10 March 2016

Reflections on beginning climbing coaching again

A few shots of my own training over the past few days

I built a large climbing wall at my house a year and a half ago, not just for myself, but with the intention of running climbing coaching sessions there. I knew it would be great to have a dedicated climbing facility that I’d set up myself, without some of the limitations of big climbing centres. Last week, as part of the Fort William Mountain Festival, I ran my first few classes - three hour masterclass sessions with groups of climbers travelling from as far as Belgium to join us.

I hadn't run clinics earlier as I spent some of last year recovering from surgery and then just wanted to go climbing! So it was really interesting to be assessing and observing climbers again after a break for a while and gave me a chance to reflect on what patterns these sessions reveal about climbers and what holds them back or propels them into improvement. Here are three themes that filled my mind after the sessions.

1. The ability to try hard still trumps everything

As usual I met some climbers with good technique, some with strong fingers and some with good tactical awareness. But out of all the climbers on my sessions, I met very few who had trained themselves in how to try hard. And so they were not improving nearly as fast as they could be, even when they had already made other good training decisions. You can design a great training programme, show up and complete every session and immerse yourself in climbing tactics, but if you don’t know how to really try, where is the stimulus to yield improvements from that training?

I think I was especially aware of this because we were in my own wall, where I normally train, uninhibited by anything. Some of the climbers I coached clearly had significantly stronger fingers than me, but I sensed that they did not habitually fight to the death on a routine basis.

To gain strength, the body really needs to be pushed into it, especially if you are not that young any more. In my mind, a big overarching weakness of many, if not most climbers is simply the ability to get really determined to get to that next hold and hold onto it. Often when you put this point to climbers, they are confused, even a little unhappy about the suggestion they could be trying harder. But think of this applied to other core skills of climbing - Of course it ‘feels’ like you are trying as hard as you can, just as easy routes feel at your limit when you are unfit or sequences are at the technical limit of climbers who are not immersed in climbing day in day out. This does not mean this limit is fixed. The ability to focus physical and mental energy is trainable just as other skills are. The limit is not fixed.

It is not just about delivering physical effort either. It is also the ability to make every single climbing session an immersion in deep concentration anticipating and then analysing each effort on each route, and comparing technical strategies for the moves with that of your climbing partners. Way too many climbers are resting their minds as well as their muscles in between efforts. 

If you start off by training your ability to focus and deliver a huge mental and physical effort during your climbing/training time, the rate of improvement rises. This helps to explain why two climbers who both climb the same number of routes per week at the same climbing wall improve at very different rates.

A final point on this - often I find that it doesn’t always work for me to make this point about trying harder. Climbers sometimes consider me, as a professional climber and coach, to be somehow ‘a different animal’ and not subject to quite the same constraints. However, the great thing about group coaching sessions on a bouldering wall is that over the course of the session, as we work on problems, me offering technical pointers of the fine details of the movement that get you closer to succeeding on each move, climbers in the group start to rub off on each other and lose their inhibitions to try harder than they otherwise would. They see the others doing so as desire to solve the boulder problem overtakes physical and mental inhibitions. They concentrate deeper and pull harder and often pull off some moves that seemed far off, an hour previously. Even if they don’t, I always hope that climbers can see this happening among the group and understand that real concentration and real grit is the basis for training that works.

Lesson? Boulder more, do it in groups of the keenest people you can find, and get into the habit of systematically offering each other feedback on moves and encouragement at every turn. Training is only training if you are really trying both physically and mentally.

2. Time remains a key currency of improvement

A big proportion of climbers are still seriously constrained by time to climb and train, and just as important, constrained time to rest and recover properly from the training they do get. Some only have time for one or two sessions per week. Others have time for four or five, but only get the results of two sessions, simply because they don’t have time to sleep, eat and rest well enough to get good results from their training.

I hope that running coaching sessions at my own wall would spark people’s imaginations about what fantastic training facilities you can make in a small space. My wall is about as badass as they come for home walls and it took a fair few years of prudent financial decisions to get there. But I remind folk that my last wall was in a small room and was still amazing, and the one before that was a single campus rung. The single campus rung got me up the world’s first E11 and from 8b to 9a in 18 months. 

When time is constrained, convenience is the king of training variables. Many of the climbers told me familiar stories of living just minutes from a big climbing centre, but how it was difficult to get themselves to it in the 90 minutes or so they had to spare after a tiring days work that hits you after you put the kids to bed. I have two responses to this problem. First, a home facility, no matter how small, removes the ‘getting myself out of the door’ barrier to completing the training. Second, remember that when you feel tired later in the evening, it’s because your body’s metabolism is slowing down. You can usually reverse this feeling after a ten minute warm-up and feel just fine again. Moreover, creating a late evening ‘second wind’ like this doesn’t necessarily interfere with your sleep. In fact, the physical activity and mental wellbeing that goes along with it can often improve it.

I noticed that the proportion of fingerboard-owing climbers seems to have risen since I started coaching ten years ago. However, the proportion of those actually using them has not risen nearly as much. This is a rather basic problem for which I offer some solutions in my book 9 out of 10 climbers. Underlying these is a principle that relying on using willpower to make yourself train if you don’t enjoy it tends to be unsuccessful for most. Instead, you change the environment or routine, to make it take willpower NOT to train instead. 

Putting your fingerboard in the highest use area of your house, so it’s where you always are, and highly visible is one way. Another is to use social pressure to your advantage. Ever noticed that your house is at it’s cleanest and tidiest when you have friends, or the landlord coming round to visit? You can capitalise on this social pressure in your training too. Invite your training partner round to share a fingerboard session two or three nights every week. You are less likely to skip it when you know they are coming. Got a TV programme or radio programme you never miss? Combine them with the fingerboard routine. It removes the boredom and makes it part of your week’s enjoyment. Digital tech these days makes this easier than ever.

There are countless other ways to tilt the behavioural environment to make it easier to complete your training, and harder to miss it. Use your imagination for your own routine, or get a coach to tell you straight.

3. Protect your hard earned gains better

It seems to me that the improvements in climbing walls could be widening the gap between the extremes of the bell curve of ability across climbers. Some of the climbers on my classes were in pretty poor physical shape, despite having a lot going for them in other aspects of the whole performance picture. Again, busy schedules are often the underlying theme responsible for this. But simply being aware of it can help you to mitigate it. A basic principle of training is reversibility. I discuss its implications in 9 out of 10 but I think it bears reinforcing as I still think climbers undervalue its effects.

Many climbers have lost periods of weeks or months of little or no training for a few common reasons - work/accommodation/family transitions, injury or simply focusing on something that makes you weak such as trad or alpine climbing. Now, some loss of base level strength and fitness may be unavoidable due to these things. But that doesn’t mean you should completely abandon any attempt to mitigate them. Yet that is exactly what many, if not most climbers do.

The result is that so much form is lost and it takes months to return to where you left off, if indeed you ever can. I have made this mistake myself several times. With hindsight I can see that 1 year without a board while I moved house and saved to construct my new board caused my level to drop to 8c. I was still out climbing just as much, but I just didn’t train. And so I lost strength, capacity to handle training and agility. Only now do I feel like I’m getting it back, 18 months later. Similarly, while recovering from surgery last year, although I trained harder than ever and emerged with stronger fingers after three months off my feet, I still lost some agility and base level of fitness. I could have mitigated much of this by incorporating more basic body strength and fitness exercises into my routine. You don’t need to make the same mistakes as me.

Of course, this problem doesn’t always apply - keep in mind your individual weaknesses. Wall rats who can be found in the climbing wall training hard 5 nights a week are often pretty strong and fit, but their climbing ability on rock will never match this because they lack the hard-to-measure tactical skills of being a rock climber. So far weaker souls who get to the crag more often will still out climb them.

Lesson? Life throws up things that interrupt your training. If you don’t plan for this, you’ll lose out. The time to really organise your training is not so much when you have lots of time, but when you have less. Don’t make the mistake of doing nothing, when you can only do a little. If you do, you’ll spend all the ‘good times’ just catching up to where you were, rather than breaking new ground.

So there are some highlights of themes I noticed that applied to a good swathe of the climbers who visited my wall for coaching. Of course there were many more - frighteningly common footwork errors, training errors, poor diet choices, psychological approaches and many more. If you are reading this thinking you’d like to get some coaching yourself, stay tuned to this blog as I’ll post up some dates I’ll be running more classes during the year shortly.

2 March 2016

Review: Stonesmith holds

Some new shapes ready to go on my wall ahead of my first masterclasses at my place last week!

I am seriously obsessive about holds, as any route-setter should be. Although you end up setting with a lot of holds you either don’t like that much or equivocal about, it’s always a pleasure both to set and to climb on holds you do. As I gradually gather holds for my own wall, it is slowly becoming a collection of rather fine holds I’ve seen in other walls or tried out.

On the whole, climbing holds have improved massively and the industry is full of innovation. Despite this, I’m often still a fan of some old hold designs, especially when training for real rock - where an old school approach of fingery moves yields good results from training, at least for weaklings like myself.

Which brings me to Stonesmith holds. I already have many of their holds on my wall at home and are some of my favourite shapes. As well as the nu-school innovative shapes, their training range also includes some very carefully designed shapes more designed for training which I love. It’s really an ideal mix - nice texture, a careful design that is nice to train on for long hours, but also nice and fingery.

The differences between different manufacturers holds are obviously tricky to describe in words - they sit on a continuum of niceness to climb and set with and ideal texture. Stonesmith holds sit as far at one end (the good end!) as any I’ve tried. I’m glad to hear I’ll have the chance to set with more of them in the new Three Wise Monkeys climbing centre in Fort William next month.

If you’ve got a wall, get some. I'm actually just off to order a set of their suspension training balls from their site just now. I've been meaning to get these for my poor weak thumbs for ages and wring this has galvanised me!