Most of us are into our climbing to try and push ourselves and improve; certainly those of us who read articles on climbing coaching websites! We’re in it to win it, whatever winning means. And that means that sometimes, we lose. Sometimes, it’s one of those days where the stars don’t align, and it feels like we can’t get up anything, let alone those project lines that we strive for so badly. These days, as I’m sure you already know, can leave us feeling a bit deflated.
Now life is all about ups and downs – a bit like a wave – and without the downs, we don’t get the ups. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, nobody wants a flat line of a life! and having that knowledge can make it feel a little better. The lower the lows, the higher the higs but that means we have to handle the lows somehow. So what if we could find a way to be able to handle those lows a little better?
There is a way and it involves, as is so often the case, changing the way we think about the same things we’ve been doing all these years.
Picking Your Game
Now, whether climbing is a sport or not is easily debated but I don’t think anyone would suggest it’s not a game. Lito Tejada-Flores, in possibly my favourite climbing article of all time, described climbing as a series of different games. These games generally follow the different climbing disciplines: bouldering; sport; trad; alpine; and so on. Have a read, it’s brilliant.
This is our first stage of picking our game. Some days we’re full of beans, bouncing off the walls, psyched to the max and full of power. Not a bad day for a powerful bouldering session. A day when we’re full of energy? Sport climbing anyone? A little serene with a pensive look in your eye, wondering on the natural beauty of the world might suggest some trad climbing to take in the view. Granted, there will be some major logistical hurdles to jump here but overall, you get the point: we’ve got options (most of the time).
We might even choose between an indoor and an outdoor session. Way back when I started, this would’ve been unthinkable (if outdoors was possible, it was your only choice) but thankfully these days, the climbing gyms are almost as full on a sunny day as on a wet one. That said, this is more of a choice for someone living in Sheffield than London. Still, many of us have choices over where we climb more than we immediately realise and each place will have it’s own attributes and style; different nearby gyms having different angles, setting styles and so on.
Those of us with only one place to pick from still have choices. Even with only one climb to go at, we can choose the style: on sight; flash, lead, top rope and so on. One of the beauties of climbing compared to many mainstream sports is that we always have the choice of not only which game we play but how we play it.
Moving the Goal Posts
Much of that may seem fairly obvious to some of you, even if you hadn’t realised you had a choice and have drifted into defaulting to the same game every time. So let’s dig a little deeper.
All of those games, disciplines, styles and games will still see those of us that wish to improve and “climb hard” trying to climb hard in the same way: trying to finish the hardest grade climbs we can. But is this really the only way we can “climb hard”? What if there were other ways we could “climb hard”. What if we could redefine what climbing hard means. As well as all the options we’ve already discussed, that would give us even greater variety.
There are many ways we can think of ourselves as climbing hard. Here are a few suggestions that handily all begin with M:
- Max. The classic, trying to either match or, better still, improve on our max grade. With grades being a measure of a difficulty of a climb, it’s a clear and obvious metric and a great one for the day it feels right
- Moves. Ever heard someone say they’ve done all the moves on their boulder problem but haven’t finished it? It’s a common way to build up to success in stages. Simply managing one more move in the sequence, or even one more move in isolation, on your project line can be a successful session, building ready for next time
- Mileage. Another classic is lots of easier climbs. Often used for endurance training, setting yourself of a challenge of x number of climbs/moves can be a good way of trying to challenge yourself
- Mix (of grade and mileage). A max grade is typically one or two hard projects, mileage is lots of easy climbs but a mix might see you try several relatively hard climbs. If your max is 7a, for example, and you choose a mix session, dropping the difficulty to 6c/6c+ and trying to do six of them is another good option
- Mastery. There’s more to climbing hard than simply getting to the top and many of us get a great sense of achievement not just from completing a climb but doing it really well. Refusing to accept poor form and repeating any climb that you didn’t do perfectly can lead to a very satisfying feeling of excellence and mastery of your craft. Another option that involves dropping the grade slightly
Check In On Check In
Those of us taking our climbing fairly seriously may naturally default to the Max approach on every session and only realise half way through the session that it is not the right approach for the day. Yet waiting for this approach to fail before trying to adopt a different approach is likely to be equally demoralising and will devalue the other options; exactly the opposite of their intention.
A better option is to tune in to our choices earlier on, thus helping us keep control of our own success. Better to change the game to match the way we feel than to wait to fail before changing tact.
We need to have a bit of a mental check in early on and then pick the game that matches how we’re feeling on the day. With a climbing gym, we can literally do this mental check in on check in at reception when we arrive as a handy reminder.
That’s not to say we’re going to get it right every time and sometimes we will think we’re on for that long-awaited project send, only to realise it’s likely not going to happen today and we need to drop the grade. But the earlier we can make these choices, the better.
There is a caveat that comes with all of this: sometimes we do need to bear down and knuckle under. Working hard is, erm, hard and that requires perseverance and dedication, even when we’re not entirely feeling it. But again, that can be setting us up for a fall (no pun intended) before we’ve even begun.
The key here is managing our expectations. If, after that check in, we’re not 100% committed but still want to take a Max Approach, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. What it does affect is how we feel about the likelihood of success. Fighting fit and firing on all cylinders and we may be pretty confident that this is indeed the day. Not quite at the races but wanting to give it a go anyway isn’t a problem, as long as if we get to the end of the session empty handed, we can think back and realise it was unlikely. It’s no bad thing to give it a try as long as we manage the expectations both before and afterwards.
Playing the Long Game
Taking an approach other than the typical Max Approach can feel at first like admitting defeat but it is important to remember this isn’t a new approach forever. This is an option for those off days to stop us from getting too down when things don’t go to plan.
Long term, there’s no need to change away from the Max Approach. But we can’t play that way every time, we need to play the long game.
The good news is that by taking a different approach every now and again, it will inevitably help with our Max Approach too. Both the Mileage and Mix Approaches will help both strength and conditioning to reduce the strain on the body that inevitably comes from going all out. Meanwhile, adopting a Mastery Approach will work wonders for our technical and tactical skills. Ironically, it may well turn out that the key to achieving our new max in the long term may be to not try and achieve our new max periodically.
Overall, a combination of all four approaches will give us the best chance of achieving our new Max grade. And if nothing else, it’ll help to keep us sane enough ready for when the time comes.