Smarter, Not Harder

Tom brought up a couple of questions which I will start to address here:

tom on July 25, 2012 at 2:35 pm said:
“you brought up two very interesting areas i hope you will discuss in detail:

a) being aggressive in climbing – what’s the mindset, how do you turn it on? how do you get it back when you get out psyched by the rock?

b) trying hard – sometimes it frickin hurts, and you need to try harder to get through. but sometimes trying too hard leads to flailing around….

looking forward to a deeper discussion!”

These are really two different questions, so I’ll address them under separate posts.  Let’s look at “trying hard” first since I have better anecdotes for that topic 🙂  Generally speaking, its a good idea to try hard, but what does that really mean?  Many years ago my brother Mike had a chance to spend some time with Tommy Caldwell, so Mike asked him what he does to train for climbing, in hopes that they would discuss proper set lengths, number of repetitions, etc.  Tommy’s response was, “just try really hard, all the time”.  End of discussion.  I’ve always thought this was interesting advice to give to a total stranger and it brings to mind a classic legend.  An aspiring climber hired a local wunderkind to “coach” him.  The coaching session consisted of aforementioned wunderkind yelling “pull harder” throughout the session, right up to the point of catastrophic tendon rupture in the client. 

‘What do you mean you don’t track your hangboard workouts in an Excel spreadsheet?!’

These stories remind me of a concept discussed extensively in “The Self-Coached Climber”, that is, often people who are really good at stuff don’t really understand what makes them good.  For example, Usain Bolt is the best at running 100m fast, but that does not necessarily mean he would make the best coach for another aspiring sprinter.  Admittedly, this is a somewhat condescending attitude.  Tommy is clearly an extremely intelligent and thoughtful person, so I don’t suggest this theory in anyway as an insult to him.  However, I think it indicates that those standing on the top of the tower, looking down on the huddled masses often under-estimate the amount of drive, focus and effort that even “regular joes” put into climbing.  There is a great line in the excellent running moving “Without Limits”, in which the Bill Bowerman character is lecturing the late great Steve Prefontaine:

The incomparable Pre

“Your insistance that you have no talent is the ultimate vanity.  If you have no talent, you have no limits, its all an act of will…I’ve got news for you.  All the will and hard work in the world isn’t going to get one person in a million to run a 3:54 mile.  That takes talent.  And talent in a runner is tied to very specific physical attributes.  Your heart can probably pump more blood than amyone else’s on this planet, and that’s the fuel for your talent. Your bones in your feet – it’d take a sledgehammer to hurt them. And that’s the foundation of your talent. So your talent, Pre, is not some disembodied act of will, it’s literally in your bones…”

I think that many aspects of climbing (like finger strength) come naturally to some elite climbers (not that they didn’t have to work hard to get strong, but they didn’t have to put a lot of thought into it), so all that remains is to try really hard at the moment of truth.  They see someone struggling on 5.11, and they think that person just isn’t trying hard.  ‘If only they tried a little harder, they could climb 5.15 too!’ 

Sometimes trying hard can have negative consequences. This flapper took my entire finger pad off after an ill-advised dyno.

I’ve climbed all over with all kinds of different people, and I’ve observed a lot of people trying very hard at the crag, at all different grades.  In my expereince, lack of effort is rarely the limiting factor in those who are well motivated (and there are plenty such climbers).  In fact, I’ve observed many climbers trying too hard on occasion.  That is, beating their heads against a brick wall with no potential positive outcome.  Climbing until their fingers are bleeding, thus forcing additional rest days that otherwise wouldn’t have been necessary.  Taking huge whippers or dynoing repeatedly for blind holds, risking severe injury or bloody flappers, either of which could be avoided by simply hauling up a stick clip.  Or simply “flailing around” as Tom suggested.

One of my favorite expressions is “smarter, not harder”.  One thing I like about this philosophy is that it emphasizes the long view over that which is obvious and immediate.  Performance rock climbing is all about finding the easiest way to do that which is inherently difficult.  Advice to the effect of “Try Hard” is often misinterpreted to mean, ‘squeeze as hard as possible or dyno wildly as you scream like Sharma WHILE YOU ARE CLIMBING’.  However, most of the time, it turns out that squeezing harder is not the answer.  Rather, discovering a new body position, distributing weight perfectly between fingers and toes, rehearsing the accuracy and timing of dynamic movements, pacing the effort correctly–these are generally the keys to overcoming a challenging route.  Rather than trying hard to do a move that requires 100% of your crimping power, try hard to find a body position that allows you to do the same move with 80% exertion!

Furthermore, those that try hard only when they’re literally on the rock are missing out on countless opportunities to improve their climbing.  Try hard to schedule adequate rest, stick to a healthy diet, get enough quality sleep.  Try hard to wake up on time so that you can get to your project when the conditions are ideal.  Even in the unlikely event it does come down to a simple matter of brawn, try hard to use your brain to develop an effective training strategy to develop the needed horsepower, as opposed to simply squeezing until your knuckles explode.

The decision to use your brain is not an exemption from giving 110% come gametime.  Trying really hard on Tommy’s masterpiece, ‘Grand Ol’ Opry’.                      Photo Matthew Oscadal.

Rather than simply, “try really hard, all the time”, how about, “try the appropriate amount, all the time” (really rolls of the tongue, doesn’t it?).  Sometimes, maximum force is required to get the job done, the gear is good, and your body is prepared to handle the stress that maximum force will produce.  In that case, by all means, go for it!  On the other hand, often caution is the better part of valor.  Many times it makes sense to take it easy, save some energy (and some skin) for the next burn, or next climbing day. 

So how do you know when its time to give it one last all out effort, and when its time to throw in the towel?  Experience, which of course, comes from bad judgement, or by observing and listening to others.  Dose your efforts with a preference for quality over quantity.  Listen to your body; if you’re too tired to give a quality effort, save whatever you have left for tomorrow.  Don’t climb frustrated, which is a sure path to regret.  When you find yourself facing a tweaky crux move that presents the risk of several months of injury, consider whether it really makes sense to “try really hard”.  Maybe there is another route just as challenging but not so tweaky (or, if you have your heart set on it, hit the hangboard for a few seasons and come back when you are truly ready, or limit yourself to a pre-determined number of tries per day on the tweaky move).  Say “take” during a too-hard warmup to avoid a flash pump that might ruin the entire climbing day.  Take a break to tape up before hucking for that jug yet again, thus avoiding a handful of bloody flappers.  Rest when rest is called for.  Take a moment to consider new beta before trying the same move the same way for the tenth straight time.  Don’t feel compelled to perform for the gallery.

When you are on redpoint (or onsight), on a meaningful climb, that is the time to go for it.  If you’re already in dogging mode, don’t be a hero.  Use that seemingly useless blob of ballast above your shoulders to do what makes sense in the long run.

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4 thoughts on “Smarter, Not Harder

  1. Great post. A favorite phrase of mine came to mind when you were discussion people trying too hard at the wrong times:

    “If you’re gonna be dumb, you gotta be tough”

    A better plan, as encouraged here: don’t be dumb.

    Like

  2. Pingback: Lander Days | The Rock Climber's Training Manual

  3. Pingback: Lander Days - Climbers Guide

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