27 April 2010

Chasing numbers versus breaking barriers

Peter commented on my last post:
“What about the fact that some (many? most?) climbers are in this game for the sheer fun of it?

It seems to me (from my bumbly-level vantage point) that chasing numbers is 99% drudgery, so many climbers naturally plateau at the point of maximum fun for least effort (however you define those two dimensions).

Tangentially, a few climbers I've known who've played the numbers game inevitably reach a performance plateau no matter how hard they work, and in a couple of cases that's been sufficiently demoralising that they've given the game away entirely.”

I started replying as a comment but thought it might be better as a whole point seeing as he raises such an important question.
Chasing numbers is 100% drudgery because numbers are meaningless. Improving at climbing is entirely different. Depending on how you go about it, it can be a source of endless and deep enjoyment and satisfaction, or it can be hellish.
It’s enjoyable and satisfying if you are oriented towards using all your skills to break the barriers and are good at measuring when you’ve broken them. It’s also enjoyable when you suddenly get an insight into how you have become stuck in your ways or limited in your ideas about how to improve. This is a constant battle (and hence enjoyment). Plateaus are not really frustrating because they are ever more challenging opportunities to play the next round of the improvement game. The early rounds, where all you have to do is show up as a young climber and your muscles get bigger are just the warm-ups. Once you hit your first plateau the game gets much more interesting and ultimately rewarding. More on this in the first chapter of my book.
It can be hellish if you think you are chasing improvement, but deep down you are really chasing numbers. You move from hollow victory to ever more hollow victory until you hit a plateau and realise at the bitter end your top number was no more satisfying than the first. That feeling would make any athlete throw in the towel.

What school can’t teach you about climbing hard

I just did some interviews about my climbing for various publications. The questions, in one way or another, ask “what is your secret”? It’s especially relevant in my case as I can’t answer that I’m naturally strong, or thin or talented or started climbing before I could walk.
I’ve given roundabout answers for years, not understanding the underlying theme myself. In parallel I’ve tried to understand why climbers I’ve coached plateau where they do with apparently all the practical ingredients to keep improving.
Recently I’ve thought and talked a lot about school and it’s effects down the line. Sad as it makes me to say it, I learned my ‘secret’ to doing what I have when I was away from school, which happened a lot.  A lot of school is about explicitly or implicitly working to fit in. To attain the satisfactory standard of your peers and nothing more. The minimum necessary to get an A and then you can coast. But good performance is by definition not fitting in. You won’t find the solution to the technique, motivation, training, financial, practical or unexplained problem that’s holding you back, by waiting for your teachers or peers or someone on a forum to tell you.
I’m not saying they are useless - they are essential for pointing you in the right direction and supplying the initial shove. After that you roll to a stop pretty quickly unless you start producing your own momentum.
Fifteen years of learning to wait to be told what to do and put in the minimum amount of work is really hard to unlearn. Start now!
Examples of climbers doing what others were not:
Jerry Moffatt’s generation were all shy about wanting to really go for it and be truly competitive. Instead, Jerry set his sights publicly on the next horizon even though his ambitiousness stood out to onlookers as brashness.
Patxi Usobiaga understood that there was room to make training for competition climbing more scientific for someone with the will to do or access the necessary learning. His competitors were too busy just showing up at the wall to be bothered with this extra effort.
Adam Ondra probably clocked up more metres of limestone climbed by the time he was five that you have in your whole climbing career. Watching him, you might mistake him for a speed climber. Could you climb as fast as that without messing up?
So if this idea helped me, how? Two examples:
A lot of climbers will try one climb for a few tries, maybe even several days of tries. I got used to this early, because I was rubbish at climbing. So used to it, I thought, why not try not just a few more times, but a lot more times. At Dumbarton rock I tried single moves hundreds of times. Not just the same way every time. I experimented by changing one aspect of the movement each time and recording the results in my mind. After 15 years of this I became probably the weakest 8c+ climber you’ll ever meet. In training I apply the same principle - at the bouldering wall I concentrate during my rests on what happened during the last attempt and what the plan is for the next. This is why I don’t get bored training on my own.
I needed to be able to understand training to be able to adapt the advice written in training books with less error. So I studied it for 6 years at university. This was the shortest way to getting the answers I needed - the shortcut! The long way round is to stumble around with trial and error and poor bits of advice forever. My good fortune was that I came to realise it was the shortcut.

6 April 2010

One dimensional coaching, or self-coaching

More climbers these days are starting to take advice from coaches, or from mentors among their peers, either directly or in written form. Great! But while the organisation of climbing coaching is still somewhere between primitive and non-existent (depending where you are in the climbing or geographical world), there are some big problems.
You’ll have heard of the expression; “For the man holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. Be aware that the advice you receive from climbing coaches is much more related to the background of the coach than your needs!
It’s also of true of other fields such as law, medicine etc. See a physiotherapist and they’ll provide a therapeutic answer to your problem. See a pharmacist, they’ll prescribe some pills etc..
Climbing coaches based and schooled indoors are likely to offer you solutions involving things you can do in the climbing wall. Thats fine, but it might not be all you can do, by a long way.

Try harder?

Climbers I’ve coached are sometimes quite dramatically split on their ability to try hard. A lot of them can move well on the rock, have fingers of steel, but just can’t grit their teeth and fight their way through a crux.
A lot are at the opposite end of the scale, they take a deep breath every single time they step on the rock and get themselves ready to give everything all the way to the top/bitter end.
This has some good effects, acute and long term. The long term effects are that the delivery of a high level of muscular effort provides a stimulus to get strong. The acute effects are you sometimes hit a slap for a hold you otherwise wouldn't. But it’s not all good. 
Climbing isn’t sprinting. A continuous output of maximum workrate through the whole bout is the thing to do on the 100m track. In climbing, this causes as many problems as benefits. Application of force (effort) can only be done if your foot or hand is on the exact right spot of the right hold. And to get it there accurately you need to be quite calm.
So climbing hard is tough challenge of switching instantly between a mental state of calm decision making and feedback from the hands, feet and body position, and the explosive delivery of force during execution of the hard move.
Try hard, but only at the right moment.