We are all time poor, from the elite athlete to the weekend warrior. No-one has an infinite amount of resources to spend on training, climbing, getting better. You are either limited by your availability or directly by the physiological limitations of your body. So as a coach we are consistently trying to pick the low hanging fruit, priorities the effort and uncover the weakest link.

Deciphering the puzzle of performance allows us to prioritise efforts and get the biggest bang for our buck. Weak links can be anything from finger strength to ankle instability, so how can we hope to uncover these and then how do we prioritise them?

The beginning of my journey down prioritisation was developing a physical testing battery with Pat Klein from Concept Climbing (makes amazing hangboards and training walls, check him out >here<). The testing battery is similar to the testing battery that many climbing coaches employ, like the lattice assessments. I still utilise this and as with other sports, this data allows us to see how well particular training interventions are performing. How well did that hangboard program increase your finger strength, how well did that core program improve your core stability and strength etc etc. Which tests we use and how accurate they are is an issue for another post, but these types of tests are the cornerstone of sports science. Test, train, re-test….. (it is probably really, ‘understand’, develop test, test test, then test…. but anyway).

While these testing batteries are exceptionally valuable, they still don’t give us the answer of how to prioritise efforts. One answer may come from fundamental sports science, strength then power. You need to have strength in order to develop it into power. I mean power is defined by force and time, strength and speed. You can’t have power without strength. But what if you are already strong? Or worse, what if you are new to climbing and you are weak…… everywhere? Steve Maisch does a really great job of outlining ideas and numbers around strength benchmarking (find it >here<), which can be used as a guideline for how to figure out some strength priorities for climbers. Just pick the one you are furthest away from, or the three, or five…… this still presents an issue.

As said earlier, what do you do if strength isn’t the issue? If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say they just needed to be stronger, I’d be rich. I’d probably be almost just as rich if every time someone had said that to me, they were wrong. If it wasn’t strength they lacked but something else.

This question has led me to many places looking for an answer, formulae or a notion that would help me help the climbers I coach. Enter Abraham Maslow and his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation”. In this paper, Maslow outlines his theory of human needs, or “Maslows Hierarchy of Needs”. The concept is that until the lower tier is satisfied, a person is not motivated by the upper tiers, eg. If you are hungry you aren’t really motivated to understand the universe, you want to eat first.

So the idea here is to create a hierarchy of needs for climbing performance. What is the very basic requirement in order for someone to climb?

The theory that I suggest (note I say theory, this is my suggestion based on my experience) is as follows:

  • Headspace – Without the appropriate mental state, it is impossible to climb to your potential, which means that it is impossible to uncover your physical limitations as your mental state doesn’t allow you to fail physically. This could be from fear, distraction, laziness, or any other self-limiting headspace. What is your self talk like?
  • Finger Strength – If you can’t hold on, you’re gonna fall off. This potentially falls down when it comes to slab, but my argument here is that to learn the techniques to climb slab well, you have had to practise this while holding on. Also, slab is only one small facet of climbing. In addition to this, in order to learn good footwork, you need to be able to hold on long enough to deploy it.
  • Technique – Technique is a very large and long term project, but in essence is all about understanding how to climbing technique works, then understanding when to deploy it.
  • Pulling – Once you can hold on and you know what to do, the next barrier you usually face is the distance between holds which usually requires some pulling. How well you can do this will sometimes determine if you can get there or not.
  • Core – Our penultimate tier is core, which is all about maintaining tension from our toes to our fingers, getting or keeping our feet on the wall and generally ensuring that our lower half stays in touch.
  • Injury Prevention – The final tier is a funny one that I have decided to call injury prevention. This tier is all about the details within our climbing practice. Everything from shoulder stability to risk assessment can be put here. The idea of this is basically figuring out how to get everything to work together to keep us in one piece as we get stronger fingers, better technique, bigger biceps and an iron core.

So, there you have it. The climbing hierarchy of needs. The magic pill that will help you unlock your potential…… Well…… not really. But an interesting thought experiment, that might help you uncover what is really letting you down when it comes to performing your best.

Good luck out there and chat soon

Will

The number of climbers that sport an injury is astounding. Almost as if a climbing related injury is a form of climbing initiation and without one…… well….. can you even call yourself a climber?

We all seem to know about them, but we struggle to avoid them. Fingers, shoulders, knees. With indoor bouldering booming in Australia I think we are about to see more of what climbing has to offer in this area.

New moves like the palm press flag put climbers at greater risks. Particularly done with poor posture.

There is no doubt that injuries affect optimal performance, although there could be an argument with our ever-developing understanding of injuries, that performance affects injuries. What this means is that so many of our injuries are likely due to poor movement patterns, a lack of opposition work and a general limiting of our overall performance that results in overuse injuries, or improper use, injuries.

Any time you push your body towards its limit, you are bound to find yourself, or the athletes you coach, dealing with an injury. There are research teams all around the world, trying to work out what, if any, markers exist to ‘predict’ an athletes future injury. Yet, even in high-end sports where money is relatively abundant, sports professionals hit dead ends.

Part of the reason for this is probably that everyone is an individual, we all have our own little idiosyncrasies that change the way we respond to training and the rate that we get injured. What is interesting though is that while we still don’t have a firm grasp on the exact mechanics or ‘risk’ factors behind injuries, we are getting better at avoiding them. More on this later….

Single arm catches are another potential for injury, with many climbers not looking after their scapula stability before ‘diving’ into them.

How often do you chat to climbers in your community and talk about your time with elbow pain? Typically Medial Epicondylitis or golfers elbow. Or maybe impingement of the rotator cuff?. Or even the dreaded pulley strain. (you can click on the bold text to check out some good articles on how to deal with these injuries.

The strange thing is, there is so much knowledge in the climbing world with how to deal with these injuries, but so little on how to avoid them. Now before all you sports scientists out there send me messages saying that we can barely prevent hamstring injuries in fully funded football teams, how do we expect to avoid injuries in poor climbing. You are right, as I said earlier, we haven’t got a very good handle on what is really telling us we are going to get injured. We can’t ‘predict’ them, and it is proving exceptionally difficult to pinpoint when athletes are at risk.

Climbers falling from a height, particularly while spinning can increase the risk of ACL injury.

SO….. What do we know so far? In a very basic overview, injury prevention is becoming more and more focused on pre-hab, rather than re-hab. There has been some really good evidence to support the idea that injury prevention really does its job. A great example is the inclusion of the ‘Nordics’ into football leg strength programs, significantly reducing the prevalence of hamstring tears, even in athletes with a history of injury. Another example is the Fifa 11+, which has shown to drastically reduce the rate of ACL tears in soccer teams, as well as some other lower extremity injuries.

The other thing that is slowing changing is the way that we are thinking about the word overuse. As climbers, this word gets thrown around a lot, and for the most part, I think we all see this as this grey area of climbing or campusing too much. What is interesting is when you think about it, repeating a movement with ‘perfect form’ is probably not bad for you. The issue arises when the body fatigues and your form deteriorates. So it’s not necessarily overused, but ‘improper use’ that is driving us into these ‘overuse’ holes. This idea can bake your brain a little and is really a whole extra blog in itself, but if you want to hear more about this, check out the podcast from the power company here – with Eva Lopez and Esther Smith

So what about us climbers? Our major injuries are typically in our fingers, wrists, elbows and shoulders. I mean, keeping our hamstrings healthy definitely wouldn’t be a bad thing either, but still, where is our Fifa 11?

The key? Thinking about all that re-hab stuff you have ever done. Your wrist curls for elbow pain, your rotator cuff exercises for shoulder impingement and your tendon glides and extensor training for pulley strains and…… yep that’s right…… do them regularly. Do them every week. At least once a week. What has been really fascinating recently is that the effect of Nordics, for example, has been potentially attributed to structural changes in the muscle. Even more exciting for us is that these changes happen with a relatively low volume of input. So once a week seems to cut it. The trick though is that you need to keep doing it because the detraining period is fast, which means your gains disappear in a matter of weeks.

So injury prevention is really like any ‘skill’ acquisition. If you don’t use it you lose it. Our bodies seem to be really good at finding the most energy efficient way of surviving, so unless you tell it these changes are important, well, they get left behind. The challenge then is a mental one, to keep doing them, every week, week in week out. Factor some of them into your warmups and cooldowns, morning yoga, whatever.

The tricky part is, you will never know if it’s working. But for me, it’s worth the risk because it doesn’t matter how strong you are if you’re injured.

It has been a big year this year, and like most of you, many of my aspirations fell a little short of what I wanted, while other abilities seemed to have improved 3 fold unexpectedly. As coaches, we try our best to manage training loads, timing and expectations (along with what feels like a vast array of other things) so that our athletes can compete or just climb at their best when they need to. The issue is life really, it gets in the way. More so for adults who suffer from work and social commitments, but these things can happen to anyone really.

So without getting too deep into things, how can we best spend our time at the gym? Get the biggest bang for our buck and hopefully achieve most of our climbing performance-related goals (particularly without a high-performance team working with us every day of every week….)

Climbing every terrain every time

I have a few little golden rules you can follow, that might help you stay focused and keep progressing.

  1. Try hard – Now this might sound pretty simple, but sadly, at no. 1 it is probably the hardest one to accomplish. The objective is to go into the gym and make sure that when you get on the wall, you really give it everything you’ve got. You’d be surprised where pushing one more hold, every time, for 3 weeks, will get you. Usually to the next level.
  2. Don’t get injured – This one sounds a bit obvious, but that’s because it is. It doesn’t matter how stronger you are if you are too injured to climb. Warmup and cooldowns are a great place to start, plus avoiding overuse / overtraining, will help keep you healthy and on the wall. (If you need help with these things, ask your local coach, or ask us! We run private sessions you know. Contact us here).
  3. Know your goals – This is usually the first question I ask anyone looking for coaching. What are your goals. ‘Climbing harder’ is not a good enough response. Do you want to climb a hard lead? Onsight hard boulders? Send a mono project on your mates woody? Whatever it is, that is what guides your focus and tells you how to spend your limited resources (time and energy).
  4. KISS it – ‘Keep It Simple Stupid’, I can’t take credit for this one, it’s from my mum, but it is so good. I have seen some incredible training plans, detailed micro cycles with nutrition timing and adjustable load events based on perceived exertion. You probably aren’t in a place where you need this. You probably want to climb harder, so your first priority is wall time. Get on stuff you find hard and follow step 1. Then, if you have time and energy left, pick a couple of weaknesses and work on those, religiously, for a minimum of 6 weeks. If you have weak fingers (can’t hold on) do a hangboard workout (see more info on this great site ‘Concept Climbing‘), can’t pull? Chin ups, can’t keep your feet on? Core. (This is all very general and again, find a coach, get an assessment and go from there, or again contact us here).

Testing at Boulder Klub

If you can do these things, every time you head to the gym, you’ll be well on your way to achieving your goals. Remember that this is all very general information and if you have any doubts or are looking for guidance feel free to contact us directly, or talk to a climbing coach. You might be surprised what you can do with a little.

This post is actually not about drinking at all. So if you were clicking on this thinking this was going to be an exploration of how beer is such an effective partner to climbing through Germany, and how we should push to include this in our indoor facilities here at home….. it’s not……. so stop thinking about it.

some big volumes up at Urban Climb Collingwood

This is actually another think piece about indoor route setting quality. I have touched on this subject repetitively over the past 6 months and as more and more facilities open in my hometown and up and down the coast of Australia, the subject is becoming more and more important.

It will be interesting to see how the flood of facilities begin to shape the styles and setting focus, as more and more of the ‘users’ are not hardcore climbers. Will their tastes change?

Sarah Hay enjoying some giant Kilter holds in her new facility in NZ

We have already seen a huge movement away from bad holds on steep walls. 360 has started producing some of the largest holds on the planet and holds like these have significantly altered the challenge that both setters and ‘climbers’ face in the gym. Indoor climbing is beginning to be less about what you can hold onto and more about how well you can move.

360 HOLDS volume only climb, not a hold in sight

Don’t get me wrong, as difficulty progresses, the difficulty is increased (sometimes) by reducing handhold and foothold size, but sometimes the real challenge is how to use this gigantic hold in front of you. Where do you hold it? Where do you stand on it? What combination of foot movements, hand movements and hip movements allow you to progress? The complexity of what the climber faces is increasing dramatically. The focus shifts from spending years training physically to climb a boulder to spending hours contemplating how to climb a boulder.

Subsequently, the demands on the setting industry are changing immensely. The addition of system training walls into almost every modern facility is likely helping this along. With ‘hardcore’ athletes seeking physical gains moving into this steeper terrain, where they aren’t limited by their facilities setting demands and limitations. They can make any move as hard or as easy as they require without it impacting the other gym users.

This shift means that climbing is becoming more and more accessible to the everyday human. You no longer need to have suffered through ‘jug rash’ and pulley injuries to enjoy complex movements and the ‘boulder cave’.

This shift also means that our industry begins to face other challenges. Expensive holds and volumes becoming the norm. Route setting hours increasing. Larger holds mean lower density of climbs as they take up more space. This all impacts route setting frequency. Do your customers climb the same boulders more than once, once they figure it out? How long should a boulder stay up once it’s solved? Are customers hungry for the next challenge? Do you have the variety of movements across all of your grade ranges?

Phone a friend? 360 telephones look almost like modern art installations

Soon your head routesetter will need a masters in excel to manage all the variables and distributions appropriately.

 

 

Before I begin, it is important to remember that as a coach, route setter, event organiser and community member, I am always looking for ways to improve the sport. In order to improve, we need to first understand and accept the areas that are letting us down, and how we can turn them from weaknesses into strengths.

I say this, because I am sure that some you reading will at first feel attacked, maybe even offended at my observations and take a stance of defence. So remember, if you want to get better, if you want to improve, you have to stop making excuses, stop defending your position and open up to the idea that things could be better.

So….

Ocea climbing her way to a position just outside of semis with 4 zones

Watching the World championships was both over and underwhelming. The organisation and management of the event was superb. It seems that the Austrian crew learned greatly from the Youth World Championships last year and put on one of the best organised events of this scale have ever been to. But, overwhelmingly, there was an issue with the setting.

The setting was not quite right the entire event. Holds put on in the wrong place, rounds of boulders too hard, routes too easy. Don’t get me wrong, I have seen these mistakes before. I have made these mistakes before. I understand the pressure and the chaos of setting for multi-day events. But in events with up to 16 categories, and climbing abilities across a spectrum exponentially bigger than a World cup, in facilities where we had to share holds between boulder rounds. I’m not trying to flex on the setters at world champs, I am just highlighting the fact that everything was available to them, or at least, the most a team has likely ever had, and still we see setting that misses the mark.

Lucy on the first boulder of the horrendous women’s boulder qualification

 

To me, this is a very clear signal that the processes in place are not appropriate. As I have never set on a World team, I couldn’t tell you exactly what those processes are, but I have set on teams with world cup setters and the organisational processes they use seem to be pretty standard. How routes are organised, tested, tweaked. Maybe the tweaking process needs work? Maybe the freedom of having almost any material you want is too much? Who knows.

I love process and I think it can always be better. Check out my blog after Open Nationals for a deeper look into my ideas around testing and tweaking routes.

Process aside, the next glaring issue, the issue I have battled with since head setting my first national boulders. The women’s routes and boulders. The entire event, the setting team got it wrong. Boulder round qualifications that were too hard, finals that were too hard, final routes that were too easy. I remember lamenting on a similar scenario after Ballarat semis (read more here). Asking female setters to show me how to do it.

I’ll be honest, I have resisted. I have resisted putting more females on setting teams because of their lack of experience, and because I knew that it could create more work for me. I continued to provide a platform for men and resisted giving that same platform to women because I wanted them to get more experience first.

Campbell on the red route where the volume was placed incorrectly, resulting in a restart.

What a mistake. A mistake of epic proportions. I have hindered when I should have supported.

We rejoiced when one female was added to the setting team for worlds. But it’s not enough. Look at the IFSC officials list here

, and tell me how many female setters you see. Not enough. How many head setters were female this season? How many females on the setting teams?

Not enough.

It’s time to progress. It’s time to push forward and ask for better. World championships was not a good competition, particularly for the females and one female setter is not enough.

I think 50% of the setting team next year should be females.

I think 50% of the head setters should be females.

I think the IFSC need to be more transparent with the entire setting teams at events and publish the whole team.

Because it’s not enough to just shrug and say that’s competition.

It’s not enough to accept the status quo. Especially if you want the sport to get better. Thinking you are the best is not strength, it’s weakness because it stops you from ever getting better. And I want it to be better.

Support your female setters because one is not enough. Our community deserves more, our climbers deserve more and our competitions deserve more.

#womensetting

PS. Huge thank you to Team AUS biggest supporter Yvette Harrison for her amazing photography of the athletes during the entire event. You are a superstar!

I thought I would push through an update on my ‘European Dream getaway’ as it approaches its 5th week. I am currently in the process of completing some back-round research on a post around one of my favourite topics ‘sexism and inequality’ so stay tuned for that fire ball. Plus a general review of the world youth championships in Russia, which was a fantastic event, despite the dark cloud that hangs around Russian politics (more on that too in the next post).

Where to start…. well, you know how I love numbers, so –

So far, I have spent 29 days away from home, 6 days travelling and have seen 10 different climbing gyms across 2 countries and 4 cities. We have had 19 Australian athletes represent us in 2 major events (not 19 at both, but across the 2), 4 coaches and 1 team physio. The team is growing, along with our sport and the complexity of these trips is astounding. Not to mention the professionalism of the events themselves.

Running through the beta with Josh at the WYCH in Russia

The route setting was reasonable and seemed to do it’s job, even with what looks like a short lead wall in comparison to the Austrian giant Kletterzentrum in Innsbruck, where World championships will be held soon. The hold selection was a little limiting, resulting in some pretty old school physical climbing, but sometimes that is just the way it is. Jackie, in his usual way, told us how much he enjoyed the challenge.

Jackie being his usual expressive self

Huge shoutout to team Captains Oceania Mackenzie and Yossi Sundakov-Krummins for their outstanding efforts making semis, as well as team first-timer Angie Scarth Johnson. Just epic!

You can read all the details about WYCH 2018 here – (once the post is done)

After Russia, I headed back to Munich for the World Cup where we had 3 athletes compete. Ben, Yossi and Leah. All up it was a pretty epic day with 14 hours at the venue, most of which was spent in isolation. Unfortunately, the day ended in tragedy with Ben suffering a season-ending injury.

After Munich, I managed to sneak myself a couple of weeks off in Germany and in my usual fashion spent this ‘time off’ route setting in Berlin. It was a pretty awesome opportunity and I am really grateful to the gyms that let me guest set. The most amazing part for me though was to find out that really, it’s pretty similar to what is happening at home. I mean, compared to most of our Aussie gyms there is a better hold selection sure, and the facilities themselves are bigger, but there were no European revelations.

Testing at Boulder Klub

I suppose with the higher density of climbing facilities came some more care on the ‘product’ that was being delivered, but otherwise, the same key factors and processes were used. We set for 6 hours, about 5 boulders each, then spent 3 hours testing and tweaking.

Testing at Bertablock, photo courtesy of Kat ‘@africat.crafts’ on insta

Anyway, finishing up this blog I am here in Austria and looking back at my time here I guess the main revelation is that there really isn’t something that we are ‘missing’. We know what we are doing, the real challenge is getting the resources and materials we need to create it.

On to the World Championships in Austria, hopefully, there will be some great stories and lessons learned after this!

 

Gosh, it has been a long time between posts and I can’t decide whether it’s due to being immersed in work, or being partially lazy. I feel like there are grounds for a new word to be developed that covers this feeling….. something like labzy, or busly….. maybe even procrastibusy, but I digress, as always in these blogs.

Complexity and creativity…..

This blog builds on an earlier one “Zen and the Art of Route Setting” which ironically I use the same excuse for delayed blog entries…….Go figure.

Jordyn Damasco working it out at Boulderwelt Ost in Munich. Another great example of some thoughtful creativity

I have been lucky enough to have travelled a great deal this year already, around the nation for some events, social and official, as well as other route setting forays at new and existing facilities. It has been so exciting watching climbing explode in Sydney and it seems set to do the same thing in Melbourne. I have been sitting on videos of both National youth and the Japan world cup that I will endeavour to finish editing and release as soon as I can. And I really have no excuse as I have just begun a 7 week trip in Europe with the Australian climbing team, both youth and Opens.

This travel has recently provided me with a very interesting view of route setting both at home and abroad, which, as you may have guessed, is an interest of mine. One of the recent moments of revelation came visiting B-Pump in Tokyo (Ogikubo). I realised a few simple and important things about route setting. Now granted, this is an opinion piece, I have not done any research here, but through observation and experience, I have developed some ideas…… Which may or may not sit well with you.

Creativity and Complexity reign supreme. Now, this may seem simple enough, but the ramifications are, well, complex. This idea comes from one major observation, where people climbing recreationally get the most excited and obsessed about climbs they are ‘close’ to. Which really translates to: “physically possible for me, but I just need everything to go right”. Which means there is something that they cognitively or physically need to ‘figure out’.

Some Ogikubo class displayed by Yossi and Sam at this year’s Open team training after the Japan World Cup

So, if it takes you longer to put the holds on the wall than it does to come up with the idea of what to do…… you’re not trying hard enough. In Ogikubo, they spent 3 days re-setting their central pillar, some 20-30 boulders. Each one was a technical marvel. Complex, creative, enjoyable, varied at each grade, really an immense achievement. Now sure, you may not be in a position to input this kind of man-hours into your product, but then, if you never do, you probably never will. Which means you will probably always be the Kmart of climbing gyms. Quantity over quality. Not necessarily a terrible thing, I mean, people love Kmart, but even when they love Kmart they would probably prefer to buy Gucci, it’s just out of their price range. Not that I think Gucci is particularly good really, it’s just a metaphor ok.

So in practical terms, if you’re a gym and you want to add some real creativity and complexity to your product, the kind of stuff that people really get addicted to, tell their friends about, but you can really only afford Kmart. Pick 3 boulders in your set and spend the time to make them Gucci. Then, after them, fill in the grade blanks with Kmart, maybe with the extra time spent you have 1 or 2 fewer blocks…… but it is worth it. Even if you don’t hit the mark the first time, or second time, or third time, your setters will practise and learn and fail and learn some more and the quality of the product will improve. The complexity and creativity will rise because you are supporting them with time and value in their work. You are taking away the excuse of, “I could have if I had more time” and you are replacing it with, “show me what you got”.

The other thing I discovered while climbing at B-pump, a little more practical and tangible, is this: Good route setting, really good route setting, is all about feet. If your feet aren’t right you fail. This is key. Now, this doesn’t mean that that campus proj in the roof should be stripped, it’s cool, you can leave it, but it’s training, it’s not ‘good’ setting, it’s not really even route setting, just like you don’t call putting up the campus rungs, or the moon board ‘route setting’ right? Put on a hold, then do something with your feet and body so you can reach or use the next hold. This is climbing, this is movement, this is route setting. Creativity and Complexity are masters in climbing, everything else is just exercise.

Stay tuned for the next one. I have some time so hopefully, I will run out of excuses and actually get some of them written! Oh and if you are ever in Tokyo, do yourself a favour and check out B-pump Ogikubo.

“Well that was hard” – Maybe the most said statement at the recent Australian National Lead Titles. I’d say that as the head setter, my focus wasn’t on making the competition hard…….. but then again, maybe that would be lying.

For the last 3 months leading up to the Australian National lead titles I have been training with relatively good consistency and determination. I have been trying to improve my climbing performance and finger strength with a focus on bouldering. Partly because I love bouldering, but also because (in my opinion) bouldering fitness is the most relevant for a route setter. In defence of this position, I believe it is because testing the movements in overlapping sections requires good bouldering fitness, not necessarily lead fitness. I mean, if I could flash all the routes I set I’d compete right!?

Anyway, I’d been training, because I knew that the best competition climbers were about to descend upon us and I, along with 4 team members, were tasked with the job of splitting them. It’s a tricky thing too, creating a competition that is both enjoyable for the majority of the field and splits our top athletes. Especially when you find yourself in two minds about the standards at a national championship. What are they? What should they be? What terrain is best suited for who? Add in some para climbing requirements to the mix, as well as some pretty interesting time requirements, and you find yourself with a pretty good challenge.

Before I go on, I have to say a huge congratulations to my setting team. Carlie LeBreton, Tommy Krauss, Kurt Doherty and Sam Junker. You guys did a stellar job and I had a blast!

If you’ve ever wondered what Tommy Krauss looks like at 4am

Oh and here is Sam

Long story short, the comp was pretty hard. 5 of the 18 or so routes we set saw a top. No finals were topped and there was some congestion throughout the event at some unexpected places. We still got a split and some pretty incredible victories from two very impressive athletes. James Kassay by 14 holds and Oceania Mackenzie by 11.

Still, as I’ve said before, the quest to make a perfect competition is still something that drives me, and it was frustrating to see competitors falling in sections that we hadn’t anticipated. Especially when we had done work on routes after identifying that they weren’t quite right. As if we were asking all the right questions, but getting the wrong answers.

To give you all a bit of background, typically we have a grade range in mind for a competition. Taking open A male into consideration, for nationals we set what we considered to be a 26+ Q1, a 29+ Q2, a 30+ semi-final and a 30+ final. Apart from hold selection and terrain, that is about as much information about the climb as we have. After setting it, some of the setting team will climb it, try to make sure that it is consistent, there are no cruxes and it hits it’s grade range and is appropriate for the category, sounds simple right?

Carlie testing and testing and testing

So after all this work, when the route doesn’t do what you want it to do, it’s frustrating (to say the least).

As some of you know, I have been fanboying over Tonde and the wisdom he imparted on me last year and so when I tell you my mind went back to the ideas he covered in the workshop, it should be no surprise. I thought about how I could use R. I. C to my advantage (Risk, Intensity and Complexity), but in the context of a route comp.

Typically in a boulder event, various boulders have set R.I.C values, setters use this information to think about how the round fits together and can then use the results of that round to modify the next round if necessary. So if a high-risk boulder was not having the desired effect, certain elements of the next round can be adjusted to be more suitable, i.e if there is another high-risk boulder in the next round, you can change the intensity and complexity values (or the risk value if necessary) so that the field react in the way you want…… hopefully. But at the very least, you are making educated decisions on exactly what you want and what you think is going on.

The problem with using this concept for lead comps is that it doesn’t seem right to have fixed R.I.C values for an entire route. Plus, with 2 routes in qualifications, then only 1 in semi-finals, if you get those values wrong there is no recovery, no buffer. Worse still is that high-risk values in a lead comp. are, well, pretty risky, so as a setter you tend to move more along the complexity and intensity scales for these types of events.

Ben Abel on Open Mens 2nd quali

Then another thing popped into my head that Tonde (yes I know, I said it again) mentioned when we briefly discussed routes. He suggested that a good way to challenge athletes was to try and control their pacing. Like in steeper sections when athletes wanted to move quickly, you made them move slowly, or when they were just getting into a flow, you stopped them with something where they had to pause and collect.

Then BANG, it hit me. What if I took my route and broke it down into sections, say 20% of the total moves in each section, and had fixed R.I.C values for each section. For instance, the start of the climb might have a low risk and complexity value but a high intensity value. Then the 2nd section will ramp up the complexity, but drop the intensity, then the 3rd section keeps the complexity value but ramps up the intensity again…… so on and so forth. This sort of breakdown would provide us as setters as a really clear idea of what was going on in each part of the climb. Also a very clear understanding of how the field was responding to particular challenge elements, informing any tweaks and (most importantly) informing the appropriate sections of the climb to tweak! The overall difficulty could then be said to be the sum of all three values. So as the R.I.C values increase, so too does the difficulty. Add in a little fatigue element, and hey presto you have a tool. (Note that for fatigued, I used a very simple formula that utilised intensity as a factor, the more intense the movement, the greater the fatigue factor).

An example of a 3 round lead comp might look something like this –

Q1 – High intensity, low complexity, low risk (full route)

Q2 – High complexity, low intensity, low risk (full route)

  • Analyse results (having fixed R.I.C values helps setters adjust semifinals
  • Let’s say that athletes responded well to the high intensity, but struggled with increasing complexity

 

Imagined rounds using dynamic RIC values

Semi-finals – beginning starts with increasing intensity, as complexity increases intensity dips to ensure that the overall difficulty (sum of R.I.C) doesn’t jump too quickly, and allows for competitors response to complexity(seen to be poor after Q2). Basically, setters complexity values for the field are not accurate and so to mitigate this, instead of reassessing what the ‘real’ value would be, you compensate.

 

It’s probably not appropriate to say that the setters value of complexity is ‘wrong’, just that what your team felt was not a high complexity value for the field was not necessarily how the field responded.

Anyway, whether this idea has any real merit is still to be tested. I’m not 100% sure about how the fatigue factor will play a role, and what an appropriate function for it might look like, or even if you really need a function. Potentially, just like the R.I.C values, it would be better to have it as a constant, maybe increasing every 10 moves, who knows. The real potential for this concept is to use it as a tool to assess a competition climb, and where there might be issues. Hopefully, by improving our tools, we can improve our product.

As promised, I have put together a short write up from last years National training camp with Tonde in Queensland, when the majority of the Australian youth team, a few Open athletes and a handful of keen setters, descended upon Urban Climbs facility in Milton for a bouldering fiesta.

Granted this is very late, but the lessons learned are still important.

The first thing we tried to get athletes to understand is that this is a game. And the more you think about it, the more you understand how important this is. This idea began with Royal Robbins, outlining the rules of ascension in Yosemite and still holds true for today’s modern competition warfare, save one thing (or 5 in some cases), the “routesetter”.

Will, Tommy and Josh

The trick is this, in competition, and some cases commercial setting too, route setters are not only building physical challenges for your body, but also emotional challenges for your mind. The game has stepped up a notch, with what used to be a simple show of athleticism, is now a complex dance of minimising frustration, allowing space for creativity, performing coordinated stunts and minimising fatigue. Routesetters create a round in boulder competitions to not only provide you with complex climbing problems but a series of emotional traps. Designed to shake you down, frustrate and upset you and break you emotionally. So that by the time you finish, you’ve been sucked into trying the hardest problem 7 times in 5 minutes, you had no energy for the final ‘easy’ boulder and you’re not sure you will ever grow the skin back on your fingers, all because that first boulder had the most frustrating slippery right foot you’ve ever seen and you just can’t help looking back at it everytime you step up to the next boulder.

Sounds rough hey? Well, it is. But there is a certain power when you realise that that’s the game. Make it through without the frustration and you’re already winning (against the setters that is), AND you are putting yourself in the best position to perform your best.

 

Understanding the boulder round

Once we uncovered the tools of the trade to our athletes we provided them with a simple tool to help manage and regulate their time (and emotions) through each boulder of the round. The idea is that you break up the 5 minutes into 5 partitions (one per minute). 1st minute – inspecting the boulder, 2nd minute – 1st attempt, 3rd minute – 2nd attempt, 4th minute – 3rd attempt, 5th minute – attempt only if you are SURE you can top it. Simple enough, but hard to follow, especially when there are a handful of caveats. Dynos and slabs tend to break these rules. Then during your 5-minute rest, the idea is to forget whatever happened in the last 5 minutes and move on.

5-minute guidelines

The two days were really great, with a frustrating single shot round to wake everyone up, followed by a hard semi-final round for athletes to test themselves, learn the rules, try the time management strategy and hopefully do a little better.

Maddies many faces

Huge shoutout once again to Urban Climb, as well as the grand master Tonde.

So there you have it. Everything you need to become an international competitive bouldering star. Well, at least you know the new rules anyway. Next up will be some insights into the recent lead nationals and some of my new thoughts for lead, based on the R.I.C values Tonde shared with me earlier last year.

The end of 2017 was littered with more events than you could poke a stick at, with National boulder titles, the National coaching workshop, the Australian team training in Queensland and setting workshop, and ending with the Chris Sharma Topped Out boulder event at Nomad.

I’m tired just thinking about it.

This is not really how I intended to start this post, hence the heading, but I suppose I’m setting myself up for an excuse as to why it’s taken me so long to post another blog after the WYCH one. Regardless, I’m sorry, I’ve been busylazy (my new word for procrastination linked with an overwhelming amount of work) but I’m back now and I’ve got T-shirts for everyone (special bonus points if you get the Reel Big Fish reference).

So, without digressing any further, the subject matter for this post is

‘Tonde Katyo’

Tonde made a trip down south, supported by our national body, Sport Climbing Australia, to impart his route setting wisdom to Industry professionals through a small handful of setting workshops, Boulder Nationals and a National team training camp. I was lucky enough to be a part of the setting workshop prior to the Australian team training event in Queensland, along with the coaches workshop at Boulder Nationals (a topic for another blog).

There has been a little bit of hype around Tonde over the past 24 months, at least in my circles, talking about how excellent the setting workshops run by Tonde are, and let me tell you that the hype is real. He just has a way of explaining things that dissipates the fog and brings some of the most complex, sometimes esoteric ideas, into simple, crystal clear resolution.

I’d listened to a podcast that interviewed Tonde, where he introduced his ideas around RIC grading and the fact that routesetting is design and not art, so many of the ideas were not completely groundbreaking and new, but the process, the thoughtful and persistent analysis of each piece of design we put forward was inspiring. Does it fulfil the brief? Is it suitable for the intended audience? How does it fit in with the whole? Does it have the appropriate elements of each of the R.I.C scalars? So much analysis of the movement, the emotion created from the interaction, it was like we created a whole new space in which to create and play.

I don’t know if I would say that my setting got better, but it definitely became more thoughtful. Tonde’s words “That’s a thing” kept playing in my head every time I stared at a wall with a drill in my hand. I wanted each boulder to express some idea or feel something when you pulled on. I can also say unequivocally that I took it too far too, with an overwhelming desire for the feeling of “confusion” or “befuddlement” stacking blockers on blockers and layering holds together like a puzzle. Those that climb at Bayside, or on some of my recent boulders can attest to this. I guess when you find something new that you want to explore, you have to take it to some logical conclusion. I’ve subsequently tried to reign in my enthusiasm and focused on what is necessary, rejoicing in the simple as well as the complex.

I suppose the most important thing that I took away from it all though, was that route setting is like any craft. Just as a woodworker is judged not only on the functionality of his piece, he is also measured by the aesthetics, the quality of the joinery, the skill in which he has picked and utilised the grain of the timber and of course the safety of his workspace (because it is really hard to make tables with no fingers……. I would imagine). So much can go into a great product and this focus is exactly what is being pushed for internationally. Quality over quantity.

Because I’d always rather climb a great boulder lots than climb a lot of boring boulders……..