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Deliberate Transitions are Ambiguous

Submitted by arnoilgner on 2008-07-01

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Michael Manni arrived at a rest stance on St. Pauli Girl, a 5.10c at New River Gorge, West Virginia. He wanted to keep going without resting but I coached him to stop, rest, and assess. It had only taken Mike nine months to be able to climb 5.10, but it seemed to just get him to his performance plateau quicker. Being on a plateau can be frustrating but Mike decided to be open to training and suggestions from others. He heard about a Sport/Mental Camp I was teaching at the New so he signed up. There seemed to be an overall nervousness to his climbing, like he wanted to get it over with. There was a lack of deliberateness when he climbed and in his utilization of rests. This lack of deliberateness seemed to be his weak link and I was going to help him with it.

Many climbers think that when they get on a route they must climb it to the top without stopping. They associate being deliberate with continuing to climb. Being deliberate, however, is committing fully to something specific. Climbing is not just moving from bottom to top without stopping. Climbing consists of both stopping and moving. At stances you stop rest and prepare; between stances you climb. But, you also need to blend these. This blending is a transition. Negotiating these transitions is critical for creating deliberateness.

A route has many transitions. Each transition is a kind of decision point. You transition from preparation to action at these points. A typical decision point is when you are stopped at a stance with protection. Each decision point contains a transition where you stop preparing and begin acting. Knowing what takes place in transition helps you make it more deliberate and complete. There are three steps in effective transitions. First, you let go of the old. Second, you allow yourself to “be” in the neutral zone. Third, you embrace the new. Let’s apply this process to a decision point on a route. At a rest stance you assess and plan. This is your preparation. Once you’ve finished preparing you get ready to act, but you haven’t acted yet. You are in transition.

  • Letting go of old: First you let go of preparation. You’ve assessed the situation and more assessment isn’t useful. Many climbers keep on assessing until doubts permeate their mind. Assess well but then make a conscious decision to stop assessing.
  • Neutral zone: Second, you settle into the neutral zone where ambiguity is high. It is ambiguous because you have let go of the comfort of staying there and preparing, yet you haven’t begun climbing. You are in-between two known activities, a no-man’s land of sorts.
  • Embracing new: Third, there is a moment right before engaging where you consciously embrace the new. The neutral zone dissipates as the new course of action solidifies in you. You know that in the next moment you’ll climb and knowing that finalizes the ambiguity of the neutral zone and the transition.

The learning process also contains transitions. In fact, if you are poor at transitioning in how you learn you’ll transition poorly on a climb. In learning you have to let go of the old way of doing things, “be” in the chaos of not knowing, and then embrace a new way of doing things. “Being” is the neutral zone of transition. You can’t latch onto the old or the new for security. You must “be” with the chaotic state of the in-between. If you habitually latch onto the security of what you have done or what you will do, then you don’t allow space for new learning to develop. This habit of latching onto security manifests itself in climbing as rushing or stalling. With rushing you climb through rest stances and latch onto the security of getting the stress over with. With stalling you stay where you are and latch onto the security of the rest stance to stay out of the stress. Neither of these are deliberate and they don’t prepare you for the growth you could experience. “Being” in the in-between prepares you. Mike felt out of control and rushing gave him a way of getting rid of the ambiguity of the neutral zone. But rushing didn’t give him control. He would need to slow down to gain true control. This would be the new behavior he would apply.

I prepared him for transitioning to the new behavior before he got on St. Pauli Girl. I got him to acknowledge his limiting behavior: he rushes himself. Acknowledging that you do a limiting behavior is an important first step for moving beyond it. You don’t allow it to stay hidden in excuses or unconsciousness. I also asked him if he was willing to do something different. It is important to have a desire to change. This desire rarely manifests itself if old behavior still “works.” For Mike, rushing himself wasn’t working anymore. I got him to agree to stop deliberately at stances and do a complete transition. At each stance he would go through his preparation and assessment. Then he agreed to:

  • Let go of old: He would consciously let go of preparation and enter transition. This only takes an instant, but it has to be done consciously. He would verbalize this by saying “Done.” This is a conscious and verbal command that deliberately emphasizes letting go of the old.
  • Be in the neutral zone: In the neutral zone he would practice “being” without acting on the desire to rush into climbing. Rushing is the old concept he has about how to climb. This concept is in his mind. Mike would deliberately direct his attention out of his mind and into his body to diminish falling into this old concept. He did this by heightening his state of arousal: doing a couple strong exhalations, shaking his face, and doing several eye blinks. Doing this keeps attention in his body, preparing the ground--the foundation--for new growth to occur. By creating a heightened state of arousal in his body he keeps attention out of his thinking mind. If his attention stayed in his mind he would create new concepts to latch onto. New concepts should be created later, when the mind processes the experience that the body had.
  • Embrace new: He would embrace climbing the next section an instant before actually committing to it. He would verbalize this by saying “Go.” Again, this is a conscious and verbal command that deliberately emphasizes the end of transition.

With this agreement he engaged St. Pauli Girl. When he reached a stance I could see his tendency to move off it too quickly. I coached him to stop and prepare for the next section, which he did. Then I told him to let go of preparation when he was finished. When I heard him say “Done” I knew he had deliberately let go of preparation. He was now in the neutral zone. I coached him to heighten his state by reminding him to do a couple strong exhalations. After doing this I heard him say “Go” just before he committed to climbing. He climbed to the next stance where he repeated this process. He climbed this way past the fourth bolt and fell. He applied transitioning, something he was uncomfortable doing, to a challenging grade at his current ability level.

Later, Mike told me it was difficult to slow down. He was reluctant to climb as I suggested but figured I must have a reason for it. Slowing down and doing the transition took a lot of Mike’s attention. He didn’t see immediate results, but he persisted in applying what I suggested. With practice he noticed that he regained energy at rest stances and placed his feet/hands better when climbing. He felt less anxious, more in control, and more deliberate. He also noticed that his approach to learning had changed. Initially he was reluctant to do what I asked because rushing “worked” for him. But, he allowed himself to “be” in the in-between where he had to let go of his old way of relying only on his methods. He deliberately embraced a new method suggested by someone else and was patient in practicing it. He had allowed himself to be in the neutral zone where the foundation for his learning could develop.

Climbing a route isn’t a continuous process of moving upward once you step off the ground. It is a series of stop/climb cycles. Transition helps differentiate between the two and helps do each deliberately. Understanding transitions allows you to let go of the old, “be” with the ambiguity of the in-between, and embrace the new. Develop this skill in how you learn and you will apply it well when transitioning on climbs. Without developing this skill you are destined to stay latched onto the security of your old behavior, which will keep you permanently marooned on your plateau.

Practice Tip: Creating Deliberate Transitions

Incorporate effective transitions to create deliberateness in your climbing. Begin on moderate routes and increment up to routes that are at your limit. Pick a climb and divide it into decisions point, places where you have rest stances and protection.

At these stances:

First, do a thorough preparation: Identify the next stance where you have protection Assess the fall consequence Create your plan of action (how you’ll climb the next section) Weigh the fall consequence against your experience with such consequences.

Second, go through transition: Let go of preparation by saying: “Done.” This is a deliberate confirmation that you have finished preparing.

Enter the neutral zone by directing attention into your body. Do this by heightening your state of arousal. Take a couple breaths, exhale strongly, and shake your face to get rid of any tunnel vision. It is also helpful to blink your eyes a few times. This heightened state lets you know you’ll let go of the comfortable stance soon and begin the exertion of climbing. You’ve let go but haven’t engaged yet. This neutral zone should be about the length of time that it takes to do two or three breaths.

Embrace climbing by saying: “Go.” Do this an instant before committing.

Third, climb to your next stance.

Arno is the author of The Rock Warrior's Way: Mental Training for Climbers


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19 Comments CommentAdd a Comment

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5 out of 5 stars great article most people rush because they are trying to beat the pump... This technique should improve your mental state when climbing
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Totally, applies to me; I rush way to much. Some of my strongest climbs have been on slab where I've had to slow down ALOT in order to think things through without worrying about getting pumped as much.

Great article thanks!
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good article
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2 out of 5 stars I think the advice in this article has a lot of merit. The title, however, stinks. What the heck does "Deliberate Transitions are Ambiguous" mean?

Here are the dictionary definitions I found relevant:
de·lib·er·ate [adj. di-lib-er-it; v. di-lib-uh-reyt] adjective, verb, -at·ed, -at·ing.
1. carefully weighed or considered; studied; intentional: a deliberate lie.
2. characterized by deliberation; careful or slow in deciding: a deliberate decision.
3. leisurely and steady in movement or action; slow and even; unhurried: a deliberate step.

tran·si·tion [tran-zish-uhn, -sish-]
1. movement, passage, or change from one position, state, stage, subject, concept, etc., to another; change: the transition from adolescence to adulthood.

am·big·u·ous [am-big-yoo-uhs]
1. open to or having several possible meanings or interpretations; equivocal: an ambiguous answer.
2. Linguistics. (of an expression) exhibiting constructional homonymity; having two or more structural descriptions, as the sequence Flying planes can be dangerous.
3. of doubtful or uncertain nature; difficult to comprehend, distinguish, or classify: a rock of ambiguous character.
4. lacking clearness or definiteness; obscure; indistinct: an ambiguous shape; an ambiguous future.


A movement, passage, or change from one position, state, etc., to another which is carefully weighed or considered, or leisurely and steady in movement or action is open to or having several possible meanings or interpretations or lacking clearness or definiteness?

If this is supposed to communicate something, I'm at a loss for what it is.

The other thing that bothers me is the talk of "creating deliberateness". I agree that learning to climb deliberately (i.e. in a carefully weighed and considered manner) is valuable. I also think the methods Arno suggests to achieve this have merit. His use of the word "deliberate", however, nearly strips it of all meaning.

Language is a valuable tool. Use it wisely and don't abuse it.
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5 out of 5 stars Sorry to rain on your parade, pug, but insights on the mental aspects of climbing from Arno are far more interesting to most of us than dictionary definitions and other pedantry from a windbag computer programmer.
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Pug, I see your point, but I like what Arno does in this article. I believe he chose his diction deliberately to facilitate conversation between the audience and the piece about the ambiguous parts of his coaching technique. I found myself questioning the voice of this article like my own personal guru. "Am I approaching the crux appropriately? Do I visualize my movement, commit to the movement, and perform the movement?"

I think back on my climbs, and notice that I sometimes practiced this technique without conscientiously knowing it. Maybe not so coincidentally these are some of my best climbs.
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2 out of 5 stars Like I said, the article has value. The title, however, fails to communicate...anything.

If you want to sit around bowed before your alter covered in pictures of Arno, that's great if it makes you happy.

My point is that in order to convince people who don't already worship him, he might want to consider more effective communication techniques.

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I actually pay no attention to Arno. I don't even know who he is. I just included his name to add variety to my post. I simply disagreed with you (without attacking you) that his article was ineffective at communicating. I made no comment on Arno other than his voice in the article. Perhaps I'm being needlessly defensive to such a baseless attack.
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2 out of 5 stars tjlynch: My comment was actually directed at saxfiend, who clearly DID attack me. No offense intended toward you. My apologies for the misunderstanding.
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oh, I can see that now...
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I see what Arno is trying to do here too. Firstly, I think he is putting words to a process that many of us do on our own without knowing it – which is good. This process is the reason I climb, the clean slate pure mental focus on the “now” of the climb. I am not sure that I am 100 percent sold on how he wants to teach it for several reasons. I think that a lot of this preparation and mental acuity is reached through putting in time on the rock via trad climbing, something many people never attempt. A lot of people jump into higher grades on sport walls and have forgotten about trad. Trad forces you to predict the route, climb with deliberation, plan gear placements (the where and quality of) and truly assess your consistent climbing ability. I am all for sport climbing, but I think that more climbers would reach this mental preparedness by slowing down their chasing the grade mentality and putting themselves on trad walls at lower grades. Trad taught me to respect the rock because it can be unforgiving. All too often sport only climbers think they are at a gym that just happens to be outdoors. When this is the case, it is no wondering they are scrambling up grades hurriedly and half scared. They shouldn’t be chasing a grade and it appears they don't respect the rock. Most importantly they should be enjoying the climb.
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[quote Trad forces you to predict the route, climb with deliberation, plan gear placements (the where and quality of) and truly assess your consistent climbing ability. I am all for sport climbing, but I think that more climbers would reach this mental preparedness by slowing down their chasing the grade mentality and putting themselves on trad walls at lower grades. /quote]

Amen sbmerkei! On a personal note I recently began climbing trad,before being a sport-only climber, and spent a little over a month climbing nothing but trad routes in the 5.7 - 5.10a range. Before that month of trad my hardest onsite had been 10b and my hardest redpoint 11a. After a month of climbing significantly easier routes trad I went out for an all-sport weekend and in two days onsighted two 10d's, redpointed an 11a with a tenuous crux that had always shut me down before, and redpointed an 11b on my first lead attempt after one toprope ascent. I thought I would climb poorly because I hadn't been working my sport muscles as hard for that month of trad, but the mental focus that it engendered made a huge difference in my level of confidence and ability to adapt to the climb! I was always stoked on trad but never realized the difference that it could make to the rest of my climbing.
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whoops, didn't do the quote right; gotta figure that out. Anyway you guys get the idea...
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5 out of 5 stars Great article. Without the privilege of being able to climb outdoors this summer while I'm away from school in the mountains I have been hitting the local walls semi-daily. I have used this opportunity to work on my self-discerned weak points as well as what others have said I should work on to take my climbing to the next level. Footwork being a primary concern of mine I tried really heavy footwork problems and routes, but this article brings to light another level of climbing that I have not yet experimented with. I can recognize the transition points within a route but it was merely subconscious and I thought nothing of it. Much like your pupil I would just try and rip through a route getting hung up at these transition points out of frustration, poor mental preparation, or whatever else it may be. I appreciate the fact that you even wrote this article to bring this up into forefront of my mental happenings while I'm on the wall. I will keep the article in mind and practice what you preach to see if I can see an improvement in my mental coolness. Thanksss.

As for the other useless comments on this article...its posts like those that keep driving me away from extremely informative and entertaining boards across the internet (but I guess it is the internet so nothing more is to be expected) gripe on.
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I to enjoyed the article, after I got over the title. I don't think anyone has argued that the article is of quality, but I also don't see how anyone with a developed vocabulary could argue in favor of that title choice. Unless it was supposed to be ironically ambiguous, in which case, Arno is laughing at me...but I don't catch that vibe.
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Bravo TurboGroveller, Trad assesses your real climbing ability and makes you a stronger climber - great to hear that you had the same experience I did with the personal development. On an additional note - I bet you enjoyed sport climbing even more - as you described with your increased confidence and ability to adapt to the climb. I find myself more relaxed on climbs (sport or trad) as a direct result of trad climbing. I will stop after placing a piece of pro and lie back to catch the view. When I first started climbing I was scrambling up rarely noticing anything besides the immediate rocks in front of me! I am lucky to be climbing in a place like the Gunks as my home court because the views are unreal, rock is bomber and the trad climbing is top notch. Hope some people follow TurboGroveller's lead.
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no shit
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I probably could have used a better title. Many times (and I could be totally wrong on this point) a title is to grab the reader's attention, not necessarily explain the article.
The article points to the need to deal with ambiguity that is within the transition, once one has let go of preparation, yet hasn't engaged yet. So, if one is able to deal with that ambiguity well then he/she actually makes his/her transition more deliberate...ambiguity leading to deliberateness, as it were.
Anyway, the intent for the title was to grab the reader's attention. Perhaps it did that; perhaps not.
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if my interpretation is correct, the gist of all this is, "OK, U GOT THE JUG, TAKE ER EASY, CHALK UP, SHAKE OUT, OK NOW SACK UP, NOOBIE. REPEAT."

maybe you should have titled this, "pompus writing is deliberately ambiguous."

you want to get over that hurdle, noobie? try not to flail like a gumby idiot.

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