Grades: Help or Hindrance?

If you’re sat with a bunch of climbers and you fancy a good old debate, start talking about grades. Sure enough, within long, there’ll be at least a bit chat about whether Direct Route really gets E1, how the grades are harder in Yorkshire and everything is HVS, or something similar. Get the right group and you might get a discussion about different grading systems or even the very nature of grading climbs in the first place. From concepts, systems, areas and even individual moves, climbing grades are always a contentious issue.

The irony is that grading climbs was supposed to be helpful! I don’t have any evidence for this but in my eyes, the grade associated with a climb should give an indication to anyone thinking of attempting it as to how likely success will come and, in the case of trad climbing especially, how likely death may come. If you’re a 6b climber and the routes says 7b+, chances are you’ll not get very far and might get hurt. If you’re a 7b+ climber on a 6b, it probably won’t challenge you that much and might even be a bit boring for you*.

The problem is that we, as people, have a tendency to desire absolute correctness when it comes to nominal values associated with things like this; if it’s given a grade, it needs to be right. But climbing grades are inherently subjective and it is largely impossible to come up with definitive answers without getting into insanely hard algorithms. That and we love a good debate. There was a worry in football that a lot of debate would disappear once VAR was introduced but now we just debate VAR instead.

So for us as coaches, are grades actually that useful? Do they encourage people to push limits? Or do they actually put people off? And crucially, does the grade that we climb actually make any difference at all to our ability to coach at any given level?

Note: while this article is written for the climbing coach, it is written as if directed at the climber being coached. This is simply because it is easier to write and easier to read. You are advised to read while thinking of your own climbing before digesting and putting what you have learnt into your own practice. 

*MIGHT be boring and of course, if the movement is good, there is no reason not to enjoy a climb well within your ability. When Jorg Verhoeven onsighted Strawberries E6 6b at Tremadog and was interviewed afterwards, he was raving about One Step in the Clouds VS 4c instead, as he enjoyed the climb much more. The point here is that the challenge aspect of the climb is eliminated, thus removing some of the potential enjoyment that many of us get from climbing.

The Importance of Style

For me, these days, any conversation about goal setting and grades is inherently linked with another about style. By this, i don’t mean stylish climbing, i mean the type of climb you’re on. So we’ll quickly start by looking at this, very briefly.

There are many different ways to break down styles of climbs and so far, i’ve come up with these as distinctions. There are doubtless more and as a coach, i’d encourage you to think of your own and add them into the mix too.

Steep vs. Slab

Probably the single biggest factor in determining whether something will suit you is the angle of the wall you’re on. Changing this is a sure fire way of getting stronger too (up to a point), without having to spend ages on fingerboards, campus rungs or other apparatus.

Static vs. Dynamic

One of the most obvious style differences comes from what you do with your torso when you do a move: does it move towards the next hold or does it stay still? A lot of this will be to do with your background and i’ve found those with a trad climbing background will instinctively try and climb everything static whereas the new generation of gym monkeys will be happier throwing themselves around.

Crimps vs. Slopers

This is a gross oversimplification and there are many more hold types but the biggest split i’ve come across is between those who want an open hand and those who want to close the fingers around their target hold. Chances are we all favour one slightly more than the other and that’s fine, as long as you know which one! And if you’re reading this, or have a client that says, “i prefer jugs” yes, we all do, obviously, they’re much easier to hold but if your jug isn’t quite ideal, would you prefer it to be big and rounded or more of a finger jug? Because there’s your style preference.

Compression vs. Gravity

This one is more subtle (and very relevant for me, as i don’t mind with the other catergories): do you prefer holds that pull together towards each other or holds that pull straight down opposing gravity? They use different muscle groups and some people will be conditioned better for one more than the other.

Complex vs. Simple

There are various ways to make climbing movement more complex (this will be covered in an upcoming article) so when the climbing gets harder, do you prefer it to be more involved and technical or for the holds to simply get harder to hold? For example, do you want there to be more twisting and step throughs or the same moves as the climb you just cruised with smaller handholds?

Combining Grade and Style

In theory you could create a matrix for your three grades – flash grade, session grade and project grade – for each combination of styles. Don’t. No one should have enough time to go through and calculate that and if you’re even close, you’ve got better things to do instead.

Where it becomes useful is on each individual climb. For climbs that match your preffered styles, your grade can be slightly higher. For ones that don’t, drop it a grade.

The old adage says train your weaknesses and this is absolutely correct, ignoring them leaves you vulnerable to those styles and more importantly, vulnerable to injury. For the sake of practising things you’re not great at, it’s not worth ignoring and getting hurt.

This is where the grade does what it is meant to do. Pitching the style of climbing you’re doing at the right level is critical both for success and to stave off damaging yourself.

If you want to be climbing at your top grade, you’ll need to be playing to your strengths instead. My Goal: 8a project was very carefully chosen to match my ideal style, so that i could climb at the very hardest grade possible for me.

Ignoring the Grade

While grades do give that indication of your chance of success, especially when combined with the style of climbing, sometimes it is better to largely ignore the grade entirely and give it a try and this is where i often find grades can be more of a hindrance than a help. Once you’ve had chance to play with working out your ideal style, you’ll probably realise there can be a massive discrepancy between climbs that suit you and climbs that don’t. So if you come across a climb that is ideal for you, what’s to say that the fact it’s grade is outside of your perceived abilities means you can’t try it? Or more to the point, that you might actually succeed?

Quite often grades can put people off and in this respect, the latest trend of grading in bands in climbing walls can be quite helpful. After all, you don’t know whether this route is in your limit, at your limit or above your limit if your limit sits in that bracket. The downside of course is this is less transferable to elsewhere but at least it’s got you trying things without focusing on the number!

Sometimes it can work the other way and if you think the grade is within your capabilities and you’re struggling, it can spur you to work a bit harder. I’ve been duper into thinking a V4 was a V2 once by a friend, fought my way up the thing thanks to a little bit of arrogance and got to the top, only to find out afterwards that i’d actually pushed myself quite hard. Risky strategy from my friend but in this instance, it worked.

If it’s possible to climb without looking at the grade at all, this can be one method of eliminating this stigma but does come with the potential to shut you down if you’re failing on things you perceive to be easy and IS NOT recommended outside, as that can often be ricky to your health. That said, with guidance from the coach, it would still be possible.

Does It Help to Climb Hard?

As someone who boulders at a reasonably high level (generally in the high 7s) i often face criticism working problems that it’s okay for me as i’m strong enough to power through them. The fact is though, that at one point, i couldn’t complete more than about half a dozen pull ups in one go and was still climbing 7b+. But does it help?

After an awful lot of thought – a couple of years, perhaps – i’ve come to the conclusion that yes, being able to climb hard DOES help you as a coach but only for one reason: it eliminates the fear of grades.

For example, climbing your first 7a is as much as psychological barrier as it is a physical one. It’s the same reason Eliud Kipchoge received much more media attention for running the first sub-two hour marathon than Brigid Kosgei did for breaking a sixteen year old world record by 81 seconds, despite some enormous tactical differences: people love round numbers.

For the climber around 7a or below, the idea of trying something with a higher grade can often be so off-putting, they walk away rather than try. For those of us operating higher up the grade range, that fear of failure is removed somewhat and we are more prepared to try regardless. Find someone who’s developed new areas or a competition climber and this could be even greater.

The obvious retort to this is of course demonstration but i honestly think this is a red herring. If i have to put my rock shoes on, rather than choose to, during a coaching session, i’ve done something wrong. If i have to step off the floor at all, i’ve done something wrong. I rely heavily on what i call Replication Training (article coming soon) in my coaching, whereby i will copy the principles of a move into something similar to be able to tweak the minutiae of the movement or technique into, usually, a floor exercise before returning the climber to the climb to try again with the new knowledge. Sure, i demonstrate often but that’s normally laziness and doesn’t necessarily give in depth knowledge and transferable skills. Sure, i wear my rock shoes during sessions but you know what? that’s normally because i want to do a bit of climbing… And only if it is appropriate in the session.

No, climbing harder than your clients unlocks the idea of trying harder climbs than your clients. If you’re relying on your own ability for demonstration, you’ll come unstuck coaching someone who climbs harder than you. Keep an eye out for the upcoming article on Replication Training to see more information on how to combat this issue.

The only guarantee is failure without effort

Using This Article With Your Coaching

All this being said, is it actually useful to us as coaches? What can we learn from this? And should we pay attention to the grades or not?

As with all of my coaching, the trick is to have the background knowledge and to apply it when and where needed. Sometimes, using the grades to our advantage – either as climbers or coaches – to point us in the right direction for climbs can be helpful, other times disregarding them or bearing in mind the limitations of grades so as not to let them put a ceiling on our efforts. Marrying grades with the style of the climb gives it more context to further push our clients along.

Critically, understanding the concept and the principle allows us to manipulate grades to our own advantage. The only certainty is that no-one will climb the next grade if they never try one. So go try them and see what happens. Best of psyche to you all.