20 March 2014

Engaging the brain during your climbing sessions

Every day I get emails from climbers who have had success in their climbing after reading 9 out of 10 climbers. Thanks to everyone who lets me know how they are getting on. It is great to know the book is helping climbers get more out of their sport. This morning, Franco emailed to tell me of his recent improvements since implementing some of the ideas in the book. But he picked up on the challenges of concentrating during your climbing sessions, so that some actual technique learning takes place.

In 9 out of 10, I discussed the fact that some climbers progress in their technical skills much faster than others due to how they approach their climbing sessions. Some are pretty passive, without much mental recording, review replay of the details of their movements. This is understandable. There are lots of things we get out of our climbing sessions; relaxation after a stressful day’s work is one of them. One of the ways we can relax is to completely clear the mind and just enjoy the movement over rock without consciously thinking about anything.

I’m not saying this is bad for technique. In fact, this type of approach is one ingredient of successful technique learning, in order to make already learned movement patterns quicker and more automatic.

But if we want to improve, we cannot ignore the hard part of learning new techniques which requires deliberate recording and reviewing of movements and a real conscious effort. If you are tired and in need of a de-stress, you can have the best designed training program ever, but no progress will be made while the mind is not fully engaged.

How can these apparently competing needs be squared together?

There are some suggestions in 9 out of 10 obviously. But I just want to reiterate the point that this is all much easier if the problem solving and movement experimentation mindset is part of the joy of your climbing sessions, rather than something that gets in the way of it. 

This issue of conscious review of movements feeling like a chore is less of an issue among climbers who boulder, since problem solving and repeated attempts are more centre stage in this discipline. So my first recommendation to those who mainly climb routes is to give bouldering a proper chance. Go to a good venue or boulder wall and climb with others who ‘get’ the activity. Sometimes it only takes one good session for the bouldering ‘lightbulb’ to go off in your head and suddenly you connect with the whole game of refining sequences and making subtle changes in position and force to achieve huge differences in how the move goes.

During your sessions, if you would like to have some switch off time to relax and shed the day’s stresses, there are plenty of strategies. Just be inventive and do what suits you best. For some that might be allocating particular sessions to technique training and others to purely mileage and relaxation. Being realistic about what you can achieve might help you organise your sessions better and get more from them. For others, splitting your sessions up and allocating your ‘best’ hour after a long, chilled out warm-up, to a short but effective session where you put in some real mental effort. Or perhaps you can get the required relaxation in other ways. I often sit for 30 minutes and just drink tea at the climbing wall before starting, just to forget the other stuff buzzing around my head, and allow myself to get into rock climbing mode.

However you choose arrange your climbing so that you are ready to put in some serious effort to recording, reviewing and practicing your climbing movements, don’t ignore it. Getting this right will make inordinate difference to your progress compared to worrying about whether you should have more or less rest days or what angle you should climb on etc.