Have a conversation about coaching and training for climbing and the name Neil Gresham is likely to come up pretty fast. Neil is undoubtedly the guru of training for climbing in the UK and has been for years. As well as being the most experienced hands on coach in the country, he has recently packaged much of techniques and tactics he coaches into two DVD's Which are basically a bible for how to move on rock and get to the top of tricky routes. Neil gets down to the nitty gritty of training every month in Climber magazine, so in my interview I tried to ask him some more overarching questions about his experience and general approaches for doing well at climbing.
OCC: Neil you're probably the most experienced climbing coach in the UK, and since climbing is still a young sport in its stage of development, you've had the opportunity to influence many of the trends in training for climbing. Can you pick out one or two key messages that you've tried to get across to climbers over the years that stands out as most significant and/or innovative?
Neil: I guess the most obvious one is that it’s hard to persuade climbers to plan, but if you can convince them to use the principles of periodisation as a guideline for their training then they’re going to climb so much better and be less likely to get injured. The other big one regarding technique is that you have to focus on style and looking good (yes, I know it goes against the grain!) rather than getting to the top at all costs. People find it hard to be mentally aggressive and physically relaxed at the same time, but that is exactly the state you are aiming for.
OCC: The first climbing magazine I ever bought has an article on redpoint tactics written by you, and I still refer to it occasionally now. Is there any piece of advice or writing from your early days that still keeps you on the right track today?
Neil: Yes, for sure, a classic example is the difficulty of getting both strong and fit at the same time seeing as they require such contrasting approaches. I once wrote a piece for OTE in the early 90s which described the requirements of stamina training as being quantity based and the requirements of power training as being quality based. Bouldering work-outs should be short, intense and with good rests in between, whereas stamina sessions should be long slow-burners with as little rest as you can get away with. If you want to develop both at the same time then you need to prioritise one for a while and then switch to prioritizing the other rather than going hammer and tongs with both. There are so many little rules that help out when it comes to coordinating strength training with endurance. For example, if you’re training 2 days on then it’s nearly always best to train strength on the first day, and so on. Another good general principle is that the best time to back off with your training is when things are going well, and this is of course the time when you are least likely to want to. That one has probably saved me from injury countless times.
OCC: I think it's fair to say your notoriety as a climber really took off when you moved beyond the hard sport climbing scene, started doing routes like Indian Face and generally became a super all-rounder. Do you think your attitudes to training and preparation helped you do this, or was it just your sport climbing fitness?
Neil: It was both. Sport climbing gives you a huge buffer for trad in terms of strength, endurance and technical ability. It’s clearly more of a chance game if you turn up at the base of an E9 knowing that F7c+/8a is your limit. It’s only the total headpointing gurus like Nick Dixon who can pull this off. But then it’s people like Dixon, Dawes and Grieve who are the masters of the preparation side and who taught me so much. None of these guys are really strong climbers but they developed a whole new way of looking at bold climbing. Parallels were drawn with the Samurai warriors who had to practice highly complex routines, knowing that the penalty for a mistake would be serious injury or death. Many of the tactics that have been coined both for preparation and for coping with mid-ascent catastrophes are pretty zen-like in nature. It’s a vast subject but the essence of it is to focus so hard on the delivery of spontaneous action that there is no space left in your brain for disrupting thoughts or emotions. There are a few lucky climbers who can turn this on straight away with minimal experience to draw on, but for me it took years to nurture. I was very timid when I started climbing.
OCC: It’s always seemed to me that 'natural talent' in sport can sometimes bring problems as well as benefits. Many climbers who have the most prolific careers have had rather ordinary abilities to start with that have catalysed a determination and work ethic that goes on to surpass the natural talents (who get too used to success without effort). Do you agree with this? If so, do you try to develop determination in your coaching and in your own climbing?
Neil: I couldn’t possible agree with this any more. So often the most talented climbers, especially the young ones are total slackers. In short, they don’t appreciate what they’ve got because they haven’t worked for it. There is nothing like being fundamentally un-talented to make you realize that you have to capitalize on the fleeting moments when you feel that you might be in with a chance. This ethos has defined my entire climbing career. It means that your finishing game becomes your strongest weapon. Can it be coached? Indeed it can! Let’s move away from nonchalant teenagers and look at keen but less-experienced adults – many just don’t know hard you have to try. It was Sean Miles who once told me that one of the big things that goes wrong with his climbing after a break is that he forgets how much effort you need to put in. This statement holds true both in the present sense (mid-climb) and also with your overall approach to training. Look at Rich Simpson and Chris Cubitt – these guys have sweated blood for it. The right attitude can be nurtured with anything from the use of key words as metaphors to tougher goal setting. There are all sorts of devices.
OCC: One issue that is often on the training climber's mind is body shape and how to best manipulate it. What have you learned about this in your experience? Do you think it is best to work with the frame you've got or become either a Dave Graham or a Malcolm Smith?
Neil: I think the answer is hidden in the question by the fact that you picked both those two climbers. They are both at the very top level and yet they have very different frames. It’s elementary stuff: to climb well you need a good power-to-weight ratio. Graham gets there on weight (or lack of it) and Smith gets there on power (or surplus of it). If you’re both heavy and weak then you’re not going to do very well. When Malc did Hubble he was both strong and ridiculously light but it was unsustainable and the combination of the dieting and the training nearly broke him. So long term he has settled to be strong, a little heavier and a lot happier! If you’re naturally a stockier build then you simply have to ask yourself how much you want it and how far you’re prepared to go. It’s easier for lighter framed people as they don’t have to think about all this! That said, a little extra muscle is a good thing for bouldering but for routes it only serves to weigh you down.
OCC: Can you describe roughly what elements you think would be involved training wise, if a climber set a goal of onsighting E9?
Neil: Are you asking for a bit of coaching advice here Dave?! After all, you’re one of few in the UK who’s in with a chance. Firstly I think this is a young man’s game. Leo Houlding was a contender when he was full of precociousness but he got older and worst still he became famous. I think it’s pretty important to still feel that you have something to prove, preferably just to yourself. James McCaffe was (and still is) another candidate. He has a very genuine love of climbing that isn’t media-driven and a high level of talent, but he got that big scare when he went off-line on Masters Wall and I think that really brought it home. It only takes one near miss to make you realize that the confidence building game we play is partly based on delusion. There are a few young lads who I’d like to mention here but to do so would be putting them at risk. If the media start rallying round with something as sensitive as this then the motives become cloudy and it gets even dicier. Back to the question – you need to be climbing outdoors a ridiculous amount and hence would probably have to give up any full time employment for up to 6 months. Here’s what I’d do if I was remotely in with a chance. Go to Europe in the winter and not come back until I’d onsighted 6 or 7 8as and 2 or 3 8a+s. Stop in Font on the way back to get my strength and technique back up and make sure I could flash Font 7cs and do 8as easily in a day. Do loads of onsighting all-round the UK in the spring, starting first with the safe, strenuous ones and then progressively moving on to bolder ones. I’d make sure I’d done a grade pyramid of 1 or 2 ground-up E8s, 6 or 7 E7s and well over a dozen E6s. All these routes would be in a full variety of styles, but then I’d pick my E9 and start focusing purely on that style. Then I’d start mental prep for the 9 and maybe do a few up-&-down style recces on the route. You know the rest. All yours, Dave!
OCC: As you know all too well, trad climbing in the top end E grades is a genuinely dangerous business. How do you decide you are ready to go for a lead you know will be at your limit with real consequences if you make a wrong judgment? What do you think it takes to walk away from a route when doubt creeps in just before you are about to lead it? Harder still, how do you coach these skills?!
Neil: My doctrine here is that there are two voices – the one in your head and the one in your guts, let’s call that one your sixth sense. If you ever let your rational mind over-ride the ‘sixth sense’ then you’re playing a dead man’s game! This may sound wooly and superstitious but if you don’t know what I’m talking about then you simply need to go out and do more trad climbing. Backing off teaches you the parameters and when the sixth sense says ‘go’ then you’ll trust it. But if you haven’t nurtured that inner voice tenderly over time then you have no referral device for your decisions. It’s like a final check: brain says ‘yes’, sixth sense says ‘yes’… ‘off we go then’. On the day I fell off Meshuga, everything was perfect on paper, conditions, skin, preparation, the lot. But something irrational inside me said ‘don’t do it’ and I chose not to listen. Never let your the to get it over with get the better of you. Be quiet, cut through the butterflies and the eternal chattering of your mind and listen to what your inner consciousness is really saying. And if it’s really saying ‘no’ then don’t go - an amber light is the same as a red one! You’ll know when the time is right.
OCC: Who in climbing have you seen or coached over the past few years that has really impressed you? What can we learn from their approach?
Neil: Natalie Berry has really impressed me and I wish I was able to do more work with her. There are climbers three times her age who’ve been climbing three times as long who haven’t worked out half of what she’d sussed by the age of ten. She has a rare grasp of the movement, her tactics are impeccable, she knows how to train and how to learn from her mistakes. To be honest, so many climbers impress me – Ben Moon for being so relentlessly good, Rich Simpson and Steve Mac for taking over where Ben left off so many years ago with sport climbing, Paul Craven for constantly re-inventing his climbing by switching styles, Charlie Woodburn and Matt Birch for over-coming debilitating illnesses and cranking to ever higher levels, you (Dave Mac) for being out there on your own and pushing both headpoint and Scottish winter standards, Oh and Ryan Pascall as a young climber who seems to know what to do with his talent. And also at a much more modest level, there are a few people who I’ve coached - there’s a chap called Paul Bate who’s in his late 40s, with a family and a who holds down a very demanding and high-flying position in the world of finance. On our first session he said to me ‘Now then Gresham, I don’t want any creepy bullshit from you – I pay you to tell me what I’m doing wrong, not what I’m doing right, so don’t spare me any punches!’ I slated him and he went from falling off 6a’s to onsighting 6b+ and redpointing 7a in 6 months.
OCC: I sometimes get the impression that climbing walls have generated a lot of impressively strong climbers, who try but don't succeed in matching this ability outdoors, especially on routes. For example, I was recently talking to a climber who's goal was to do Font 8a and French 8a, feeling that French 8a was the harder goal! What can climbers do to overcome this?
Neil: That sounds like crossed wires to me! Can it be true? I take your point that wall strength is easier to ‘convert’ than endurance because the head side of lead climbing usually sabotages things. However, the tactical side of both bouldering and sport climbing is pretty much the same outdoors as it is indoors. Converting the technique patterns of indoor climbing to rock is simply a matter of putting the time in. So what else can climbers do to overcome disparities? This depends on whether they mainly climb indoors due to time constraints, or whether they are cowering indoors because they are scared of the crag. The former climber will be super psyched when eventually they do get to the crag; however, they should still channel this motivation into skills acquisition rather than the short term desire to tick high grades. To the climber who is more timid, they need to ask themselves if they are genuinely scared of the crag or if it is more to do with their ego. If it’s a pride thing, then it comes back to ‘having a word with yourself’ (as Tim Emmett would say) and dropping the grade and going for mileage. Remember that the indoor and outdoor climbing grades will only equate for people who’ve put roughly equal amounts of time into both disciplines. Only push your comfort zone once you’ve established a base - this is surely the first thing any climber is taught. Regarding the specifics of crag skills – that’s too long to answer here. Sales pitch aside, have a look at my Masterclass DVD part 2!
(OCC: No really! No crossed wires! The psychological issue you brought up of being timid and feeling out of the comfort zone was what I was trying to get at with this question and example. I think that a lot of climbers aren’t sure how to go about training it)
OCC: The last one is a philosophical one: What is the benefit of getting good at climbing? Is it more enjoyable at E5 than HVS?
Neil: For me personally, I’d say that E5 is more enjoyable than V Diff or Severe but I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily more enjoyable than HVS. That depends on the quality of the route and a great HVS is surely better than a shit E5? I always used to look at Extreme Rock when I climbed in the lower grades and long to be pulling off proper moves on sheer faces rather than shuffling around on polished or vegetated ledges. For me there needs to be an element of exposure and technical intrigue and I can still find that on HVS. What you get from it seems to vary all the time – sometimes it’s the thirst for new experience in the form of increased mental or physical pressure that drives my climbing. But other times, if I can search out a climb that genuinely has something new and different to offer, then I don’t need to be pushing myself in order to obtain some value from the experience.
Thanks Neil! Neil’s masterclass DVD’s are a superb reference for just about all aspects of movement techniques and tactics for sport and trad climbing. A full review of these coming up soon. Check out Neil’s new site which has some great articles on training and tactics from climbers you’ll have heard of.