24 March 2009

Onsight confidence - a holy grail?

Justin asks:

“I regularly find the difference between success and failure on a route can be distilled down to state of mind on the day - the confident relaxed approach to just go for it that sees you through the crux before you know what's happening as opposed to the doubt, hesitation etc that can lead to panic, missing obvious sequences, placing too much gear then falling off. Working a route removes the unknown which makes it very easy to stay composed - but do you have any tips for attaining / maintaining the right frame of mind for a hard onsight attempt?”

There are several strategies to help create a relaxed confident frame of mind for an onsight, but here are my top five:

Don’t get too built up - Often, getting excited about an onsight you’ve been looking forward to for ages can pile on a lot of unnecessary pressure. It’s not so bad in sport climbing because if you fall off a nice 7b, there are a million others in the sea, but in trad it can be worse if there are not so many rotes of that style/grade that lend themselves onsighting. So, the challenge tends to be to not think too much about specific routes you want to onsight and more about a general level. When you think about specific routes, it’s all too easy to let failure scenarios take over your imagination and destroy your composure on the actual attempt. It’s usually better to think about the result (success/failure on a specific route) as little as possible, and just to focus on how you are climbing generally. It might be better for some people to not prepare too thoroughly for the day of the attempt - anything that increases the sense of occasion might place more subconscious pressure on you. My tactic has always been to convince myself I don’t care whether I fail on the route at all and just go for broke. I just focus on climbing the next move or section well and nothing more. Hopefully you find yourself at the top?!

Think of past successes. The trouble with onsighting is it’s impossible to visualise the moves based on actual experience of doing them (obviously you have to when reading the route from the ground). So all you have to go on is past successes. So it pays to play back the feelings of confidence and good movement you had in previous onsights that went well. The more similar the route to wheat you are aiming to onsight next, the better.

Get familiarity. Your best onsights will tend to happen during a run of a lot of similar climbing. In redpointing it’s often not too important to have done a lot of similar routes recently. But for onsighting, the more you are immersed in every aspect of the routine of onsight days and climbing, the less the ‘shock of the new’ will make you worry about success/failure and the more you will just centre your focus on the immediate job in hand - the next move.

Get trust in your gear - There is no easy way to do it, falling onto gear, especially unanticipated falls will give you the largest single jumps in climbing confidence you’ll ever have. So a good tactic is to try ‘bold but safe’ routes where there tends to be harder climbing and a bit run out, but above very good gear. If you try a lot of them near your limit, you’ll experience that sickening feeling of realising you are about to fall and there’s nothing you can do about it. But it’s only sickening at first. Once you have experienced it many times, you’ll be able to recognise it for what it is and not let it destroy your focus on fighting through that last move to the resting ledge. It will also help you for future routes to accept that a gear placement is totally reliable and you’ll beat the tendency to stop right in the middle of the crux in a fruitless search for more gear when it’s unnecessary.

Break routes down - The more you look at routes and break them up mentally into a series of short hurdles between rests/gear, the less you’ll feel the choking sense of taking on something huge. Start off with the aim ‘just to get to the first gear’ or the crux or whatever the natural break in the route is.

The common theme is all of these points is that the conditions for confidence are created in advance, sometimes a long way in advance. It’s nearly impossible to magic confidence out of panic in the moment of an onsight. Only well grounded tendency to have confidence over the long term will be able to bring your focus back from the brink. Start now.

2 March 2009

New series of climbing improvement articles

I have been working on a series of introductory articles for the Mountaineering Council of Scotland’s magazine and site. They deal with general concepts of improvement in climbing so hopefully they will be thought provoking for beginners and those who’ve been climbing for many years. I’ve just finished the second one, with more on the way soon. The articles are here.

Brendan raised an interesting point after reading the section ‘The truth about famous climbers’. In this I’m talking about the dynamics of the returns you get from effort put in. It turns out, it’s not as simple as you might think. This is his point:

Hi Dave,
cheers for writing those excellent MCoS training articles, I wish they'd be available a few years ago when I started climbing, would have saved me loads of wasted effort.
I have a query - you say in the last section about top climbers that they go the extra move/problem/route each time.
However, I've heard a lot of people at the wall recently say you should 'finish strong', I suppose so that you shouldn't keep going after you're too tired to give your all as it will take longer to recover for the next session.
How does this resolve with your advice in your article? I suppose it depends on how soon your next session is going to be?

It’s a good point! And it doesn’t have a totally simple answer.

What I’m trying to put across in my article is that a little extra effort can often yield a lot of extra return by taking you over the threshold between enough to maintain the same level and stimulating the body to improve. This is an issue of training volume. The objective is to achieve the highest possible training volume that is sustainable over time (i.e. You can recover mostly from, in time for the next session).

Most climbers shouldn’t concern themselves with ‘stopping strong’ because they weren’t trying hard enough in the first place, or they have days of rest in between sessions. 

Another smaller proportion of climbers might have problems with being fresh enough for the next session, but the problem is not with training too hard, it’s with not recovering hard enough! i.e. They are too stressed, don’t eat well, sleep enough or add more things to recover from like a night on the sauce.

An even smaller proportion of climbers will need to take care not to overdo it on each session because they are really going for it with both their effort level and volume and taking care over their recovery as well as training. What should they do?

It’s a fine balance to tread between injury and improvement. Stopping strong will mean different things to different climbers. In general you should train as hard as you can and feel worked after your sessions. There is a subtle but perfectly tangible line turning point in the session when quality attempts on climbs becomes a rapidly declining thrashing session. When the elbows come out on the first moves and your hands melt off jugs that were easy to hang an hour ago, time to go home, eat a nice meal and sleep well. Come back tomorrow with the pedal on the floor again.

side note: the physiology of this is about using up the 'fuel tank' of muscle glycogen. It happens that recovery of the glycogen store takes much longer if the store is completely exhausted. You know this has happened when you are slapping your way up F6a gasping, when you were fine on F7b an hour before. So overall training load is higher if you stop just before you drain the tank altogether.