How Japanese Train Drivers Can Help You Become A Better Climber (Genuinely)

It’s pretty established that it’s very important to focus and concentrate when we’re rock climbing. On several levels, a lack of focus can prove disastrous for any chances of success; from failing on that project line by forgetting a crucial part of the sequence right the way through to safety critical aspects that lead to accidents, keeping our mind on the task at hand is pretty important. It might come as a surprise that the proven method of improving this skill that I’m advocating comes from the train stations of Japan.

Shisa Kanko – often simply referred to as Pointing and Calling – is a technique developed to increase focus on the task of ensuring passenger safety by incorporating physical and vocal attributes before starting the task to ensure the brain knows exactly what’s going on. Okay, that’s a slightly simplified explanation so I’ll leave it to this excellent video to do a better job for me:

So the question then becomes: how do we use this slightly obscure method to help us with our climbing?! Let’s take a look.

Safety

A look at the BMC Incident and Near-Miss Reporting page quickly demonstrates a large percentage of accidents are caused by a lapse in concentration. Rope systems can get pretty complex and complicated with several factors involved but even coming back to Intro courses, learning the basics of top rope belaying can be pretty overwhelming when it’s a new skill to develop.

Then we have the stress levels that exist within this process. New belayers are often only too aware that “they have their partners life in their hands” and this rise in anxiety levels can rapidly lead to a dip in performance levels. We need some arousal to get ourselves into the task but go too far and performance qickly drops, as shown below. (If you’re particularly interested in this subject, have a read on the Yerkes-Dodson Law. The original research has been questioned for some time but still remains as a benchmark for arousal-performance relationships and if taken with a pinch of salt, can still be of value to us).

So we need something to bring our mind back on task. Right at the beginning of the video above, there’s a brilliant quote:

Physical movements and vocalisations are a proven way to increase concentration and reduce errors when performing any task

Japan Video topics (2018) Japan Points the Way to Better Safety, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=etUejYb48BE

If you watched the video right to the end, you’ll have seen Japanese rope access staff using this technique in a way that looks remarkably similar to the simple buddy-checks we are encouraged to perform before setting off on any climb. It would seem that adapting Shisa Kanko may just be a very effective way of reducing the amount of accidents at climbing venues.

Fear of Falling

Fear of falling can be very powerfull and very real! However with the right precautions, it can also be well managed to the point it becomes irrational (where the liklihood of serious injury is very low)

This is a HUGE area on coaching. Training Beta states “the fear of falling is probably the single thing that holds more climbers back than anything else” while clinical psychologist and climbing coach Dr Rebecca Williams dedicates a large chapter on the subject in her book Climb Smarter (2021).

As a coach, much of my way of dealing with fear of falling is to develop coherent logic to remind ourselves that we are actually safe and that our fear is actually irrational and not rational. [NB it’s far more complex than this but this summarises into a sentence.] Let’s put this in context to explain that a little more with this handy quote:

The same fears mentioned under rational fear can be considered irrational fear if the context or the reason to fear is highly unlikely

Walden, Andrew (2019) Rational vs. Irrational Fear: Differences and Effects of Both Fears, https://www.healthresearchpolicy.org/rational-vs-irrational-fear/

So soloing a big, multi-pitch mountain route at the limit of your abilities contains a large amount of rational fear because the chances of you seriously hurting yourself are quite high! But once we add in a rope, belayer, tonnes of protection and all the other associated parts, in other words when we greatly reduce the liklihood of serious injury, we can think of it as an irrational fear. And these helping people be aware that their fears are irrational can help them to attack them in other ways.

It’s at this point our Shisa Kanko comes back again. Pointing and Calling at each of the components on the wall reminds us that we have taken all the appropriate steps to avoid serious injury and that our fears are irrational. Granted, this can be harder to do mid-route but when the time is appropriate, it can be very effective at dealing with fear.

Performance

I mentioned right at the top about performance, which is obviously a big factor in coaching. After all, a coach’s role is to help people perform at their full potential.

At lower grades, operating at peak performance often comes down to making the most of what is available. Once the anxiety levels go up, decision making ability drops and climbers regularly simply miss big and crucial holds that will aid their ascent. I’ve been using Shisa Kanko to develop just this before the climber begins: point at and count every single hold on your route. Simple as that. The results have been very impressive and while nowhere near enough for a clinical trial, have been encouraging enough that I’m certainly going to be doing this again.

Incredibly, this technique is incredibly similar to one that many experienced climbers already do: sequencing, sometimes called visualisation. Check out the most extreme version of sequencing with Adam Ondra:

Ondra is obviously working at the upper end of what is currently possible but chances are that you’ve likely seen someone do this before. Sequencing or visualisation (subtly different but for the purposes of this article, pretty much synonyms) involve picturing and remembering where hand and foot holds on a route are in order to perform the sequence better in practice.

Notice all the hand waving. There’s a clear similarity here with our Japanese train drivers, with climbers incorporating the same physical movements to enhance memory and increase performance. Our first video above explains the neural activity that goes on and it is certainly possible our comp climbers or outdoor boulderers are actually utilising the same neural activity.

Summary

The Railway Technical Research Institute may seem an unlikely source for inspiration to enhance our rock climbing but there are clear parallels between the climbing gyms and train platforms in Japan. Whether it’s ensuring safe practice, helping to manage anxiety or simply striving for peak performance, Shisa Kanko can be an incredibly powerful tool that is well worth practising.

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