Love and Rock Climbing: A Shaping Story

Shaping is a powerful tool for teaching any new skill.  Although most shaping of our behavior is done inadvertently, people who use this process purposefully are better coaches and leaders who produce faster learning.  The shaping process involves identifying and reinforcing successive approximations towards a final goal.  What does this mean? Looking for baby steps or small improvements in performance and reinforcing those small improvements over time. The process of shaping allows us to deliver reinforcement at a much higher frequency than waiting for the person to engage in the desired behavior; which, may or may not happen.   To illustrate the process, and power, of shaping I will share a personal example: teaching my significant other to rock climb. I am an avid climber.  By avid I mean I take every opportunity I can to climb, either in the gym or outside on real rock.  Needless to say climbing is something I find pure joy and reinforcement in.  I also value my relationship and want to spend as much time together as possible.  Therefore, getting her to enjoy climbing was a priority for me.  Not that she has to love it like I do, but desire to climb at least a couple times a week, and hopefully, want to spend some portion of our travel exploring different climbing destinations.

Rock climbing, in the beginning, has some pretty big inherent negative consequences to overcome including: fear of heights and/or falling, quick muscle fatigue, awkward movements, and social fears associated with being around people when you are new to something.  Once someone develops the skills necessary to climb it becomes much easier and more fun (a.k.a. reinforcing!).  My job as her trainer (for lack of a better word) was to develop those skills as fast as possible and deliver enough reinforcement to bridge the gap between starting out and hating it and being proficient and choosing to continue.  This is where shaping comes in.  Here are five shaping steps I used to teach her to climb.

  1. Start just above performance level: There are two main goals when someone begins climbing, developing safe habits and keep going up the rock. That was the first focus of my feedback.  To ensure she felt safe, I asked questions and reinforced safe answers and actions.  In addition, while she was climbing I delivered a lot of praise for one thing; upward movement.  While this first step may sound like a bit of overkill, it is not.  By starting just above the performer’s current level, they immediately come into contact with a high amount of reinforcement which has a direct affect their experience and potential interest in learning a new skill.  The more reinforcement, the more they will be encouraged to continue on.
  2. Look for the first small improvements: Once she was going up I began to focus all my feedback on two key aspects of climbing: using toes and fluid movement. Standing on the holds using just your toes greatly increases stability and prepares the climber to be comfortable standing on smaller and smaller holds.  Being fluid greatly reduces the energy expelled while climbing.  Most people begin climbing thinking it is a pulling up sport when actually it is much more about pushing with your legs and using arms and legs together.  By focusing on these two specific behaviors required for successful climbing she was able to feel more stable and use less effort very quickly, creating a more reinforcing experience for her.
  3. Look for key characteristics of the desired behavior: As we continued on in our training, I then turned my focus to providing pinpointed feedback on proper body mechanics and using skeletal structure instead of relying on muscles to help her climb. Weight shifting, keeping your weight underneath you, foot and knee positioning, and maintaining straight arms are all keys to decreasing effort and increasing your ability to maintain smaller holds.  Anytime I saw one of these behaviors I was quick to yell out “nice job” or “good move”.
  4. Connect behavior to the natural environment: As her climbing technique began to develop, I began asking questions about certain moves or her experience after she completed a route. Something as simple as: “How did if feel when you made that big reach while pushing with your legs?”  Asking these questions after she completed a route led to important dialogue that connected her behavior with the natural reinforcers of climbing.
  5. Continue reinforcing: Now that she is becoming a good climber I have not stopped delivering positive reinforcement. Although my delivery has decreased from when she first began climbing, I continue to look for slight improvements in technique, her attempts at harder moves and routes, and her acquisition of new skills.  I have gone from delivering almost continuous reinforcement, 10-15 per route, to now more like 2-3 times per route.  I am able to do this because she has connected her behavior to the natural reinforcers associated with climbing.  She now comes off a route smiling and asking me, “Did you see that move?”

Shaping has allowed me to share something I love with the person I love.  Now she thoroughly enjoys climbing and we get to spend more time together doing something we both really enjoy.  Although this is a personal example, the five steps above can be used to teach anyone a new skill and ensure that skill becomes a habit.  By designing a shaping plan you will be able to acquire new skills faster and do so using a positive behavioral approach.

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Posted by Bryan Shelton

Bryan applies his knowledge and expertise in strategic planning to help organizations align employee performance with company goals. Bryan helps clients create improvement across a variety of business metrics including company growth, profitability, customer service, vision alignment, leadership development, and culture change. He also helps clients implement process improvement initiatives, improve sales results and using performance-pay systems to help drive company results. His behavior-based approaches and applications have supported clients’ improvement initiatives, leadership development, and the design and implementation of performance pay systems.