In yoga, a simple sign of one’s experience is the quality of his or her down dog. It’s a basic pose that every experienced yogi has performed thousands of times. And after doing it thousands of times, it looks good. It’s strong, elegant, and clean.
In climbing, a simple sign of one’s experience is the quality of his or her footwork. An experienced, thoughtful climber moves with precision and grace. She doesn’t come off the wall unnecessarily, and she isn’t performing a 10-step tap dance before landing her foot in the right spot.
Over the past few years, I’ve taught hundreds of new climbers at both gyms and while working as a guide overseas. In addition to the fundamental guideline to climb with relaxed and straight arms, I’d suggest using good footwork with phrases like, focus on your feet, trust your feet, look for better feet, among others.
This footwork advice is common, but I think it overlooks the simplest—and quite possibly the most beneficial—advice a new (or any developing) climber could have: practice silent feet. Climb without being able to hear a single foot placement. It’s not quite feet, it’s silent feet. While it can be challenging, the simple practice is immensely rewarding.
In his article Whispers of Wisdom, famed Dawn Wall ascensionist Kevin Jorgeson explains how this technique was taught by his coach, Andrew Wallach, and it helped him “pare away slop and inefficiency.” He goes on to say: “Wallach’s exercise was simple: if your foot squeaked or smudged audibly when you placed it, punishment ensued — for me, this was a 200-foot gym traverse. Choose your own torture, but the key is to have someone nearby call you out.“
Benefits of silent feet
The practice of silent feet consistently nudges a climber’s focus toward her technique and helps prevent the common mistake of just looking up. The close attention on footwork will contribute to more efficient climbing, thereby helping to prevent fatigue and forearm pump. And lastly, practicing silent feet will naturally guide appropriate hip positioning and drastically improve body awareness.
Even for the most experienced climbers, practicing silent feet can be a grounding strategy when anxiety, fear, or fatigue arise. It’s quite common for feet to be the first aspect of a climber’s technique to flounder, but a returned attention to silent footwork will keep technique in check.
Put silent feet into practice
Warm-ups provide the ideal environment to dial in on silent footwork. Take the earphones out (for those that use them) and aim to go through your entire warm-up without once hearing your feet. It’s not easy! As you begin your normal climbing session, silent footwork should continue to be your aim and eventually, it will be automatic.
Don’t take the concept of silent footwork to be something you practice as a new climber and then grow out of. Instead, treat it as a foundational aspect of all your climbing and carry it with you throughout the lifetime of your climbing career.
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