Many climbers find that their footwork deteriorates, and gets “noisy” and inefficient, when they begin to sketch (or thrash) on a route. If this sounds familiar to you, then make this your mantra:
“When the going gets tough, focus on the feet!”
Remind yourself of this every time you begin to struggle on a route! Due to the proximity of the eyes to the hands, it’s quite natural to overfocus on hand positioning at the expense of finding the best foot holds.
Ironically, the key to unlocking many routes lies in effective use of the feet. Consider how often you have fallen, only to notice a critical foot placement that you missed.
Increasing focus on the feet takes practice and self-awareness. For starters, ask your belayer to yell at you to “look for feet” as you begin having difficulties on a route. The same thing goes in the gym or while bouldering. The more your attention is redirected toward finding the best foot holds, the more automatic it will become in the future.
On difficult routes, some climbers place small chalk “tickmarks” just above critical foot holds as visual cues. This practice is quite effective when climbing fast is essential. Still, you need to remember to look down in the first place! (Please don’t go overboard on making tickmarks—just mark the most vital, easy-to-miss footholds).
Here’s a great drill for developing foot focus.–I call it “target practice.” Pick a technical route (indoors or outside) that’s about one full number grade below your on-sight ability. Attempt to toprope the entire climb with a sustained, narrow focus fixed on your feet. With each placement, look for the best part of the hold and actually watch your foot go onto the hold in an ideal placement–try to hit the bull’s eye of each target hold. Maintain your focus on that foot as you weight the hold–strive to feel each foot hold and to keep your foot completely still as you stand up on the hold. Meanwhile, place as little focus as possible in other areas such as reading the route ahead, your belayer, and so forth. The goal here is to train footwork, so don’t worry about your overall performance on the route.
This drill is indeed difficult, but over time you will develop great foot awareness and, undoubtedly, climb harder!
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