14 October 2008

How to be a sponsored climber

Another email I get a lot from climbers is one asking “how can I go about getting some sponsorship?” or asking what grade do you have to climb to get sponsored. This is another subject I think it’s important to write about on this blog, because for lots of young climbers it’s a really bad distraction and will influence them to make choices that will ultimately limit their climbing, not empower it.

So, how do you get sponsored? Well the first thing I should say is I am probably not the best person to ask. I am much better at climbing than getting huge sponsorship deals (I like it that way round), but maybe it’s good to point that out - it’s a skill in itself, completely separate from how hard you climb.

On the whole, how much sponsorship you can get has only a little to do with how hard you climb, and the climbing part can be answered in a couple of sentences:

If you want to be a professional climber, take whatever the current cutting edge is in the niche you want to operate in, and better it, convincingly. And understand that you have to do that first, before the sponsorship comes. I know it would help if it was the other way round, but it’s not going to be, so it’s better to accept that from the start.

Right, thats the easy part out of the way, now the hard part. No matter where you are at with your climbing, the challenge to actually turning that into a relationship with a company is your ability to role play the cash strapped marketing manager. This is where most climbers go wrong. This is what you have to imagine:

You are the marketing manager of the company you want to get the deal with, your marketing budget for the year was pretty damn small to start with, and you’ve spent most of it already and allocated the rest twice over already. A glossy pamphlet with a highly professional looking and reading cover letter comes in, among many other bits of mail in a big pile you have to read. It’s a request to be considered for the sponsored athlete team of the company. You’ve got 20 emails to write before your meeting in half an hour, so this request has about 30 seconds to sound good enough to make the headache of redoing all your budget sums for the rest of the year a good idea. (first hint: why should you be sponsored in a couple of sentences, or better still a couple of unmistakeable images?).

If you think your marketing manager might not already know who you are and lots of things about you, wait until they will have. So you have to be able to remind them instantly in words or images why you are exactly what their marketing tactics need to sell more of whatever it is they sell. Did that one pass you by? It does for many young climbers. That last point was where most go wrong. They think that the sponsorship is reward for climbing hard. It’s not. Its about your sponsor being able to sell more product.

So however you go about getting the sponsorship (and there are many ways), remember it is a task of saying “this is how I can help you connect with your customers”, and not “this is how hard I climb”.

How can you help a company present a stronger image, carry a message to more people, through more and better channels and how can you make these ideas sound better than whatever the company are doing right now. Make sure you know these answers inside out, with numbers, and images to back you up, before you approach. 

Another good approach is not to approach at all. One of the big problems with getting sponsorship is budget cycles. Whenever you approach, it’s sods law the budget has already been spent. Sometimes, it can be better just to keep focusing on building yourself into such a valuable target for companies (hint: once again, climbing is probably the least of this) that it’s inevitable at least one marketing manager will recognise that your 20,000 blog readers per month are a far more valuable asset to get closer to than trying to make traditional ads that anyone will notice.

I’m sure I’ve given a fairly clear perspective on how to approach this, but one final point; the most important one. Whatever you do, don’t rely on the hope you’ll ever pay your bills with sponsorship. You won’t. After several years of trying I got on much better when I realised that looking outside of sponsorship for different types of income compatible with a climbing life was a much better strategy. For me it was writing, lecturing, coaching, labouring, internet retailing and, yes, some sponsorship too.

With trying to be a sponsored athlete you are entering the world of advertising, and successful advertising means being ahead of the curve. If you have to ask others what they are doing right now, you are behind the curve. To be ahead of the curve you’ll need to anticipate what will make marketing managers sit up and rub their eyes next year.

Anyone for a marketing degree? Followed by a multimedia masters? Could be a better idea than a gap year ‘to concentrate on your climbing’. I had two gap years, it didn’t concentrate my climbing as much as I’d have liked, but being broke did concentrate the mind.

13 October 2008

Modern trends in city dwelling trad climbers

Following on from my last post where I said people often email and tell me what grades they climb in different disciplines and ask how they can improve. Of course it’s a very complicated picture, but sometimes it’s not so hard to pick out some obvious clues.

One very common clue to identifying weaknesses is the balance of strengths, or grades across the disciplines. Lets take a wee look at these in turn.

How many pull-ups can you do on a first joint edge (small campus board rung) on different grip types? Based on my observations as a coach, for about 7/8 out of ten climbers, they will do much better using a crimp grip than either four or three fingers openhanded. If thats you, you’ve found a weakness to train. Simple! Keep climbing openhanded on almost everything until you strengths on each grip type match. If you don’t, it’s your loss. If you do the hard learning about why it’s important as I stressed in the last important, you wouldn’t need any convincing why you need to go to all this trouble and spend a couple of years breaking your crimping habit.

A second one that stands out a mile with trad climbers who live in cities and spend a lot of time climbing indoors is their grades. A common one these days is “I climb F7a, Font 7a and HVS/E1” or at a higher level “F8a, Font 8a and E4” To me as a coach this now sounds normal because I’ve heard it so many times. But to me as a climber I think “What?!” 

A friend of mine is convinced if you can do Font 7c bouldering , you should be able to do F8c routes so long as you do any sort of decent stamina work. And it’s probably true for a lot of routes. As for trad - the crux of a benchmark E9 like Parthian Shot is Font 7a!

So what is all this saying? Climbers are often WAAAAY too stuck in a “climbing harder equals being stronger” paradigm and have completely forgotten to value tactics and technique. At most busy city climbing walls, if you come in every night for a week, you will come across a guy who can really climb well, but is weak as a kitten. He’ll consistently flash a certain grade on any type of terrain, every time. Yet he/she is much weaker than you. That person is your coach. Befriend them, watch their every move and ask them relentlessly what their background is. Copy it.

How do I get better?! (in one email)

Averaging out at once every day, I get a very similar email, which goes roughly like this (with minor variations):

“Hi Dave, I’m a really keen climber. I’ve been climbing for (x) years and can do (x) on sport/ trad and I’m bouldering about (x). I go to the wall/crag (x) times a week and out climbing at weekends. I really want to keep improving but I seem to have hit a bit of a plateau and don’t feel I’m getting better as fast as I could. Is there anything I should be thinking about doing now to break into the next level? Thanks in advance.”

Sometimes it adds a couple of lines about what the climber habitually does to train and asks “where am I going wrong?”

It’s great to get these emails and know there are so many keen climbers out there feeling the same way as I do. I know that for every person who sends this type of email to someone they feel might have an answer for them, there are many times more people who feel like sending it but don’t for one reason or another. So I thought I should really share publicly the answer I write back, which is broadly the same each time as you’ll see why:

“Hi, Thanks for the email and good to hear you are psyched to get better at climbing. It’s not really possible for me to identify the areas you should focus on with your training without having much more information about your climbing and training habits. And even then the answers would be a lot more than I could fit into one email.

Basically you have two choices to break out of your plateau, Right now you don’t have the information to analyse your own climbing and identify the areas to work on or change. You could either shortcut the process of learning this information by hiring a coach to make a thorough assessment of your climbing and make the decisions for you, or you could learn to do it yourself. 

Learning this information is really the hard part of getting to be a better climber, doing the training is the easy part! It takes many years to learn everything you need to know to design your own program very well. It took me 6 years of full time study and many more years of soaking up every piece of information I could. I’d totally recommend doing this because you can adapt your training practice as you progress or your goals change. 

The worst situation for your improvement is to fall between two stools and take neither path. You’ll inevitably make lots of mistakes, focus on the wrong things and end up losing a lot of time not improving nearly as fast as you could given your available resources. Choose which path you want to take and go for it! Good luck.”

The first message in this is really worth re-iterating - For one climber, a mix of poor footwork, over-reliance on strength training bringing down technique, lack of variety in angle or hold type, or missed opportunity to supplement climbing training at home could be among a longer list of things needing changing. For the next climber, it might be a totally different set of problems. 

Most climbers carry around an incomplete picture of what to value and work on to get better at climbing. So they only follow the things in their picture. A good coach might fill in the rest for you very quickly. This is the shortcut. If it suits your circumstances and goals, take the shortcut! If you want to be a lifelong follower of climbing, take the hard road and learn the rest of the picture yourself, in the long run this will be a shortcut for you.

For those who take the self-coaching path, you are already ‘on it’ by reading this blog. Good one! Keep in mind that actually doing the training is the easy part. Your constant challenge is to be doing the right training at any given moment. So for every hour of training, it would really get you further if you did at least the same in learning about training (reading, watching, thinking, analysing). 

Make sure you are getting information from every channel available - things like: this blog, many other writers on this subject online, reading books on training and not just ones specific to climbing, motivation, watching good climbers, asking good climbers what they do. (Hint: Lots of very specific questions in a row will get much more than one general question like ‘How do I get better?’).

Which path are you on? Don’t fall between two stools.

PS: I am not sure if that final figure of speech is a British thing or not, but for anyone who hasn’t heard it before, please note it refers to stool as in the chair.

12 October 2008

New research published on finger endurance

My undergraduate research project investigating determinants of finger endurance in trained climbers was recently published in the Journal of Sport Sciences. You can see the details here or access the full paper if you have access to the scientific journals through an academic or other institution. A huge thanks to Stan Grant for encouraging me to keep going with the log preparation of the manuscript for submission and to everyone that worked with me on the paper and volunteered for the research itself.

We observed that climbers were not dramatically better at tolerating occlusive isometric contractions of the finger flexors (as you get in difficult climbing), but were surprisingly good at sustaining long periods of intermittent high force isometric contractions compared to untrained people. This could be down to an ability to perfuse the muscles very rapidly and recover from the contractions while reaching for the next hold. Not surprisingly, we also observed yet another confirmation that pure finger strength, and especially finger strength to weight ratio was a strong predictor of climbing level.

The intermittent isometric muscle contractions of our fingers in climbing are not that common in strength and endurance dependent sports, and there is still much to be learned about the exact causes of failure to maintain force output and sequence of chemical events that happen deep in the exercising muscle during fatigue. 

Big up to anyone out there willing to take up this mantle and help us to learn more about the physiological limitations in climbing. The continued dramatic rises in the level of ability of the worlds top climbers really shows that we are nowhere yet, either with our understanding, or what could be done with it.

11 October 2008

Split tips

Many of you have been asking about split tips (cuts in the fingertip pad, usually from using small sharp crimps and most often in the index finger, for those of you not familiar with the term).

I am no dermatologist, so I speak purely from experience here. There are many techniques various climbers use to manage split tips, some of which I haven’t mentioned here because I feel they are not much use! Below is a list of ways to minimise the highly frustrating time out of climbing that such a tiny cut in your finger can subject you to:

Prevention, prevention, prevention. Most of the techniques for managing split tips are pretty useless to be perfectly honest. And if you let yourself get them repeatedly, they may chronically recur. So just don’t get them in the first place! The primary way to avoid them is to watch out for your fingertip skin, and when you are about to get a split, stop climbing or pulling on the nasty edge. If you don’t you only have yourself to blame. Splits sometimes, but pretty rarely happen out of the blue, it’s usually after ample warning of thin fingertip skin.

Notes on prevention: If you are climbing on thin edges or very rough rock, wait until the best possible conditions available, i.e. cool and out of the sun, so your skin is as cool and leathery as possible. Between goes on a climb in poor conditions, do extra to keep your fingertip skin cool and less sweaty. 

If you’re on a trip, make sure you know when the best conditions are - is it out of the sun early morning or evening? Is tomorrow’s forecast windy/cooler/less humid? Make sure you know.
Keep chalking your tips even while resting to keep them from gong sweaty and softening. Stand out of the sun or in a breeze. Blow on your tips and/or wave your hands around to cool them off. Anything you can to keep the skin cool and less sweaty.

Make sure you use enough chalk on the climb, especially right before the sharpest hold.
If you feel a hold is threatening to cut your tip, decide whether the climb is worth the risk of many days off. If you are on a one week foreign bouldering trip, probably best move on! If you are going to persist, keep checking your tips carefully after every go and make an estimate of how many tries you have until it’s gonna go. When you reach the end of the countdown, stop. You know it makes sense.

If an edge pulls up a flap layer of skin, pull it off so it doesn’t catch and assist the cutting action. If you’ve never done this it’s a lot more effective than it sounds. Some people sand down the skin to keep a smooth surface. I usually find this just makes it worse, but others swear by it. Try it yourself. 

Die hards will use superglue (fresh layer every attempt) to keep going when a split is imminent.
Climb with fingertape over your tips until you have it wired, then go without for the redpoint. But be careful here fingertape will make your tips soft and sweaty so give them time to dry and toughen up.

If you take a long rest between attempts, like to have some food or belay, do a little warmup to cool and toughen up your skin again. It will have gone soft.

Don’t go and crimp everything. Get some openhanded strength, give your tips a break, and climb harder too.

Keep your skin in good general condition - repeated immersion in water many times will soften your skin. Use rubber gloves to wash those dishes, we will understand. Develop an awareness of the condition of your fingertip skin, don’t trash it by repeatedly trying a sharp problem when you’re tired and will never get it anyway. Come back fresh instead. Keep your skin tough with frequent bouldering, year round.

Notes on management

So it split. Bummer. Don’t make it any worse by keeping on climbing unless it’s the last day of a trip or you drove 5 hours to be where you are. Stop and bandage it (carry plasters or use tape if you forgot these) immediately. Once you are home, clean it, moisturise it and bandage it with a plaster. Change the plaster often.

How many days of you take depends on how much you want to risk a re-split. Re-splits are really bad news. 2 splits in a row and it might take a month or two to fully regain strength. Three or four splits back to back and you might have a chronic weakness in the skin for a year or worse. So take the days off.

One day is asking for a re-split, two days is risking it even if you climb on nice smooth holds. Three days might be enough for some, but not others. Four is good.

Even after you’ve taken your four days off, don’t be fooled that it’s gone. It’s not. It’s not bad luck if it splits again, it’s ignorance. 

You need to adjust your climbing to take account of the remaining weakness for a couple of weeks until the skin fully regains it’s strength. Avoid nasty sharp crimps wherever you can, and be extra careful about wearing your skin right down between sessions. Don’t underestimate this last point - it’s the most important aspect of preventing further splits.

For frequent sufferers

Chances are it’s purely down to your tactics, but I do know a few smart, tactics savvy climbers who still suffer a lot from splitters. They have not really found an definitive solution apart from following the above rules even more studiously. Others have experimented with stump cream and other formulas that promote growth of thicker skin with mixed success. If you suffer from repeated splits, the answer like for most problems in sport is to experiment - try everything as systematically as you can.