27 April 2010

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.

9 comments:

Lee said...

Hey Dave, love your work. That post went awry for me at the end. While I'm sure 6 years of sports science was fantastic, I'm surprised you call this your 'shortcut'. Strip away the degree and you'd still be climbing 8c+ today, don't say you wouldn't. Your passion, drive, and motivation (aka stubbornness and bloody-single-mindedness!) coupled with your naturally analytical mind surely are the "secret".

Dave MacLeod said...

It was the shortcut because otherwise I wouldn't have got there at all. I'm certain. I would have got stuck on trying to get strong, then getting injured cycle that caused me a 5 year plateau at 8b before I realised (from my study) how much I was overrating certain components of performance and how copying my climbing influences was getting me injured so much. Those mistaken ideas were so fixed, that only thorough understanding from study was enough to break it.

Peter said...

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.

Dave MacLeod said...

just blogged an answer to your comment Peter- thanks for the comment!

cling2 said...

Just a humble non-climber thought. By saying 'short cut' you are perhaps implying you had an ambition that is above the norm, i.e. you wanted to get somewhere. Wouldn't/couldn't begin to suggest what the normal level of ambition is for a climber, but watching you do what you do it seems maybe your drive takes you to such amazing places. By the way, thanks, quite - very impressed and inspired by you and your peers.

Dave MacLeod said...

This is interesting cling2 - My take is that a large proportion of folk at least start out with horizons, goals and dreams quite high. But these gradually get reeled in lower and lower as time goes on, due to them seeming less and less realistic.

One of the points in the post is that by taking the long way round to the goals - by doing the minimum, copying, but never thinking independently of peers or the accepted standard or method - it becomes a tiresome drag and seems no longer worth it or even achievable at all. The shortcut presents itself as as the hard way, but it's not.

In the post I was referring to a whole career worth of development in sport. But the principle holds for a two hour assignment just the same.

Minimike said...

Dave, I reckon you've hit on something pretty fundamental here. If you look at the most successful leaders, entrepreneurs, sportspeople, scientists or whatever, no one got there by following others. It's hard to be brave enough to break out from the way others have done things! I think we're always looking for a 'formula' solution to success but that is a model that worked to a certain point and for someone else, not for us.. Anyway enough of my musing, thanks for a truly thought provoking post. Mike

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Anonymous said...

Dave: great post! About this school thing: two examples. My daughter made a mistake on a test because she didn't recognise the on/off symbol as used on a computer. You can't imagine how amazingly STUPID I find this sort of 'tests'. Of course: she has no problem using a computer (or a dvd, cd player, etc) and perfectly knows how to turn it on and off. I don't know anyone who started out on a computer by learning what the symbol for 'on/off' is! It's something you KNOW by doing, you don't have to learn it by heart from a textbook.
Another example, much more positive this time. My son (three years old) learned about 'babies' in kindergarten. During the class a mother and her baby came over and the baby was given a bath and all kids could help out (holding the shampoo, keeping the towel ready, etc). Wow! I found it really amazing that the school would go to so much effort (instead of just flipping through a book with some pictures of babies) to give these kids a really meaningful experience!

Just wanted to share this to give an idea of what a difference a good approach can make to education/learning.