17 October 2013
A case in point. This moment was pretty much the closest I came to falling off all 23 pitches of Paciencia, Eiger North Face in the summer. I wasn't warmed up, felt my skin was 'glassy' with the cold and might slip off suddenly and hence wasn't getting much feedback. So instead of being relaxed I was climbing like a robot (and not in a good way). In this case, since the pitch was only 7c, the best thing was just to press on. If it had been a couple of grades harder or we weren't pressed for time since it was the Eiger nordwand and not a sport crag, It would've been better to come down and get myself better warmed up before continuing. Photo: Alexandre Buisse
Biting your lip, sticking your tongue out and generally screwing up your face as you climb is pretty common. Most of us think a grimace is related to effort, but the experts in the balance and stability sides of sports science say otherwise. It’s true that our moments of greatest effort and concentration can feel at once effortless, yet require every ounce of focus we have. Sometimes, the one attempt where we didn’t feel we had to grimace was the time we topped out on the climb. It’s one of the great paradoxes of sport.
The stability experts say that we grimace when we need more control and we are not using our balance centres (vision, inner ear, and joint receptors) effectively. In some experiments, when athletes are asked to perform a technical movement and do so with ‘facial fixing’, once they are asked to perform the movement with a relaxed face, they are unable to. In others, a relaxed face can make a movement possible where it was not with facial fixing.
Because facial fixing is part of our motor routine for controlling movement, what you do with your face in training becomes part of your routine for that movement. Lets think about what this means; On one hand, why would it matter if you grimace on the fingerboard or on the circuits, and grimace on the real routes you are training for? That might be fine if the demands of the training and the performance were the same. But they probably aren’t.
In the training, you are isolating specific components of performance and working them - i.e. Getting pumped on an endurance circuit where you know the moves. Or pulling as hard as you can on a fingerboard, or trying to keep weight on your feet on a boulder problem. Yet in the real performance situation, you may be making all sorts of movement decisions that are different from the above training situations - reading the rock, finding protection and managing your effort. Many of these demands will benefit from maintaining a relaxed face. So the advice is to aim to maintain a relaxed face as often as you can in both training and performance. During the training, you’ll learn to produce maximal physical and technical effort without the need for facial fixing, and so you wont be reliant on it when it comes to performance.
NB: Lots of climbers who do facial fixing have no idea they do. You might well need to get a climbing partner to point it out to you so you realise just how often you do it and become tuned in to the times you do. I once asked a climber I know why he made a ‘click’ noise (quite loudly) with his tongue right before he initiated a hard move. He had no idea he was doing it!