. that way they climb(or whatever sport it is) just by thinking it’s a big game and not a competition.

    2.- that leads to a very experienced teenager, just when the body starts to get stronger(13, 14 years old) so the muscles already know how to develop very hard activities without any problem.

    3.- and yeah………..biogenetic industries changing children dna’s to make super fuckin athletes hahahaha

    4.- knowing how to control your body when you’re young maybe helps to master felxibility, stronger muscles, etc. before reaching 20’s

    dunno , maybe it sounds stupid.
    cheers everyone.

  • I figure it’s got to be a combo of genetics, temperament (i.e. mental fortitude), opportunity, and commitment. You gotta have some natural strength and coordination to be that good, right? And you gotta have the head for heights and danger (not to mention sequences, etc), no? And you gotta be able to get to the crag/gym enough to improve, don’t you? And you gotta stick with it, too.

  • supafly

    according to the below article, it’s all about when you were born. those born in jan/feb/mar have more of a chance of “getting ahead” of their peers based on school selection years.

    that doesn’t really apply to a “sport” like climbing i would have thought, my guess in that regards would be some people are just predisposed to being good at specific things, via genetic make up. this doesn’t however stop the rest of us from working really-hard® to get to their level. take dave macleod as an example, i believe it took him a LONG time of dedication to training to get where he is today.

    what i want to know is, i’ve been climbing for two years – how come i can’t boulder any harder than V3 or soft V4’s! 😀

    i might have to sign up to one of your squamish bouldering sessions in the summer sonnie 😉

  • Sonnie

    Wow, an extra tendon, that’s got to be the coolest thing I’ve ever heard, I’m going to look into that for curiosity sake. I wonder if I could purchase one of these extra tendons on the black market? ha. I see many of the points raised here and they are all great, but still, there are hundreds if not thousands of kids taking up climbing these days around the world, who all want the same thing, and yet not all of them climb 5.14 in less than two years. So what is that? But I really respect the point about mental aptitude, I’ve seen some mind bending climbers never excel because their confidence was never as strong as their fingers were. Hmmmmm, very interesting. And ‘T’ you’re very correct, there is no way to measure passion, sometimes ones desire exceeds their physical capabilities and other times, it’s the other way around. Maybe only when they are balanced does it all come together, no matter what age we are?

  • Sonnie


    Dave is a prime example of hard work = results. The idea is to improve steadily, without injury, no matter what genetic code was given to us – this is a simple rule that all athletes are trying to uphold i think. You’ll break your 3’s and 4’s in no time flat, and when you do, I bank that you’ll go a long way until your next plateau. You may be surprised.

  • mike

    i think its about why you climb as well – i think its easier to excel at any sport if you truly enjoy it and you are training for yourself and not others. These kids grew up in a sport where it was their way of having fun and only later realized the pressures of performance. Coaches definitely helped as well as a lot of us have had to figure out our own training strategies to maximize gains. Lastly, these guys didn’t set limitations in their own minds as to what they were capable of doing as we often place limits on our progress whether we realize it or not.

  • Mike Doyle

    I don’t know if it is genetics or determination but I know I don’t have it…

  • Aren’t will, determination, and perseverance, also factors largely influenced by genetics?

    In this (long) video interview, Dave Graham says that he has been “screwed” genetically speaking
    I think many people would disagree.

    It is interesting that we are told that if we work hard enough, anything is possible. But from experience, I think we all know this isn’t true.

  • I like what Adam Ondra said in an interview (re: his climbing prowess), “maybe it is a gift from GOD.”

  • Luke

    It’s interesting Sonnie. Probably there are different answers for each individual. There are some intersting points in this article suggesting among other stuff that most people use the excuse of the wrong genetics but really don’t have the right mentality to work hard. By the way if you haven’t come across Mark Twights site, Gym Jones, before there is some very thought provoking stuff under the Knowledge section about training from someone who knows how to work hard.

    Why don’t you contact those guys you mention and ask them the questions? It would make for an interesting read.


  • Luke

    P.S. I’m not sure I totally agree with the talent article (I’ve seen a painting by Picasso at 14yrs old and it looked like an old master, completely perfect at least to the untrained eye) but there is definately something in it.

  • Yes, Nicholas, it was probably magic. End of discussion.

  • A

    I reckon you do have a strong point there Sonnie, and started a very interesting discussion. You take Ondra as an example, and there’s no doubt that he is amongst the prodigies, but we have to keep in mind that he started way early, both his parents are climbers and he probably was up a wall before he could walk (unverified fact). So one could say he had the perfect growing environnement to fully realize his “prodigy potential”. The answer to your question would thus be all of the above, namely that he was born strong and ideally developped it.

    Sharma does however seem to give a stronger case to the genetic predispositions as he started way late, and yet was at the top of the game in no time! I wonder how far he’d have pushed the limits had he started as a child..

    On another note, and with regards to under the radar child prodigies, there s a french kid who’s crushing in the south at the moment, he apparently has ten 8c and over (including two 8c+) under his belt, at age thirteen… I never stop being impressed by these kids.

    One last probably irrelevant point, but if it is a genetic thing and a learning curve, then say if Sharma ever was to have a kid with his current (very) publicised girlfriend, who’s onsighting 8a’s on a regular basis, just how awesome would that kid be? (I have to emphasize that my knowledge of genetics is extremely limited, do feel free to correct me) If we go along the line of the comments, then wouldn’t a climber’s child have both the “born-with-it” strength and the ideal learning environnement..? Could it be therefore that the increasing number of climbers, and the relative sectarism of the climbing community account for the current raising trend of child prodigies..? (just throwing it out there really)

  • Interesting post. When Chris did his lecture tour of the UK last year, this is one of the points he talked about. From what I remember, he said that he got into climbing in a big away, around about the same time that his body was starting to develop and, from a strength perspective, his body “grew” to a perfect climbers physique as he was climbing (be it gym or crag) pretty much every day. I think the many of the points above are valid and that his everything just clicked: Strength, physique, mental pshych and determination, technique and plan, ol’ fashion talent.

    It seems to me that he got into the perfect cycle. You do something you naturally excel at > You enjoy that thing because you natural excel at it > You want to do it more > The more you do it, the better you get.

    All of the guys mentioned are incredible athletes and I look forward to seeing more from all of them. Very inspirational, even if they do make me feel hugely inferior! 🙁


  • Desire and passion are definitely important in realizing your full potential as a climber, but I think the top climber types are fooling themselves (and us) if they don’t think that they have some genetic gifts that allow them to do what they do.

  • M

    Regarding the Palmaris longus muscle, or the ‘extra tendon’ mentioned above. Small correction – The statistic isn’t that only 16% of people have it. It’s that 16% of people DON’T have it (and the number is actually more like 12%).

    Typically this muscle it’s mostly just tendon (which can’t generate active force) with only a very small muscle belly. It’s probably unlikely that this small muscle, that most people have, is the key to climbing 5.14 before you open mouth kiss your first girlfriend.

    I think it might have something to do with tendon insertions. The farther from the joint a tendon (of a muscle that rotates that joint) inserts, the greater the torque generating capacity of that muscle. The lever arm is that much bigger so that the same applied force by the muscle will result in way more torque. Consider how hard it is to open a door if you push the door 1 cm from it’s hinge compared to when you push it 80 cm away from the hinge by the handle.

    This way you can have two scrawny little bastards of equal proportions and the guy with advantageous tendon insertions can crank of one arms till the sun sets while the other unfortunate chump can’t bend his elbow hanging from the bar.

    I think all in all, we all have some genetic advantages and disadvantages. Those that rise to the top like Ondra and Sharma (and you too Sonnie) are likely a combination of fortunate genetics, awesome determination, and a good attitude.

    Cool discussion Sonnie – One other thing. I agree with what you mentioned a few days ago. Every sick climber I’ve ever known seems to prefer the open handed grip over the crimp grip. Although it might be less productive early on (“God Damn Mother Fu&#ING Crimpers!!”).. the open handed grippers develop way stronger forearm flexors and are better off in the long run, both from a strength perspective and from a less stress on the finger joints (lower injury) perspective. Sonnie – you open hand everything.. you know what I’m talking about.

  • Rob

    In one of the Dosage movies, Dave Graham said that he bouldered virtually every day for 9 months in Ticino. I don’t know about the rest of you, but for me that would mean a first class ticket to injury, no matter how careful I’d be. There got to be some genetic resistance in his body for him to be able to climb that much. And to boulder every day seems like a damn good way to get better at climbing…

  • Sonnie

    WOW, some INCREDIBLE feedback. Truly good stuff. After reviewing the comments, I’m really impressed by M’s thoughtful opinion and information on leverage. However I will argue that my open handed strength compared to my “half grab” strength is completely dominant. If I try to ‘half grab’ an in-cut edge on a 10 (or more) degree overhang, my fingers pop open and I either fall off or end up dangling from the bone structure of three fingers (my pinky is too short). So while I open hand most things, it’s out of necessity because my actual GRIP strength is pretty low. But I can’t complain, I manage to get by. However, it’s hard not to get a little bit jealous when Sean McColl dead hangs a door jam with bent fingers (sans thumb) and cranks off one arm pull ups. It looks as though a hydraulic machine is controlling his arm from the shoulder down.

    In regards to pure genetics, I’ve climbed with some of the best in the world, Lynn Hill, Dave Mac, Dave Graham, Sharma, McClure, McColl, Alex Puccio, Nelly, Doyle, Woods, and I’ve come to my own conclusion. They are all blessed with outrageously strong bodies and an undeniable ability to recover and regenerate cells quickly. So here is my personal theory, they were given stronger than normal leverage, resilient fibers or breaking strength or something, and from the beginning they realized they were quite good at climbing specifically (I can’t see Dave Graham being a terrific baseball player, or Sharma a golfer, or Lynn Hill a basketball star) but they found climbing and they were good at it. This led to increased levels of confidence, it wasn’t just a high level of confidence that made them excel, it was that they excelled that gave them more confidence, this in turn snowballs and I believe that climbing harder and harder actually gets easier and easier. This is just my new found theory from reading some of the above comments. And, if this snowball effect starts at 11 yrs old like it did for Sharma, it takes more time for him to reach his limit, while as for Ondra it started at 9, so it multiplies faster and the snowball gets bigger quicker. Imagine if Lynn started climbing at 6? She’d be unstoppable. But this is just a theory. I could be wrong.

    personally, I like what Nicholas wrote about Adams quote, “maybe it’s just a gift from GOD.”


  • T

    there is no way to measure passion, sometimes ones desire exceeds their physical capabilities and other times, it’s the other way around. Maybe only when they are balanced does it all come together, no matter what age we are?

    Indeed, at least, I would like to think so. I started climbing when I was 25 and it only truly became a passion around 30 and I’m still making progress at close to 34, one day at a time, one letter grade at a time. It’s just that I need to pay more attention to how I train and recuperate than I would have had to, say, 10 years earlier, but then again 10 years earlier I was not passionate about climbing anyways.

  • Wharrgarbl

    If Lynn Hill started climbing at 6 she’d be unstoppable? Who said she ISN’T?

    Anyway, of course genetics plays a massive role. The fact that it’s even a question worthy of discussion is a reflection of how brainwashed we’ve all become by the “everybody is equal” society we live in. I’m not being a racist or a Social Darwinist or anything here. I’m just saying that populations of animals (such as humans) exhibit traits in a bell curve distribution (usually). For something as simple as height, this means some people are REALLY tall and some are REALLY short, but most are within 1 standard deviation of the average height. Evolutionarily, this means that when the population is confronted with a challenge, either short term or long term, the portion of the population most well suited to the new environment is more capable and survives.

    So my guess is that Sharma, Ondra, et al, simply still have some leftover ape-strength-genes. They are probably a few standard deviations from the mean in terms of tendon strength, muscle repair ability, or something. Who knows what the trait is. I think it was in one of the Dosage movies where they interviewed that guy who used to climb with Sharma. He said he’d watch Sharma stick his finger in the bolt holes at the gym and mono up the wall. That isn’t normal. That isn’t average. My finger would snap off.

    Genetics = potential. There are assuredly thousands of other even STRONGER individuals out there who have the same genetic potential to be really good. Unless they ever tie in though, we’ll never know.

    I was definitely not blessed with good connective tissue. Thanks a lot parents….

  • If you watch King Lines, there was a strong innate desire to climb, even before he tried indoor. I’m sure there are physiological aspects to being a strong climber, but there are also strong mental ones too. Just thinking about it off the cuff, desire and motivation seem to suit children, who have generally have less on their plates on a day to day basis, and fill that time in with imagination. To youngsters, anything is possible, and there is much trust in adults. I believe that if I learned to lead while I was a child, I probably wouldn’t get nearly as sketched on runouts as I do now; because I have the capacity to imagine everything that could go wrong with a bad fall, whereas the same me as a child might not even think about it. Even now though, my mindset determines my success. Sending my hardest problem came from someone leading me to believe it was 2 grades softer than it was. I’m sure the belief that it was within my ability led to it BEING within my ability…

  • Regarding Adam Ondra quote from Nicholas (“maybe it’s just a gift from GOD”), it’s very interesting the answer from Adam himself, to the following question:
    ” Cleverness, technical skills, weight, training, power of mind, travelling, age, … etc, God ? :-):
    can You try to give a value, if not a percentage, to the various components, to explain us Your performances ?”

    In his own still open interview ( ), Adam Ondra wrote:
    ” Wow, impossible to say.
    I think the most important is being “mad” to climbing.
    You have to really love climbing, otherwise you will give up with climbing after some time.”

    So, “mad” love for climbing 🙂

  • @Dustin: That’s an interesting point about sending your hardest route as you believed it was easier than it was graded. I can definitely relate to that. When climbing indoors, I’ve taking to trying to read/try a boulder problem before checking out the grade. I’m climbing at around UK 6a or V4/5 but have been trying harder stuff just on the basis of what looks like a nice “do-able” problem.

    As people have said, some of the stuff that Sharma et al can do comes down to a lot of factors coming into line and all performing at the top of their game. I reckon the mental aspect is a huge part of that. If you approach a boulder problem/route being scared of it, your chances of success drop hugely – at least in my experience.

  • Brendan

    Interesting discussion. I saw a talk by John Dunne (a top Uk climber) several years ago and he said he could do a one-arm pull-up age 6. Apparently strength runs in his family, his dad’s feats of strength are supposedly legendary in the area. However, he also talked about his dad’s reaction (‘boys will be boys’) after JD and a pal did some insanely dangerous climb up a building near their school and were collected by the Fire Services. I think the freedom/encouragement to follow a climbing lifestyle must also have been important in his development as a top climber, as well as genetics – I can’t imagine most parents being cool with their kids climbing incredibly dangerous routes at a young age (see Pete Whittaker in Committed 2). JD also trained very hard, he said in his talk, he was one of the first to have a woodie in his house.
    I read an interesting piece by Dave MacLeod saying he lacked the strength of someone like Malcolm Smith, who started training when he was in his teens and whose muscles developed for climbing during his growing spurt. However if I remember correctly DM said that because climbing is a newish sport which people haven’t been training in for for a long time (relative to something like the 100m), the standard still has some way to go, meaning there is potential for people like himself who started late and aren’t natural to climbing (his words!)to reach towards the top standard through hard work. This makes sense – for a sport like tennis or golf you have to start almost as soon as you can walk to have a chance of reaching the top, and maybe have some genetic tendancy too. For guys like Federer, Andy Murray and Tiger Woods the sport was practically their entire education, but in climbing no-one is being pushed like that from a young age at the moment.
    Sorry, that was a bit of a ramble, hope I didn’t go too far off subject! I’d be interested to know of any top climbers who started late, ie. in their 20s? If there isn’t one, maybe that would show the importance of climbing during your growing spurt so that the muscles develop for climbing, along with genetics and other factors such as determination, work ethic etc.

  • Reggie

    Hi Sonnie,

    I don’t have anything scientific, just an anecdote. This is something I used to think a lot about when I ran track in high school. One of the kids on the team was a year below me (I was a sophomore–15 years old if you canucks use a different system or something 🙂 ), and his parents were pretty well-known in the town as former top runners. The coach and everyone else had pretty high hopes for him. I remember feeling a little intimidated since I was probably the best natural runner in my class, and I didn’t want an underclassman to upstage me.

    But when he started out, I was pretty unimpressed. He was good, no doubt, but I could usually beat him on the training runs. One day in practice we were doing a 4-mile loop, and I was feeling pretty winded near the end. We were running side-by-side, and the seniors were a few hundred feet ahead. He was probably about as winded as me, and he turned to me and said, “You… wanna… go try… to catch… those guys?” I said, “nah, but go for it. You’re better than me.”

    I’m pretty sure we had somewhere near the same natural talent, but he had the go-for-it attitude, because he just loved it. Every season, he’d have a break-out race where he beat his PR by 10-20 seconds in the mile or two mile.

    Before my races his dad, who came to a lot of the meets, would tell me “just have fun with it.” It never clicked. I enjoyed running, and the challenge of running, but it wasn’t something I loved.

    He just graduated from Dartmouth, and I think his best mile time was 4:06 or so. He was a top-notch college runner, and I doubt that’s the last he’ll do as a runner, or the strongest he’ll be.

    He wasn’t a prodigy, but he was the best my high school had ever seen. He clearly had natural gifts, but more importantly he had the drive to keep working. Maybe the drive was genetic. But I think the love of an activity is the most important part of the feedback loop. The love of accomplishment, the love of the process, whatever it is.

    If you’re interested in what makes child prodigies child prodigies, I have nothing for you. It’s probably physiology mixed in with the right motivation and mental strength. But for the long term, which is the part that’s interesting to me, probably 95% of what determines success is the love.

    Take care,

  • john cocktosin

    Check out the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. It is a great tome on this exact topic.

  • re: sonnie’s comment [no. 20]: i think that i have to agree w/ you on the confidence snowball. i believe that genetics and upraising play a large role, but confidence is a much more objective element. we can all benefit from confidence, whereas we cannot change our past or biochemical makeup. i think it is the confidence factor that causes the rampant send train after the FA of a long standing project. it is also confidence that catapults new climbers through the grades when others can stagnate. it is that feeling we all get when after days of failure, we just feel ‘on’ and good… projects go down feeling simply rather than ultra desperate… which fuels success on the next mark on the hitlist.

    finally, i’d like to believe that new climbers seem to be enjoying a level of freedom and opportunity that was reserved for the fringe long ago… see, modern parents seem to be much more open to letting their young kids travel across the country to go climbing, without supervision… there seems to be a greater emphasis on finding one’s self rather than parents pushing their kids into a well-defined and soul-sucking career path. i think that american culture is changing in a way that has freed many kids to pursue things like climbing rather than trying to get a client list of lawns to mow and driveways to shovel. in many ways, this makes me insanely jealous, since i have followed a more traditional path, but it is definitely allowing for substantial progression in climbing…. yeah, fools argue that the grades are not “that different” than in years past… so we’re not up to v18 already… oh well, but the pure number of climbers crushing at world class levels has not existed in the past. the embers of the fire are getting hotter and hotter and i think we are in for some incredible advances…

    remember: fools in the us government tried to shut down the patent office in the early 1900s, arguing that everything that can possibly be invented already was.


  • Confidence, belief, encouragement, focus, concentration, drive… they’re all nice words, but unfortunately, they don’t mean shit if you haven’t got the right genes (and quite frankly Sonnie, I’m sorry son, but you have those genes!). I probably remember this wrong, but in one of the “masters of stone”-movies, Fred Nicole makes a one-arm pinkie pull-up. Afterwards he explains he can do this because he’s so good at concentrating. Well… somehow, important as it may be, I don’t think concentrating is quite the key, although I’ll never know for sure, will I? To quote Wharrgarbl: “That isn’t normal. That isn’t average. My finger would snap off.”

  • The psychological factors outweigh physical strength by a great deal. Remember the photos of John Gill doing one finger pull-ups? He bouldered maybe V10 at his peak. Feats of strength do not measure a climber’s ability though they can’t hurt. But understanding what you’re doing makes a bigger difference. Climbing is a relatively muscle-free enterprise compared to something like men’s gymnastics. Small improvements in strength and technique create huge advantages but even more important is technical expertise, self-belief and self-knowledge. These can be acquired at a very young age, as seen for example in women’s gymnastics. It is hardly surprising that once the infrastructure of gyms, coaches, competitions, etc. was firmly in place that very young climbers would quickly master skills that older climbers literally spent years bumbling around trying to understand and acquire at the same time. Finally it is worth remembering that it was not so long ago that people actually argued whether hanging on a rope to check out holds or work on moves was “ethical.” Suppose someone had told Chris Sharma that the path to glory was run-out 5.11 slabs? Social support or lack thereof makes a big difference.

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  • the struggle i have with the debate between genetics and training [mental and physical] is the same nature v. nurture argument that plays on in other arenas.

    on one hand, i cannot do one-arm hangs, so when my feet cut and i’m on a decent hold, i’m coming off. period. others can stick the swing and maybe even do the ol’ badassmuthaeffer one arm pull to victory. that’s an isolated instance when genetics come into play. but then, i think of those times when i was climbing with a certain spidery, fluid climbng friend of mine. i fought and struggled to static through tough moves with as much power as i could muster. the send was intense. the tension almost made me mess my drawers… then, i watched, dumbfounded as my friend, who i am technically much stronger than in a traditional sense, carry his momentum through the moves effortlessly, grabbing the top jug with a little hop. seemed v-warm up for him. in this scenario, the static moves i was pulling were definitely much more powerful and required more brute strength… but, in reality, that was not necessary as was so easily demonstrated by my other friend.

    this phenomanon can happen with ourselves too, and does. often i have found that the trick to a given project of mine is not pulling harder or being stronger… the real beta is just to let loose and fly to each hold, trying to allow your momentum carry you through what would otherwise be very hard pulls.

    while there are certainly more genetically gifted folks out there than my t-rex gimpy self, i find that those with clear, confident minds are the best climbers… there’s a ton of gym-fed powerhouses that i session with who are fantastically stronger than i, but at least with that group, it seems like my experience and confidence outdoors gets me up lines that they get befuddled on… though they have the raw ability to flash…

    usually, i’m on the losing side of the mental game, but i can recognize when others are falling prey to themselves… or, to their lack of experience and ability to ‘feel’ out what moves and positionings best suit them in mid-move.

    it is this intangible asset that climbing parents and the community is giving to the younguns… we all know it is easier to get better when you climb with someone substantially better than you. though god knows i have tried, this is not because you can suck the life-force from those better-than-you fools, it’s cause their psych, experience, and motivation spark the same in your own mind. their energy creates an environment for progression and teeth-gritting success. eye of the tiger and whatnot.

  • Ben

    First of all, the issue is obviously not black and white; it isn’t just genetics that sets your climbing grade, or just effort (even if we’d like to believe that willpower will get us up a certain route). Also, it seems impossible to quantify just how important these two factors are for a particular climber therefore any discussion will be anecdotal and pure speculation. This much can be said:

    Aptitude sets the bar; effort reaches the bar. Genetics only comes into play when you put the effort in to reach your personal limit. I think that this limit is not a static one, but a maximum rate of improvement. I believe that the law of diminishing returns must apply here, where development will be greatest at first and then tail off no matter how much more effort you put into your climbing. We’ve probably all seen that in our own climbing.

    Finally, there are certainly other factors that do not fit nicely into these two categories, and their relative effects will vary considerably between climbers. That is all I can say for now.

  • ktmt

    Great discussion! I do, however, object to what Björn Pohl says, that “confidence, belief, encouragement, focus, concentration, drive” don’t count for anything if the genetics aren’t right. As this thread supports, even for the most elite athlete there has to be a convergence of all factors mental, physical, emotional, environmental to achieve such a high level. And I would argue that determination, drive, perseverance and belief in our goals can greatly compensate for less-than-ideal genetics. Most of us will probably never even approach our physical (genetic) potential because of the obstacles our mind places in our way, be it counterproductive lifestyle choices (what’s one more pint going to hurt, eh?), to laziness when training, to the desire for companionship or financial security. Even if it meant being able to climb at Dave Graham’s level, could you really accept the sacrifices his gypsy life requires?

    But wait a minute! Why wish we could ask Ondra, Sharma or Andrada when we’ve got a professional, elite climber right here in the guise of this blog’s host? You may be self-effacing, Sonnie, but you have nevertheless climbed your way onto the cover of the magazines we all read. What blend of all these characteristics has allowed you to climb at such a high level? Was it a path of least resistance, something that just came easily (genetics)? Was it “mad love” of climbing? Or was it hard work and sheer determination of will starting with not wanting to be outdone by your sister (as I believe you’ve been quoted), and you’ve just never looked back?

  • Luke

    Why don’t you point this thread out to Dave MacLeod as, apart from his climbing abilities, has also done a degree and masters in sports science and I’m sure he could give us some evidence based answers to add to the opinions above.

  • Definitely an interesting topic, I enjoy your posts Sonnie. They feel genuine.

    My opinion is that there is a growth spurt and if you are practicing anything ardently during that growth spurt you will become super good at it and it’ll never leave you. If you learn tennis at that age then you will always be able to pick up a racket and be at the 5.12 comparative level with ease.

    If not, if you pick up a sport later than that period, then you have to teach yourself to learn it, teach yourself to have that ease which will look natural but was hard earned. And I think everyone can. It is the martial arts master, ease through practice every single day, doing it until you become it. The main difference being that as a “grown up” you have that voice in the back of your head talking to you, naysaying, doubting, procrastinating, wishing for the easy path, wanting the reward not noticing the path, you’ve tasted the apple and you’ve taken “the fall”… things that one just doesn’t do much of as a child playing on the rocks, or swinging a racket around.

    Lynn Hill bouldering V11/12 at 40-something
    The other female athlete competing in the Olympics at 40-something (30-something??)
    Moshe Feldenkrais (had to throw this one in there)
    Agassi, still cranking it out spanning 3 generations of tennis players
    Ivan Lendl, mechanical in his play but trained and commited…
    Need I mention Fred Nicole, silently calmly cruising hard moves like a chill version of Bruce Lee

    Genetics must play a part, what percentage no-one can ever know (in my opinion).
    Youth plays a part.
    But everyone can get “there”; but it takes training the body and the mind. Often it seems like the methods for that training are not fully disclosed (the best trainers often don’t tell the masses), sure the method is, in the end, completely individual, but can’t the best climbing trainers just make a blog and say what they are doing?! However, most importantly is the fact that few make the pilgrimage to becoming a master of themselves through any activity, be it climbing or tennis or yoga or marriage or life. So much easier to say too old, too short, too tired, or to simply end up comparing to others because that is so often what is happening in gyms. It looses its fun and ones’ fear of being-less-than someone else comes out, stops the feet from moving freely, the hips feel awkward, no longer the wild fun freedom of a child or an adult who is dancing for the hell of it.

    I’m a climbing junkie as much as anybody else posting/reading and watching climbing movies and thus I’ll reference a climbing movie. I think Nate G. says something authentic when in Pilgrimage he says that Chris S. is “right here”, he’s nowhere else, right in the present moment, and that’s what one needs to make the impossible possible.
    I invite those reading this to answer where are you when you are climbing or training?

  • Sorry for being unclear. Didn’t mean to be quite so cynical. What I meant was that other factors than genetics won’t be enough if you want to become the best, no matter how hard you try. With “bad” genes, you can still become very good and with “good genes” and insufficient effort, you won’t get anywhere. It’s a combination of course.

  • Seth Murphy

    Interesting read Sonnie.

    I believe, like most, that it’s a little of both. I remember when I started climbing in the gym and seeing Jason Kehl (who had been climbing for 2 years) and Jordi Salas training like FIENDS!! Jason was up and down climbing every route he tied into, (with a weight belt) and Jordi was doing the same. What amazed me was not only his obvious skill and technique, but his DRIVE. He climbed like his life depended on it, like it was everything, the only thing.

    I think Jay has worked harder then any climber I personally know, and having myself been a climber for 14 years realize that it wasn’t just his training, it was something else???

    Was it the belief in themselves that made them succeed where others would fail? Maybe.
    Was it their genetics? Was it their training?
    I’d like to think it was a lot of all three.

  • Alot of great insight into an unanswerable question. Its certainly fun to take stabs at though.

    One thing (that may or may not have been mentioned) is the importance of young “ignorance”. I have an 11 year old daughter who climbs, and its amazing for me to see how hard all these young kids can climb when they don’t know that its SUPPOSED to be hard. They can reach holds when they don’t know its supposed to be reachy. They don’t get scared until they’re told that its scary.

    I sure wish I’d have come into this sport with that ignorance…

  • Bob
  • rob

    Maybe we can get a little closer to the answer that Sonnie is looking for by approaching it from the other direction. Can someone who is not genetically predisposed to climb hard become a world class climber through pure motivation and perseverance? Can anyone who is within one point of the standard deviation climb 5.15 with enough hard work? I seriously doubt it. I think your genes determine how good you can become. I think it is next to impossible to achieve this potential ability but there are a few out there who have given it their best but will never climb 5.15. Those at the very top have the genetic predisposition to climb at least that hard and they have dedicated their time to achieving that potential. For the rest of us, climbing is not about being the best in the world, it is about being the best we can be. The race is run against the self. Have fun everyone…

  • Matt

    Lots of interesting ideas.

    Genetics,Self belief, youth and experience all play a part.
    The biggest thing I think is something that is hard to put a finger on. Climbing Ability!!!!

    It’s how an individual climber distributes their weight between the holds that are on the problem/climb.
    Here is a real scenario.
    One climber is trying a move over and over again and their feet cut each time and they fall. Another climber does the move and their feet stay on and they cruise to the top of the problem. Were they stronger or just pulling, pushing and squeezing their body in the right way in order to create the right tension to stay in contact with the rock. The climber who was falling over and over again can do a one arm pull up on a hold that the successful climber can’t even take their feet off the ground on..

    It seems that this ability is a very instinctive thing that is very hard to learn. Dave Graham admits to being weak and finds one arm pull ups hard/ impossible. But he has an amazing ability to push, pull (use) his body in the right way to do really hard moves.

    Maybe it’s the ability to do this that makes a really good climber.

    It’s all just great fun though.

  • @Bruno: Great post! I like that comment a lot, and nice work with the Pilgrimage quote – I think that does go some way to show that Sharma has the mental determination, drive and psyche to achieve incredible things. I agree with what you said about people comparing themselves to others and making things harder. That’s something that happens naturally, especially in gyms, but I definitely try not to let it get on top of me. That sort of mental pressure makes for a bad mindset and poor performance (I guess that goes to show how important the right mental attitude is).

    @Matt: You raise another good point there as well in regards to Dave Graham. I’d say on a technical level, he’s the best boulderer in the world. I defy anyone to watch his footwork and say otherwise. It’s so precise and seemingly effortless (case in point: ‘Loved by few, hated by many’ V13 in the Ozarks, featured on Dosage 5). He isn’t the strongest climber (and it seems that people like Chris Sharma and Dani Andrada yank his chain about not being able to do a one arm pull up etc – all in good spirits of course 😉 ) but he has other skills which mean that he can get through certain areas in different ways.

  • El Crushonator

    I agree that Dave Graham does appear to be a technical master. But to call him weak is silly.

    Burly body strength may be his weakness, but he still probably has more of it than most V12-V13 boulderers. When he says he sucks at raw power/burliness, he means that he sucks compared to Daniel Woods and Chris Sharma. And, I think his finger strength may be just as good as theirs.

    I think it could be misleading for people who boulder at a much lower level to see his comments, and take away the lesson that strength doesn’t matter.

  • Sonnie

    WOW, some truly amazing feedback. It seems like everyone has a slightly different perspective and insight, which is good, it shows us that we’re very unique, driven and inspired in different ways. I’ve wanted to make comments at various times throughout this discussion, but found it more interesting to sit back and listen, take it all in. Thanks so much to everyone for sharing, I never would have guessed. The funny thing is, this is a question with no answer, only opinions. Not even the athletes themselves can answer, because they don’t know either. If I had to express my opinion, I think I may have some friction, because I lean more towards genetic physical strength than anything else, actually, to make that more clear, strength to weight ratio. After all, that’s all climbing boils down to, strength to weight ratio, and I feel these athletes have a better ratio than most of us. That’s the bottom line.

    Did you ever read that Sports Illustrated Issue dedicated to the Olympics, where doctors and scientists basically say that 95 percent of the athletes in the Olympics are there based strictly on genetics. Which means, average joe could train and dedicate his entire life like the devil himself to the 100 meter dash and will never approach a qualifying heat.

    Here’s a story, back in 2003, I lived in Boulder for three months to prepare for an upcoming PCA competition. I did everything I could, I bouldered, I ran, I ate organic salmon, drank water, stretched and even did an hour of mental training and meditation everyday, along with some ‘soul-o-wing’ in Eldo. I used the hangboard, weights and could crank off one arms with ease. I was never stronger and more confident. Sharma on the other hand, had just got off the plane from China where he apparently walked around barefoot for two months and gazed at Panda bears, he took a hiatus from climbing. I thought to myself, if there was a chance to beat Chris in a comp, this would be it, he’d be jet lagged, hoo, hoo, ha HA HA! We all qualified into the top ten and I was feeling beer than ever, I was actually enjoying myself for once. I even managed to flash a problem nobody else could, not even Chris. I thought I had a chance. In the finals however, Sharma gracefully flashed every single problem with ease, leaving the rest of us floundering like fish out of water. My muscles could not take the repeated stress over and over and over, and by the fourth climb on the third day I had nothing left, neither did anyone else, our tanks were completely empty. But not Chris, he kept on, and he won. Now this is me in my “peak condition” and Chris “off the couch”, this is the difference.

    But it doesn’t sadden me at all, why should it? It sets me free from ever trying to compare myself to anyone else ever again, and this allows me to focus on my own path. Chris is Chris, Adam is Adam, Lynn is Lynn, You are You, and I am Me. It sounds redundant, but it is a very special realization. I am going to be the best I can be with what I have. If I have to work to pay the rent before I go climbing or training, I am going to be the best I can be with what I have. If I have to visit my family instead of traveling to Spain for the winter, I am going to be the best I can be with what I have, because climbing is fun and we love it.

    Oh the joy! Happy Wednesday everybody!

  • well spoken, sonnie.

  • ktmt

    second that! As Rob says above, “it is about being the best we can be.” And as Sonnie just added, within the bounds and constraints of each individual life. No whining, make the best effort we can make, and draw inspiration from everyone who tries hard.

  • there’s a classic photo of John Dunne on that hard welsh slate route, if you look at his forearm it almost looks as though the muscle almost carries on past his wrist and stops at the palm of his hand. certainly not the short stubby bit of muscle ( chicken leg ) many of us possess. However we still see some very tenacious athletes who don’t give a toss about their genetics and just keep plugging away until there very very strong. As a community were all getting much stronger and these blogs fuel an environment were we all want to get stronger. It will be great to do all those routes I aspire to by being part of the new average.

  • Brendan

    By the way, it’s been so nice to read an interesting climbing forum discussion, rather than just ENDLESS grade debates.
    More open discussions please!

  • Joe

    Is it just me or is Adam going to back clip?

  • Sonnie

    Ha. I think you’re right Joe, I never noticed. Danger, danger.

  • caroline

    Hey Sonnie
    Thought you might like to read a blog post by a friend. It is on a similarish kind of path to your discussion, well maybe not, but worth a wee look anyway, might make you chuckle if nothing else.

    Hope you well

  • sebestyén

    soon i will sacrefice a lot of time from my climbing to go medical university, maybe then i can answer this quiestion about genetics but Ondra climbs from the age of 4(?) and you can specialize your body very well, if you start to do that thing early cause your brain behaves different in the first 3-7 years, this is the time for your body to note things like the conditional reflexes, or just like the vertical movements, Sharma climbs form the age of 16 (i guess) but he was climbing to the trees when he was a little child, just like Alex Honnold, so i guess its more depends on the first 3-7 years of your life then on your DNA.
    phew..sorry for bad english