17 October 2010

Tactics: Anticipation

In observing climbers I’m always looking for running themes that tend to characterise successful climbers versus the unsuccessful ones. My definition of unsuccessful  here is not defined by a given grade but just by failure to make continued improvement over time, almost irrespective of the type or intensity of training they do. Above a certain (fairly low) level of regular climbing time, climbers should tend to get better, just by learning better tactics. How does this happen?
The core skill needed, and missing from so many climber’s fundamental approach to climbing is that of anticipation. In a nutshell, anticipation as a tactic is simply thinking “If I do this now, what effects will it have later?” It could be later in the move, later in the attempt, the climbing day or even in your whole climbing career.
This fundamental basic approach is visible in so many fields not only of climbing but also in task management generally. People have a tendency to knuckle down to the immediate task and allow themselves to be distracted from the wider need to step back every so often and re-assess which tasks are appropriate and how everything is going. “I’m too busy getting on with it to stop and have a re-think”. Successful people either inherently do this or have taught themselves to remember to do this.
In climbing, it’s most obvious in mountaineering situations. You start of the day with a given plan and a long series of small tasks that make up the entire day. The problems start when the unpredictability of mountaineering changes the constraints in real time. Usually this affects you by slowing you down or tiring you out more than expected. Climbers get into trouble when they are too busy following the ‘old’ plan that they either don’t notice the new constraints (weather changes, snow, difficulty, errors etc) or fail to anticipate their effects on the old plan and update it with a new one.
Yet the same thing happens in so many aspects of climbing, including rock climbing movement and even things like planning your training. Part of the natural tendency for us to behave like this I’m sure comes from our aversion of the status quo changing or of loss.
Measuring the constraints that affect your plan for anything you are doing requires you to face the fact that the desired outcome, or route used to get to it, might not happen like you hoped or expected. It might no longer be realistic at all. Or perhaps it never was, but it’s taken going part-way down the path for this to become obvious. Either way, it’s easier just to keep your head down and stick to the plan. But it’s more likely you’ll fail eventually with this approach. And fail more painfully - with more time lost and effort expended. 
For some reason, good climbers, athletes or people in general seem to be able to get past the uncomfortability of the idea that although you might want the plan to work out just as you want, it just isn’t going to happen. In the same way that throwing out old clutter or starting anything with a clean slate gives a weird sense of refreshing bold clarity and therapeutic freedom - the old no longer seems important once you’ve let it go.
Summary: Are you blindly following your own plan without reflection? Is the plan still appropriate based on what you are learning on the way? Do you really know it needs changing but are resistant for no obvious reason?
NB: The opposite problem - of failure to stick to any plan for long enough to actually get anywhere - is less common but just as ineffective. I’m thinking of climbers that keep looking for another hold when it’s obvious there is only one real choice. Or climbers whose only measure of progress seems to be when you actually get to the top of the route (and so never try hard ones for long enough to actually create a chance of doing them).

7 October 2010

Lessons from health promotion

Mark makes the simple but seemingly obvious point about why the health promotion sector has been roundly failing to get people to change their habits. If you don’t have time to click through the stories, the short version is that the most senior elements of the medical profession are still attempting to get people to take control of their own risk behaviours for health - smoking, drinking and getting fat - by issuing a ethical and moral appeal direct at the individual. Mark points out that it cannot work on it’s own. We are social beings and it’s too hard to act individually swim against the tide of what everyone around you is doing. 
Kids that go to boarding school end up with totally different accents from their parents - almost permanently. Go on a holiday where there isn’t a culture of sitting around, drinking, eating and not doing much (like a mountaineering trip) and you’ll probably come home a pound or two lighter, without even trying.
Some goes for your sport performance, training, whatever. The best way to get into a national team is to spend a stack of time with everyone else who is doing the same. I feel that it’s not necessary to make this a permanent move. It’s about hardwiring a new set of habits, norms, standards. It takes a bit of time to get there. But once you are there it’s possible to operate in isolation with only sporadic refreshers. In other words, beyond a certain point you can partially insulate yourself from settling for a second rate effort at being good at sport, even if you regularly train with others who do.