9 December 2014

When the regime gets harder


My (latest) board. The result of a decade and a half of relentless work and saving. But worth it.

Andreas emailed to ask about keeping up progress in climbing when your routine gets harder for various reasons. He refers in passing to cases such as injury. Since I have whole book on this subject now in production, I’ll leave this to one side for now. But on his mind is a baby soon to arrive (brilliant news!). 

Having a child is obviously a huge challenge in maintaining the other aspects of your life. Some things have to change, as they should, and as you will want them to. In many cases, your old way of life will be abandoned altogether and replaced with a new one. A better one, if you deal with the challenge properly.

With regard to how to keep your climbing standard high in your new, time pressed routine, here are the three number one priorities:
  1. Build a board.
  2. Build a board.
  3. Build a board.
Did you get that? If you don’t feel you have space to build a board in your house, move. If you don’t feel you have the power to move because of work or other issues, solve those issues. Take the power. There are of course some workarounds such as hiring a garage in your street etc, but they are poor solutions because it’s the fact that the board is immediately accessible and you are immediately accessible while using it that underlies it’s utility.

In the early days of parenthood, the odd 45 minutes here and there may be all the free time you have. You can easily fit a high quality training schedule into this timescale, but certainly not if you have to go anywhere else to access the climbing wall, even if it’s only 5 minutes drive. So just get it built. 

Andreas referred to a comment in 9 out of 10 where I was talking about maintaining a base level of fitness with one session per week. It’s true that you can do a lot in one session a week, as I have done during various busy periods. But my point here was that doing something, even if it’s a little training, is much better than giving in and doing nothing, as many people do. I was not trying to recommend one session a week as a medium or long term solution for training. It is nothing more than a workaround for people who choose (choose is the key word) to fill their entire waking hours with activities other than climbing. For most people, this is a temporary issue related to work trips, although some climbers carry on with a schedule like this indefinitely. That is their choice.

For most with a busy schedule, an aggressive problem solving approach, resourcefulness and an understanding of your priorities are all you need to create a routine that allows time for work, rest, family time and plenty of training on your board in the spare room. If you introduce all the solutions and there still isn’t time, well you’ll just have to work less, wont you! (I’m kind of talking to myself here). 9 of of 10 climbers obviously doesn’t deal with every conceivable circumstance and individual routine. But in it I repeatedly make the point that you have plenty of options, and often more than you think, if you are willing to see them and accept the change and challenge that they bring. If you struggle to think outside the box and your thinking is full of ‘I can’t’ type of thoughts, get a coach to tell you straight. 


If any of this was easy, it wouldn’t be so rewarding when we crack it.

One thing out of your comfort zone



Video above: One thing out of you comfort zone, each day.

Una on Twitter was asking me about recovering leading confidence after a bad fall. She felt she was still struggling, even following the advice in 9/10. Was there anything more? In a practical sense, not really. The advice I laid out in the book about progressively exposing yourself to more and more challenging leading situations is the easiest, if not only way to do it. But that’s not to belittle it. For some people, it can be an enormously difficult thing to do.

Therefore, the response is to take it seriously as such. A huge problem needs a huge response, in the form of dedicated and relentless application of training over a long period. Here are six common pitfalls with building up leading confidence after a knock:
  • Expecting too much. The apparent unfairness of confidence is that it takes many exposures to build it up, but a huge chunk of it can be wiped away in one go with a bad fall. Patient application of the training is definitely required. No perceptible difference may be noticed for many training sessions. The other problem is that it is harder to measure than pure finger strength. Even if you are making gains in mental confidence, you might not notice until this add up to something quite substantial.
  • Measuring the wrong thing. Lots of people measure the success of their training based on time. “I’ve been working on my leading for two months and I’ve not noticed any changes”. However, if you were only leading for two sessions per week, that’s only 16 training sessions in two months! The result may have been different with 5 sessions per week.
  • Failing to complete the training. Practicing leader falls indoors is just one small part of gaining leading confidence. If you are training for something like trad climbing, you need to have plenty of safe falls, as well as real trad leading. Lots of it. One without the other tends to be ineffective. Yet a lot of climbers complain of lack of time and opportunity to get on real rock, especially at this time of year with dark nights and poor weather. Unfortunately, this is the excuse that separates those who succeed and those who fail. We are training mental confidence in leading - the climbing standard does not need to be high, the rock doesn’t need to be dry and the sun needn't be shining. Get a headtorch and a Gore-Tex and go climbing! You think people don’t do that? Sure, it’s great if you live somewhere like Scotland where you can go mixed climbing all winter - a perfect training ground for leading confidence (people were quick to cite it’s effect on me when I downgraded The Walk of Life from E12 to E9 a few years ago). It’s true that winter climbing makes climbers mentally tough. But if you can’t access this, just go to the crag and climb at the level you can in whatever conditions you find.
  • Kidding yourself. A big problem with training your leading confidence is kidding yourself that you are going out of your comfort zone when you are not. Recently I climbed with a chap who was climbing well but leading confidence was his main weakness. He was more than capable of taking proper leading falls and building up a ‘go for it’ attitude in his outdoor leading. But when backing off from a lead, he said “I need to go back to the climbing wall and do more practice falls”. They won’t work. He was choosing them precisely because he’d already mastered that level. They were now inside his comfort zone, an easy option. Finding the right intensity of experience to build up your confidence is not easy. But it is just as easy to undershoot and unwittingly stay within your comfort zone as it is to overdo it and maintain a state of poor confidence.
  • Asking for failure. When it comes down to it, leading combines the skills of common sense problem solving, mental toughness and practical skills. Many climbers focus too much on the mental toughness part. Young lads are especially good at overriding their fears and just going for it and everyone can do this to an extent. Overriding fears is good if it’s irrational fear, In other words, when your mind ought to know that you have a solid base of practical skills and well developed problem solving approach. Far too many climbers push on with the fear conquering without developing that base of skill in parallel. This is asking for failure, because you will put yourself in situations where you are genuinely unable to wield control. Good leading is about having more control. It is also about having control over fear, as opposed to having no fear. Excess of irrational fear, and lack of healthy fear both lead to loss of control, in different ways. Take care from every training session to learn new details about the practicalities of leading - dealing with gear, ropework, falling technique, anticipation and planning etc. Don’t just focus on being fearless.
  • Not really wanting it enough. This aspect is underestimated in sport and training, surprisingly. Those who want it badly enough simply do not rest until they find the right path through the training to get to the goal routes they cannot live without. Rather than throwing up their hands after experiencing lack of progress, they jump right in and make plenty more errors until they find a formula for progress. Inevitably, we never get the balance of training 100% perfect. No one does. But burning desire to move forward and get to the next level is a crucial catalyst in letting you absorb the stresses and knocks of pushing outside your comfort zone. It creates resilience in people that are not inherently made of hero stuff. So, sometimes a clear conversation with yourself about exactly what this means to you is the fuel you need to get you through anything. What if you have that conversation and realise you don’t want it badly enough to push yourself through all the challenges? Hurry up and do something else then! Life is short.

Training the mind has some similarities and some important differences from training the muscles. It is similar in that it is a ‘plastic’ tissue. Train it appropriately, and it will change. The difference is of course it’s vast complexity and especially how the layers of thoughts, emotions and basic programmed responses all mix together. Mental training demands careful consideration to make sure you are applying a sustained progressive overload, but getting the size of the stimulus just right.

My approach as a youngster was just to climb one thing that was truly out of my comfort zone, every time I went climbing. Every time, no excuses. If it didn’t give me a dry mouth and a small knot in my stomach, I knew it wasn’t really out of my comfort zone. 

NB: The notes above are NOT a guide to what to do to improve your leading confidence. They should be read in the context of applying the advice in 9/10.

2 December 2014

Changing the architecture


One of the important findings from the world of behavioral science is that willpower is a finite resource. Sure, some seem to be able to show more of it that others. But regardless of inherent or learned capacity for it, everyone can run out of it.

The understanding comes from fields of research such as why apparently smart people eat badly or fail to exercise, or other such dangerous behaviours. Moreover, they do so in full knowledge that these behaviours are bad news for almost all aspects of their life and despite their stated intentions to act differently. The idea is that since willpower is finite, if you spend all of it forcing yourself to work long hours, there is none left to help you choose healthy foods or turn your phone off and get some sleep.

Making sure you spend your willpower wisely is the obvious first line of attack. But so often, people don’t feel able to change their routine to allow for this. Topping up your willpower ‘account’ is the second line. You can do this by making sure you are well slept, well fed and surrounded by supportive people, among other things.

The third line is more of a workaround than a solution. But it is better than nothing. You can change the choice architecture. In other words, you can set things up to make it harder to make the bad choices and easier to make the good ones, acknowledging that when you are tired and worn out, your good intentions will go out of the window. 

Some examples:

  • If you don’t have the biscuits in the cupboard, you’ll not reach for them ‘just tonight’. Instead have you chosen healthy food at the ready. In moments of good willpower, prepare them for your future willpower starved self. Wash your fruit, put it in a nice bowl or do whatever you need to make it more appealing and convenient to choose.
  • Cycle or walk to work. Once you are there, you have to get home the same way! Make it easier to choose by ensuring you are fully kitted out with clothing to keep you warm and dry for bad weather. Make sure the bike and kit are ready to go by the front door so there are no excuses in the morning when you are running a bit late and bleary eyed.
  • Choose your workplace and house based on your chosen training venue. Make sure you’d have to literally drive past it on the way home to excuse yourself from training.
  • If you climb with a partner who habitually leads and sets up a top-rope for you, climb with someone else or instruct them to refuse to lead for you under any circumstances. Better still, climb with partners who would mercilessly rib you for even suggesting that you skip your turn to lead. The shame would be less painful than just attacking swallowing your leading phobia.
  • If you need to get stronger openhanded, set your wall accordingly (see photo above). Don't have a wall? Make one!


Everyone can think of instances in their own routine where they habitually make poor choices. In 9 out of 10 I described many of the big and important ones, but the number of decisions we make that influence our performance is huge. Try to think of ways you can make it harder for your future willpower starved self to make the right decisions at those crucial moments in everyday life.

1 December 2014

8b - 8c+ How?

Over on my personal blog the other day I was talking in passing about a period in my life about 9 years ago when I took my best sport climbing grade from around 8b to 8c+ in about a year and a half. On Twitter, Sean picked up on this and thought that would be a good subject for a blog post. Here is the short answer:

I started fingerboarding.

But it’s not as simple as that. So here is the long answer. I was replying to Sean in 140 character stylee that I would explain but there are no secrets and the explanation would be nothing that isn’t in my book 9 out of 10. However, personal stories are always helpful if you highlight how the results link back to the underlying principles.

You might be tempted to take my short answer above and think if you just fingerboard, you too will climb 8c+. It’s unlikely to say the least. That’s because basic strength may well not be your weakness. I think it’s fair to say that most climbers would say they feel their strength level is a performance weakness relative to technique. I’ve spent much of my climbing coaching career repeatedly trying to convince climbers otherwise. In fact, in almost every climbing wall on a busy evening you’ll see climbers with enough strength to climb 8c+, but will never even get close to this grade.

What was slightly unusual about my background in climbing was how little I time I spent in climbing walls during that period. I climbed outdoors, year round. My staple diet of climbing was trying super technical projects at Dumbarton Rock. I really valued the fact that they could be cracked by exploring every subtle detail of the technique used to climb them in place of brute strength. When conditions allowed, I’d be teetering about on hard mixed routes, mountain trad, sport climbing, sea cliffs, etc, etc. I had built up a huge depth of experience as a tactician. In other words, if a project was 100% of my strength limit, I’d still have a 100% chance of succeeding on it. Fear of falling, redpoint nerves, mistakes on the lead, finding the best sequence were all things I’d put huge volumes of hours into developing. One thing I hadn’t really done was trained strength properly.

Training was only half on my radar really. I was just a climber having a whale of a time going outside and having adventures trying new routes in places I loved to be. But when I decided to sacrifice some of that to up my level a bit, my strength level was so poor that I had rapid results.

I decided to start in June 2005. The inspiration to start was realising I could climb the Requiem headwall if I really wanted it badly enough. Six days a week, I started the day with around 40 minutes of fingerboard (the same routine I published in 9 out of 10). Then I went round to the Dumbarton boulders and did endurance circuits for another couple of hours, followed by a ten mile run. Sometimes I’d go for a second run late at night, at a relaxed pace, just to wind down. At the weekend I went climbing in the mountains if the weather was good. I worked before and after my training, at home of course - a working from home job with flexible hours is a good catalyst for climbing performance.

I didn’t vary the training all that much for many weeks at a time, although the ‘real’ climbing days were as varied as ever. But I did start gently with the fingerboarding, building up very steadily for the first 6 weeks. And that was against a background of already doing a large volume of bouldering for a decade beforehand. Without these factors, I’d likely have got injured, not stronger.

After three months I went back to an 8c project I’d previously failed on and was completely shocked when I linked it first try from the second move to the top on my shunt in freezing conditions. Later in the winter I completed Font 8b projects at Dumbarton, Rhapsody the following spring, and my first 8c+ sport route shortly afterwards.


I can’t overemphasise the importance of the previous decade of building up those skills in being a solid all-round climber. The pure finger strength was just the final piece of the puzzle. The fashion in the popular climbing culture is very much revolving around physical strength right now. The underlying message is ‘let’s train like proper athletes’ and that means this kind of stuff. That’s great, but it is nothing if you miss the crucial toe-hook that knocks a grade off the problem, or you are so scared you crush the rock as soon as you are 20 feet above a bolt. The strength level generally among climbers these days is mind blowing. Training like proper athletes means being able to use every ounce of strength in your muscles at the right moment. While you might be able to one-arm a crimp in 6 months with nothing but a piece of wood above your doorframe, you can’t shortcut learning to be able to do something good with all that strength.

7 November 2014

Mental training, 3 simple mantras


Natalie Berry stepping out on her first E4 trad lead.

There are now several books available on the difficult subject of mental training specifically for climbers. If you add in the wider sports psychology literature out there, you could read yourself to death on this subject. And yet I’m not convinced that all that literature has made as much impact as the equivalent literature on physical training.

As I observe climbers these days I see more and more physical strength and fewer tough performers who can get the most out of themselves when it matters. Why is this? It’s debatable. Maybe it’s because mental training is inherently less quantifiable, so less likely to get done? Maybe it’s because the cognitive habits we form are so hard to break and the impact of a book on it’s own is rarely enough? I also sometimes feel that the complexity of trying to explain performance psychology makes the literature hard going, maybe even self-defeating for some.

While writing on this subject elsewhere, I thought of a few simple messages I tell myself while preparing to climb or actually on a climb which distill these complex ideas down to a tool you can use in the heat of the moment. I hope they are useful to at least some of you:

“If it felt easy, it wouldn’t be hard, and I’d want to try something harder”

“Nobody cares about this effort except me. So relax, you’ve got nothing to lose by just trying and trying hard”


“There are no prizes for holding back”

Four reviews

Every so often I write the odd gear review for this blog, mainly of gear that I already like and want to share, and occasionally I’m asked to write. Here are 4 things I’ve seen over the year that I have tried and liked.

Boot Bananas

I was given a pair of Boot Bananas at the Outdoors show in London and they have lived in various pairs of my shoes and rockshoes ever since. Like a majority of folk, my shoes are boufing (Glasgow slang, in case you didn’t know) and I’ve tried quite a few things to make them less anti-social. Deodorising spray is the closest I’d come to a solution. But the effects on the smell seemed pretty short lived and it was a faff to keep a bottle of it handy. Boot bananas are simple shoved into the offending shoes and a mixture of various deodorisers (including charcoal and baking soda) do an excellent job of killing the odour. I found them to be more effective than spray or anything else I’ve tried. Their practicality was even better though - you just shove them in your street shoes while you put your rockshoes on, and vice versa at the end of your session. Well worth £13 to put an end to offending your own nose and more importantly your family and fellow climbers.











YY Belay Glasses

YY sent me a pair of their new belay glasses to try out which are very well made, with attention to detail and crucially a robust and secure carry case for throwing in your sack for a day at the crag. Not being a serial sport climber, it was a while until I got to use them and it's the first time I've used a pair of belay glasses. Perhaps it’s because I’m not always sport climbing and generally train on a bouldering wall that when I do it, the ‘belayers neck’ is that much worse. As expected from just looking at their good construction, they did the job perfectly and are now flung in my sport climbing kit along with my Gri Gri and quick draws. If I was going to buy a pair of belay glasses, I'd definitely get these ones.

Bouldering Essentials

David Flanagan’s new book Bouldering Essentials is aimed at those just starting out in bouldering. It makes sense that there is a reference there for the large numbers of boulderers coming into climbing by introduction at the large bouldering centres in most cities. The does a good job of listing those basics you need to know from types of hold to how to fall and various other things you’d otherwise have to pick up in a peicemeal manner through experience. However, I’m not too sure it’s something I’d have read as a beginner. I found myself reading through wishing the information had been written by some of the famous names in bouldering, with some anecdotes that would have brought those lessons and tactics alive and made them easier to relate to. But if you are the type of person who likes the facts and techniques listed in a direct way, then you’ll find them here and you'll love it. It was nice to see a section on bouldering destinations which will no doubt start the imagination for some boulderers just starting out in their local bouldering centre.










Transgression


Eva Lopez is one of the famous names in the world of training for climbing, and someone who has demonstrated the value of her own wisdom, climbing 8c+ at the age of 42. The Transgression is her own brainchild and a beast of a fingerboard. But it’s a bit more than that. The concept isn’t hard to understand. It’s a resin fingerboard with progressively smaller rungs, going from big and positive right down to a very thin 6mm. It comes with a well thought through recommended program to follow and several climbers at various levels right up to the top grades report good strength gains having followed this. The question of course, is can you not get the same gains from some of the more famous wooden fingerboards on the market. Especially since these might be both kinder on the skin and considerably cheaper. I’d say that is debatable. I must admit that although I’ve experimented a bit with the Transgression, I simply preferred training on wood. Only time and dedicated experimentation by numerous climbers would give a clearer idea if the concept of the small incremental increases in difficulty afforded by the board’s design yielded noticeably better results. It wouldn’t surprise me if either it did yield better results due to the steady progression of intensity. It also wouldn’t surprise me if there was no difference. Noone can confidently say I don’t think. However, if you can afford the price, I certainly don't think you will find a much more useful fingerboard available.

26 April 2014

Holds finally going on, and venturing outside

Some holds going on the climbing wall at last!

After a month straight of 16 hour days on average, my climbing wall is finished. Well, apart from getting all the holds on. I must admit that after completing the build and various other jobs that needed doing at my place, I was a bit too broken to even climb on it. I just wanted to sleep! But now there are some holds going on it I’m getting more and more excited as it turns from a building project into what I had originally envisioned - a brilliant place to train.

However, rather than jump straight on it, I opted to take advantage of the dry weather and head to the Outer Hebrides for a couple of days new routing and prospecting with Calum Muskett. We did a handful of new lines from E3 to E5 and I worked on this immaculate 40m wall of perfect Gneiss that has been on my projects to look at list for a few years. It was just as good as I hoped, if maybe a little hard.

There were a couple of different ways you could go. The best, and hardest looks upwards of 8b+ climbing with adequate gear. But the crux is super hard. On the first day I was climbing all day in a Citadel jacket and still had numb hands in the wind. In those conditions I could get some purchase on the crux crimps, but couldn’t see how to use them. The next day it was much warmer and I needed a bit of help from the rope to stay on, but did get a sequence that may work. So now I have something great to direct my training, and an excuse to get the ferry back to Harris pretty soon.


A very very hard project to go back to.



4 new titles in the shop

We’ve just added four great new books and DVDs to the shop. The first three books are all major contributions to the literature on improving at climbing and I’d recommend getting hold of all three. Well done to the authors of all of them who have made a great contribution here and no doubt these books will be the first step to many hard ascents and goals realised in the future.

Gimme Kraft: The Cafe Kraft gym (Kraft = strength btw) in Nurnberg, Germany has gained a great reputation for coaching a string of fantastic climbing talents over the past few years, most notably, Alex Megos who became the first climber to onsight 9a. Their coaches have put together a new book and DVD detailing the principles and exercises they have used to help their talented young climbers become super strong and fit beasts.

So the book is very focused on physical strength and endurance training, both on and off the climbing wall. It provides a great and easy to follow manual for sharpening up weak areas in your strength. This is particularly useful since it can be hard to choose or adapt core strength routines from other sports for climbing.

Both the book and DVD show clearly how to do the basic strength and endurance exercises and the DVD contains many interesting interviews with climbing legends about training and climbing performance. 

Training for the new Alpinism: Steve House and Scott Johnston’s new book on training for alpinism is a much awaited and weighty addition to the available literature on training for climbing. It is the first book to focus solely on alpinism and brings the field right up to date. It is very much training focused (as opposed to skills focused), which is both it’s greatest strength and weakness.

It contains clear and extensive sections on the basic principles of sports physiology, but with the discussion relating directly to climbing in an alpine setting. So you no longer have to learn and then adapt the principles used in other endurance sports to effectively plan your training regime. It also has great and focused sections on strength, mental skills, nutrition, altitude, schedule planning and choosing your training goals. It also contains some fantastic contributions from other world class alpinists, sharing what they have learned about the most effective ways yo improve your alpine climbing.

Its focus on physical rather than technical skills training means there should probably be more than just this book in your training library. However, it joins a collection of titles that are essential reading for climbers who are serious about improving.

The Trad Climber’s Bible: The skills for trad climbing are about as broad as in any sport. This is especially true if you wish to climb in many different settings - hard, technical single pitch climbs, big walls and and alpine faces. The Trad Climber’s Bible comes at the challenge of passing on these skills from a different angle from most instructional manuals.

I jumped at the chance to order it in for the davemacleod.com shop simply because it was authored by the American trad legends John Long and Peter Croft. I was fascinated by how they had approached the challenge of writing about trad skills. They have written the book in a narrative style, with many stories and anecdotes from their combined 70 year experience of pushing their limits on trad all over the world.

Some of the sections, such as those on ‘fiddling’ and ‘embracing the weird’ made me smile as they highlighted the sheer range of unusual skills that are nonetheless essential to be a successful trad climber. It’s a big, thorough, entertaining and inspiring book which will provide much food for thought and arm you with many more skills to throw at your next big lead. Excellent photography throughout and great value for what has clearly been a huge project for the authors.


Wideboyz II: The Wideboyz, Tom Randall and Pete Whittaker, have decided to turn their hand to finger cracks, with the goal of repeating the hardest and most famous of all finger cracks - Cobra Crack (8c) in Squamish. In their own Wideboyz style, they convert their offwidth training den into a finger sqaushing setup and proceed to train, hard. Still, Cobra Crack put up a good fight! Entertaining as ever, and a reminder that focusing and trying damn hard goes a long, long way.

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.

12 December 2013

The difficult question of sports injuries and disillusionment in youngsters


This good website has some interesting information on the size of the problem of young sportspeople getting injured. Injury rates are going up, to uncomfortably high levels. A serious sports injury is not just a short term issue for a young climber, runner or other sportsperson. It’s one of a few important reasons why so many youngsters drop out of sport before they even finish their teens.

It’s so obviously ironic that parents and coaches both take satisfaction from encouraging kids to take part in sport to foster a lifelong habit of activity and enjoyment. Yet overdoing that encouragement is one of the main reasons behind them ultimately dropping out or getting injured. The number one reason youngsters give for deciding to quit their sport is pressure from parents, coaches or the setup of their sport. So, whatever we are doing, it’s wrong.

Lots of coaches are still wrestling with the idea of whether formal competition in sport is a good idea for kids. There doesn’t appear to be any straightforward answer to that question. The best answer might be ‘it depends’. If the environment is optimal, competition in sport may be quite healthy, if unnecessary. However, it rarely is optimal. There are potential sources of problems everywhere. Therefore, being realistic, maybe no competitive sport until beyond adolescence is better? That is definitely still an open debate.

It’s difficult for parents even to realise how pivotal their role is. For instance, who can blame parents for subconsciously rewarding competition results instead of effort, balance, maturity, sportsmanship and science based training in sport? The very best coaches in professional sport can hardly seem to achieve this, even though they should know better. It’s a tough challenge for parents to assume the role of sports philosopher, role model, coach, sports scientist and sports medic. On the other hand, if you are going to invest time, effort and expense in encouraging your child’s path in sport, you might as well do it properly, in a way that doesn’t leave them either injured or disillusioned and out of sport for good at 13 or 14.

It’s difficult for coaches too. Reliable and useful information on training program design and injury prevention is extremely hard to come by. Moreover, coaches often don’t have enough time with youngsters to provide individually tailored training. In this situation, I think it’s important that they emphasise to both parents and youngsters that the advice they give has limitations, and if they want to make sure they are training safely, they should consider  training themselves to be informed self-coaches, or hire in some more personalised coaching.

In climbing, we are about to enter a dangerous period (in the UK at least) since some new coaching qualifications are coming on-stream. Qualifications, generally speaking, are of course a good thing. However, there can be problems if parents see the word ‘qualified coach’ and don’t think any more about what the qualification means. It’s possible to be a qualified coach in many sports on surprisingly little experience, and unfortunately, depth of knowledge. Parents should be careful to make themselves aware of the level of skill and experience of those coaching their children. Start from the assumption that the coaches are not suitably experienced or resourced to prevent injuries in youngsters, and that you’ll need to consult a range of sources to ensure the best chances of avoiding injury and ensuring youngsters have a good range of influences on their development in sport.

I must say, with my own child, I’d be equivocal at best about encouraging them to get involved in regular competitive sport before adolescence. Non-competitive sport offers so many of the benefits, if not more, without the inherent problems that competition brings. Taking injury risk in particular, non-competitive sports offer the opportunity for more variety and spontaneity in the yearly diet of training, important both physically and psychologically. They also push the focus of performance inwards, to messages coming from the body, rather than outwards, just doing the same training as your peers or trying to keep up with others unrealistically. In other words, they are often healthier all round.

I see advice for youngsters in competitive sport to take breaks in the year from competition. Good advice, although not if they simply stop training completely. Complete rest falls foul of one of the fundamental laws of tendon injuries: “tendons don’t like rest or change”.

I’m talking about parents, coaches and the youngsters themselves so far. They have the immediate responsibility to improve the outcome for the youngster as they move forward with their own life. But what about those higher up, who are in charge of leading sport, spending our money to make sure the potential benefits for all of us are realised? What is the point in promoting sport if it is so hampered by a massive early dropout rate and millions (3.5 million in the US) of injured kids? The idea is that we foster lifelong involvement in sport and physical activity and that sport is something youngsters enjoy over the long term. It’s pretty clear that it doesn’t nearly meet these aims for a big chunk of the participants.

This is a big, serious question, that needs leaders of sport to go right back to basics. When we promote sport, how should it be done? What sports, or sporting practices are healthy in the long term? Should we be promoting entirely different sports and ideas around sport? Probably. I’d like to see data comparing dropout rates between competitive sports and non-competitive sports, such as those based around the outdoors and training. My hunch is that if sporting culture was less centred around rankings or winning/losing and more centred around simple fun, effort, resourcefulness and dedication, that dropout rate would go down.

What specifically should change? It’s a deep cultural change, so no single or simple thing can be targeted. I’d certainly like to see that a session at the gym/leisure centre/sports facility should always be cheaper than a can of cider. Getting an exercise high should always be cheaper than a drug high like alcohol for so many kids who have limited money. Unhealthy goods like cigarettes and alcohol are taxed more heavily to take account of their effects. Why not services? It seems a shame that new sports facilities are not given a more favourable financial climate in which to flourish. At big multi-activity centres, the pizza and cinema tickets could be £1 more expensive so that the indoor snow slope or climbing wall can be cheaper. The many threads of enjoyment of exercise and training for it’s own sake should be promoted over winning and losing. More could be made of urban spaces. Good incentives should be set up for running, cycling, parkour, skateboarding etc clubs to use these spaces. Everyday exercise and sport should be as conspicuous as possible. ‘No ball games’ signs could be banned. If the NHS is going to save money by encouraging us all to be involved in sports, at least some provision is going to be needed to offer proper sports medical care, in recognition that sports injuries do happen and are career ending if left untreated. Surely it’s cheaper to correctly diagnose and repair the ACL tear now than treat the arthritic patient in a couple of decades?

Of course there are countless possibilities along these lines. The cumulative effect would be that youngsters who we do manage to encourage into sport will have enough variety in their activity, so they don’t grow to hate their own sports before they are 15. Moreover, they’ll be less likely to feel the need to enter into serious competition until later, when they are ready. Their parents will be less likely to ‘hang’ their encouragement on success in one sport as well as measuring that success along different lines. And, the youngsters might become more physically conditioned from a longer background in sports before they launch into serious training and hence lower their risk of injury.

Young climbers I’ve met who have been involved in the competitive side of climbing are the only ones I’ve ever seen stop climbing at a young age. I don’t think I can recall ever seeing a climber who was focused on the other aspects of the sport decide to give up. That’s not to say I conclude that competition is bad. It’s just that it can tend to drown out the other reasons for doing sport and become a demotivator after a while.


Whatever is suggested as solutions, the first stage is to really recognise that the injury and dropout rates among youngsters in sport means that what we are doing now is not enough.