by Jacob Carr
At the age of 49, 6 days before his 50th birthday, Kelly Slater won the Pipeline Pro with a performance well above his competitors. His performance wasn't necessarily amazing because of the way he surfed, but how he surfed. His tactics, his positioning, his poise was still head and shoulders above his more youthful competitors. For comparison, winning at Pipeline would be like Tommy Cladwell Climbing the Dawn Wall at Yosemite, in one go, when he is 50. Kelly’s 30+ years of experience led him to know where to be at the right moment and perform at his best.
For some of you this doesn’t mean anything—cool some old surfer won a surfing contest. What’s your point? My point is from the very beginning of our academic or athletic careers, we are taught that our single effort is a demonstration of our highest performance. We flaunt our best grades in school, our SAT scores, our highest achievement in business, or state we are a V10 boulderer. We are taught that this is the standard for success, our highest single effort achievement. In climbing, it doesn’t take too much investigation to find out how well someone climbs. There is no hiding how well you can or cannot climb; climbing usually doesn’t hand out “free send” passes.
So often we see our favorite climbers send routes many of us couldn’t dream of climbing and think, “if I just had their shoes,” or “if I just had their endurance,” or “if I just had that little bit of power that they have I would be a better climber.” While that may be true to some degree, I would argue that most of the elite climbers simply have a wider breadth of knowledge and preparation than most of us. Johnathan Siegrist or Tommy Caldwell can climb 5.14 at any crag in the world. Jimmy Webb and Daniel Woods can climb V14 anywhere in the world. Why? I would argue because they have an enormous amount of knowledge that allows them to tap into skills and movement efficiency that most of us couldn’t touch no matter how much we trained our endurance, strength, or power.
Not sure where to begin?
We have training plans available for any level athlete!
Here’s the Catch 22, preparation is just as important as the knowledge we gain from climbing. This famous phrase came from Joseph Heller’s book of the same name. It was coined from a situation in which soldiers from World War II would claim insanity to avoid flying bombing missions. However, this is impossible because no one who is sane would want to fly these bombing missions. Anyone claiming insanity is completely sane to avoid flying.
The point being, preparation is important in our climbing to be able to perform well on the rock. We should be preparing our bodies to endure that 60 meter endurance route. Without preparation how can there be an expectation to increase our breadth of climbing knowledge? Why would we continually expect something different to happen in our climbing if we talk about needing to climb more without going and doing just that? We love to be in a comfort zone of training because we are able to see the results in a comfortable environment, but training for climbing and actually climbing are very different. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can replace actual climbing experience with climbing training. One helps the other but one does not replace the other.
If all you ever do is train for climbing you’ll only gain experience in climbing training which you’ll gain expertise in. Gaining expertise comes from preparation and knowledge, knowledge of what to prepare for and the preparation to be able to expand that same knowledge. So if you gain expertise in rock climbing, your preparation for the rock climb and your training will become more focused, therefore your experience on the rock will be more informative and your expertise will grow. Your breadth of expertise in rock climbing also means you will experience the intangibles on a more regular basis to be able manage them more efficiently.
What are the intangibles? Intangibles are weather, anxiety, stress, fear of failure, fear of falling, performance expectations…the list could go on. I’m sure many of you are thinking of an intangible you struggle with right now. How do we dispel those when in the act of climbing so we can focus on the movement instead of those intangibles? A lot of it has to do with our preparation and our preparation has a correlation to the experience we have on the rock.
If we always wait for splitter conditions and it starts to get windy on our redpoint, it won’t bode well for our mental state. If we climb only when we feel good, what will happen when we start to feel bad on the rock? The best way to prepare is to gain experience in all situations. James Clear once said, “The person who gets 1 shot needs everything to go right. The person who has 1000 shots is going to score at some point. Find a way to play the game that ensures you get a lot of shots.” What can you do today to allow yourself to take more shots so that maybe one of them goes in?
"Just like in our training, as we provide increments of increased load, so we should do in our climbing."
This preparation and experience can allow our climbing to become more consistent and predictable. This doesn’t mean that trying hard goes out the window. We should be pushing the boundaries of what we know we can achieve. That’s the only way forward and the only way to ensure a shot goes in. Just like in our training, as we provide increments of increased load, so we should do in our climbing. However, as we prepare and gain knowledge of climbing, our outcomes should be less erratic and our confidence in our ability to climb should increase as well. This may take a shift in our mindset though as we look for new ways to prepare.
When we allow ourselves to change what we perceive as predictable actions like clipping, body tension, toe hooking, etc., new perceptions of our skills can help us gain an understanding of what we know we can achieve. This gives us the ability to set our habits for skill development to provide consistency. What does this mean for our climbing? Our climbing needs consistent action for our abilities to become more efficient. This means practicing things we are not very good at. For many of us, we could sit down and have an honest conversation with ourselves and say what we are bad at. Most of the time we want to save face in front of others and only do climbs we know we are going to crush. This brings me back to my first point, our single effort: achievement is great, but how did that single effort make you a better climber? Did it teach you anything about your inefficiencies, skills, or climbing movement? What if you climbed a route just above your onsight level 10x’s as much in different styles, how much more would you learn than trying to climb your single effort grade? I think you know the answer.
Think about this knowledge like getting a degree in something: What will you learn in the next 4 years? We all need to take pre-requisite classes in order to take the advanced classes. Why do we assume we can go to advanced classes in climbing faster than we should? Don’t misunderstand me, I am all for trying hard, that one climb we have set in our sights as a test for us mentally and physically. How much better prepared would we be for that test if we had properly studied for that test through going through those movements prior to the test on easier climbs and ingraining good habits through those experiences?
I think it is worthwhile to dial in a warm-up and start the climbing day with a flow, no thinking, only moving and breathing and feeling as you float up the route. This practice can allow you to take mental and physical inventory for the day and allow you to identify things that could take your attention away from the reason you are there, which you should identify beforehand. On the flip side, if you choose a different warm-up each time, this may not allow you to find flow because you are determining beta each time you warm up and may not allow you the mental or physical space to understand how you are doing.
Imagine going to the gym and putting a different weight on the bar to warm up for deadlift every time and then 100 pounds extra on top of your deadlift max and trying for hours to achieve that new max. Imagine coming back and doing that exact same thing for months. Sounds awful right? You may make some advancements in the weight you lift, but I argue that it would be more worthwhile to gain understanding of the intangibles surrounding your climbing than trying random different things. It will be so much more frustrating than if we learn efficient movement and gain more climbing-specific strength.
It is worth noting that we need to be selecting specific experiences to make sure we grow our knowledge appropriately. It is important to realize where you are right now may require you to be practicing more deadlifts than heel hooks, it may be that you need to climb lower grades to work on your mental experience, it might be climbing something right on the edge to make you try a little bit harder than you are used to. It’s important to reflect on your experience and make sure it's aiming to be where you want it to be. If your training or rock climbing isn’t pointing you where you want to go, re-evaluate your approach and try a new directed approach.
This is the climber’s Catch 22. Without the knowledge and preparation of specific information to work on we cannot problem solve and improve, nor can we create a sustainable practice for us to be consistent. Remember the experience we gain from climbing directly relates to our ability to manage intangibles, and understand how we respond to each situation and be able to pivot and climb well.
When you can provide specific preparation formulated from your experiences you can begin to work on more predictable climbing performance and a less frustrating climbing experience. Work to shift your mindset from climbing higher grades inefficiently, trade the glamor for mastery, trade clout for persistence. Kelly Slater wouldn’t have been able to win the most prestigious surfing competition by not preparing, experiencing, and practicing his craft. Be like Kelly Slater, Tommy Caldwell, and so many others who have taken their time to prepare, experience and practice their craft to be their best selves anytime, anywhere.