How coaching other climbers improved my climbing and my life

As soon as I started to genuinely care about  helping my friends to become better climbers and doing research for this purpose, I learnt many useful things that tremendously improved both my own climbing and quality of life. A key reading for me was the article Train Like a Pro in which an apprentice climber describes his experience when training with Coach Sjong, the so called Climbing Sensei.

“Nearly everything Sjong says is eye-opening and brilliant. He changes your entire perspective on climbing technique five times per session. He is indeed, a sensei.”

Coaching is a skill

I used to misunderstand what being a good coach means. To me, it was obvious that if I was a better climber (if that means anything at all), I would be able to give useful advice to someone climbing on lower grades. This happens to be completely wrong. I might be a rather good climber but I used to be a terrible coach.

What happened is that I realised that the way I was coaching people was close to simply showing off. For example, I used to rely too much on showing the moves myself or giving away answers too quickly. I don’t think this approach was truly beneficial to anyone. The new approach I use now is much more satisfying, efficient and fun. It can be described as follow:

  • Start from understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the climber. Has they climbed before? What kind of climbing (indoor/outdoor, lead-climbing, bouldering, etc.) How do they do in terms of strength, power, balance, technique, flexibility, finger strength, overall fitness? How motivated are they to make progress?
  • Learn to know them as a person. Build an authentic relationship and understand their fears, personality or mental images that might impact their climbing as well as the relation between coach and apprentice.
  • Design personalised exercises to allow them discovering new situations, new problems and work on their weaknesses.
  • Be a good observer and guide. Observe them climbing, listen to their observations and ask them questions such as ‘what happened there?’ or ‘what do you think you could do differently?’ to guide them and allow them to develop their own thinking.
  • Try and avoid showing moves or giving away answers too quickly. This is similar to the Eastern way of teaching calligraphy, martial arts, philosophy, etc.
  • Don’t assume that you know everything. I can learn things to improve my own climbing even from a complete beginner.
  • Victory checks, or any friendly sign between climbers or coach and apprentice are a good way to celebrate achievements (like toping a problem). It rapidly becomes a ritual and it brings everybody a little more into the ‘pack’ or the climbing community. As a coach, I try to give more values to those checks by only giving or accepting them when people genuinely did something beyond their usual comfort zone.
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Bouldering outdoors near Stockholm. Credits to Alice De Schutter

There’s nothing wrong with not being a pro

I used to feel a little uncomfortable or even envious when comparing myself to pro-climbers. Those people enjoy climbing so much that they are able to devote their life to it and even do it for a living. Why can’t I do the same? This was obviously a childish reasoning and I now understand two things.

First, I have many hobbies and other priorities in life and I’m much happier spending time doing many things instead of focusing on climbing only. I also doubt that I would be able to survive for a long-time if I had to live from my climbing skills!

Second, I don’t have to ‘be a pro’ (whatever that means) to enjoy climbing for what is is. The only purpose of climbing is climbing. I like climbing, and that’s the only thing that matters. I can continue making progress (or not!) and enjoying the feeling of climbing without having to devote my life to it.

The funny thing is that because of this barrier I had in my mind before, I used to be always a little shy when talking to climbers way stronger than me. Now that I understand that ‘there is nothing wrong with not being a pro’, I’m actually having good times with really good climbers (and pros!) at the different gyms I’m climbing at. And I’m learning a lot from them.

Focusing on the outcome is not a good strategy

Here is a quote from the article mentioned in the introduction:

“Leading 5.11a isn’t a goal. It’s an outcome. The goal is to address your weaknesses. If we are successful, the outcome will be climbing 5.11a. You can achieve the outcome without reaching your goals or vice versa, but you’ll grow more as a climber in the long term if you achieve your goals.” – Coach Sjong

It doesn’t seem like much at first but this was actually huge for me. So much so that I started applying this to my own life and realised I was definitely focusing too much on fame, money or personal achievements. Now I know that by focusing on achieving my own goals, I’m growing more as a human.

The weakest link principle

This is related to the previous point (the goal is to address your weaknesses). I found that this principle makes a lot of sense in climbing since it’s very easy to understand in the context of this sport.

In bouldering, the aim is to complete a problem by climbing to the top. You either succeed or fail. There is no in-between possibility. So the feedback is objective and immediate.

What makes bouldering so interesting is that there are always many ways in which a problem can be solved. Different people will come up with different ideas of move order or moves that might all result in a success. As everybody has different natural strengths and preferences, the natural tendency is to rely on their main strength to solve problems. For example, I used to over-use mu upper-body strength to power through problems.

The issue with this approach is that different problems are oriented towards specific skills that, if used correctly, will make the climb easier and much more efficient. For example, powering through a technical problem on a positive wall with small footholds isn’t a really good idea. And this is were the ‘weakest link principle’ comes into play. I can increase my overall climbing level tremendously if I focus on my weaknesses.

A small change in your weakest areas will have a great effect on overall performance, while a significant improvement in the strongest areas will have a much smaller effect. For this reason, maximizing improvement requires discovering your weakest areas and targeting them as your top training priorities.” – Coach Sjong

Here is a list of different skills required to be a balanced climber, ordered by my personal situation. Since I started focusing on my weaknesses, a lot changed in my climbing.

  • Power (Although there is nothing as too much power.)
  • Analysis / Creativity (Being colour-blind forces me to think a little…)
  • Technique (I used to underestimate the importance of feet placement for a long time. Coaching other climbers is helpful to better understand concepts that have already became habits but can still be made more efficient.)
  • Finger strength (I started to train it this week for the first time, but it was already quite good since I started climbing at an early age.)
  • Flexibility (Now stretching in the morning and after sessions. Also working on the split.)
  • Focus / mental (This introspection work is helping a lot.)
  • Nutrition (How to eat in a more healthy way or what to eat to recover after sessions. Cooking a selecting healthy food is has become a new hobby!)
  • Stamina (I should do more lead-climbing and activities such as running or swimming. But this is not that useful for bouldering.)

Applying the same principle to my life, I’m now focusing more on vital activities that I haven’t been too much concerned about until then, such as cooking, helping others, learning practical things (such as how to do household tasks or gardening), expressing my feeling, observe and care about nature, cultivating friendship, etc. And as in climbing, I can see promising results.

Training

With this new goal of addressing weaknesses in mind, training became a lot more fun. I started doing research on specific exercises or routines that I can do to improve on specific areas. For example I’m currently training my finger strength.

Training is very satisfying because I can easily measure my progress by taking notes of my performance session after session. Moreover improvements are noticeable when going back to the climbing wall.

Warm up and stretching is essential

I used to underestimate the importance of warming up and stretching before and after the sessions. A good warm up tremendously improve my quality of climbing. I’m a lot more precise on my footwork and I feel my body in a much different way, getting in flow situations a lot more easilySimilarly, stretching after sessions is key to recover faster, reduce the risk of injuries and being able to do more sessions per week.

In my personal life a parallel can be drawn with the importance of having a morning and night routine.

Balance is everything

Here is another quote from the conversation between Coach Sjong and his student:

“What do you think footwork is?”

“Using your legs to move your body up the wall?”

“Incorrect. Your knees move your body up and down. Your feet and your toes manage your hips. […] You can use your toes to pull your hips into the wall. You can pivot your feet to swing your hips into a different position. Our hips are roughly our center of gravity. Our center of gravity controls our balance. Balance is everything.”

Every bouldering problem can be solved using a myriad of different approaches using different skillsets. But no matter what the approach is, balance is the common factor. You can’t climb to the top if you are not balanced or if you lose your balance.

I find this advice to be of inestimable value when applied to life in general. Everybody is free to live the life they want to have and become who they want to be. All I need to do is to find the correct balance. This concept is also related to the concept of harmony (thinking about the constant balance between Yin and Yang energies, for example).

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