24 January 2008

Start reading the rock (and never stop)

Coaching is really great fun. I don’t have experience coaching other sports but I’m guessing climbing must be pretty interesting as sports go. In climbing there are so many skills and abilities that create the performance. Meeting climbers who are at a high level you see that many of these skills are a prerequisite and don’t even need mentioning. With these climbers the challenge is to get them to stand back, and see the bad habits they have developed and to make a convincing enough case for them to see clearly the benefits on offer if they change those habits.

Coaching climbers at a less advanced level is very different. It’s strange sometimes to see different climbers all trying to climb the same problems but using totally different styles and approaches. When in groups it makes it easier to talk folks through the benefits of each approach and the effects of neglecting other parts of the chain. Always the most dramatic image for students is when someone who is obviously very much weaker than the rest (often a female climber in a group of strong young guys) makes climbing steep ground look effortless through applying momentum and lower body muscle groups. I love it when this happens because it’s something I cannot (easily) convincingly demonstrate myself. People assume that if I make a move look easy it’s because I applied more force through the handholds. So I spend a lot of time pointing out my tensed calf muscles as I move on a steep board and generate the force for the movement from my toes and my movement of my hips.

Getting down to the nitty gritty of movement is really great fun. And making breakthroughs in it is even more fun. One big thing that the climbers I coach say to me is that they worry that they will forget my explanations for how they managed a move easily that was previously impossible, so the improvement will be transient.

And that brings me to my most repeated piece of advice in coaching – look at the rock and the holds, and listen to your body as you make the moves on them. Soak up the information it gives you, even though it feels like a brain crash to start with.

At first you will have to process the bits of information consciously, chunk by chunk. Like learning a foreign language, at first you have to piece sentences together by individually recalling words and their basic meaning. Everything is clunky and takes a great deal of conscious effort. There is no sidestepping this stage – you have to go through it.

But gradually, more and more aspects of what the hold layout means in terms of movement decisions will come automatically, and you can deal more and more with understanding it at a higher level and refining the timing and execution of each part.

But the minute you get lazy and stop looking at the holds before, during and between attempts on a climb, your technique learning will slow down or even reverse. It is the conscious (at first) efforts to understand what the holds are asking you to do that makes the connections in the brain you are after.

Look > try to understand > try to climb > try to understand > look some more > and so on

This is the way for steady technique gains.

If you go for:

Try to climb > try to climb > try to climb > brain asleep > try to climb > try to climb

Not much improvement is on the horizon.

The seemingly hard way of trying to understand climbing movement from the word go, rather than hoping you might understand it someday is actually the short cut.


Anonymous said...

Great post. I am much better at onsight, but this is helping me on my hardest redpoint attempts.

The first goes felt so foreign and ticky tack. Now I am trying to conserve motion and energy for the big toss near the top.

dave frost said...

Its seems abit strange at first, this tends to be my way on crux sections ... look at knee level for foot holds, look for higher hand holds, bring feet up, look and scout out the next 10 feet if there are rest points go, if not move back wait and think a bit ... then repeat until something is seen. Its something i never used to do until E1, which seemed to be the point where things need to be worked out (for me anyway).

Great post.


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