Monday, June 6, 2011

The Morning After the World Cup in Vail

The Climbing Narc said it well" For the first time in the 4 years the TMG has hosted this World Cup no Americans stood atop the podium at the end of the comp with Alex Puccio (2nd) and Angie Payne (6th) being the only Americans to even make it to finals." While I do not believe that bouldering competitions are the only measure of climbing ability, it is striking particularly on the male side, how completely the US men were shut out of the finals.

No doubt the competitors will have their own thoughts on the subject and in particular I look forward to seeing what Carlo Traversi will have to say. But I would suggest that the time may have come for a second look at how climbers train and prepare for these events. A similar problem is also apparent in looking at the rankings for roped climbing. Not a single American male climber shows up in the top 20.

While I know this is a perennial topic for blogging and message boards, I think there is some cause for concern given the push for professionalization among climbers in recent years. Are climbers able to get the coaching, training and travel opportunities that are available to their European counterparts? And perhaps increasingly more important a question is, are they required to train at a world-class level to maintain sponsorships or team memberships?

An interesting counterpart to this question is an essay by a British climber and coach, Mark Pretty, on "The Forgotten Art of Training." In the piece which should be required reading for every serious climber, Pretty notes that in contrast to a previous generation that displayed a genuine "thoroughness of their training in whatever form it took and the dedication and energy they applied to it in the pursuit of their goal," today, "in my job as a coach, I see at many walls climbers frittering away their talent and energy in pointless training or idle posing-the ‘big fish in a small pond’ syndrome." He continues "There is a lot of talk but very little walk as most people seem to prefer to mess about on a bouldering wall and call it a training session rather than knuckle down and train."

Last year I climbed a bit with a Dutch climber who came to Colorado for the World Cup and was struck by the serious training regimen that he described for the Dutch team. Regular practices, required attendance at competitions and so on. My impression of the Austrian team and others, though only second-hand, is that the same principles apply. The American approach is much more casual and ad hoc and I wonder if the results of this attitude are now starting to show in earnest. Sure there are strong US outdoor climbers though not many on roped climbs and I have no doubt that in outdoor bouldering, US climbers can hold their own. But the results at Vail show some trends that do not look good for US climbers, especially males. What if anything will be done about it is anybody's guess.


  1. Peter, one result does not a trend make, no? For example, I saw several comments re: how this year's winner (Killian) really stank it up the last couple of comps and is "back."

    Are you truly concerned because of one bad podium result? Seems the women did just fine - the Narc's comment should have been confined to the guys.

  2. Thanks for the comment! You are quite right but I am wondering if the one result is the effect of a building trend in American climbing. I wonder who is actually strong enough as a male competitor on the American scene to make finals in a world cup setting, especially away from home. My mentioning that no men are in the top 20 at in roped climbing seems significant in this regard as well.

    The deeper issue is that of professionalism. European climbing teams appear to be quite serious about how they work out and practice. In America it's left up to the individual and I am concerned that we may be seeing the effects of that approach over time.

  3. I'd say that the likes of Woods, Robinson, Graham, Traversi, Webb, and other strong US boulderers truly shine on real rock. They obviously prefer to train for their outdoor sends, where they are truly pushing the limits. I'm not them, but my mindset would be "why excel on plastic when I can excel on ROCK. It is Rock climbing afterall."

  4. Anon, I agree that is the case though the climbing on real rock seems limited to bouldering as far as I can see. For roped climbing, which might be quite a bit more involved training-wise, US climbers as a whole are nowhere near the world standard at this point in time, with only a very few exceptions. I can think of no US climber who is particularly good at both comps and real rock at the international level. Maybe I am missing something here but I think the training required for excellence at this level is regarded as too much work by most climbers and there are no expectations from sponsors or sport federations that would motivate climbers to work harder.

  5. In coming from a strength training background, when it comes to truly "training" you either have the motivation to do it or you do not (finding the correct trainer for programming your training is included in this motivation). To be absolutely committed to the weight room for bodybuilding or any other sport takes serious dedication that is often missing in athletes.

    It's common to see high school and even college athletes struggle with truly applying themselves in the weight room.

  6. I believe it was in 'Progression' that it was said that "in order to be the best you have to beat the best." But where does training come in at all? In the same film Patxi falls off a route on accident, for conditions unknown, maybe his footwork maybe a greasy hold... Sharma hardly uses his feet and is still putting up 5.15 lines without an ounce of training. Recently I got a chance to climb with Alex Johnson( the boy) and asked him what it's like to be up in the big leagues now...he said you know "I get to do what I love, travel and climb and all I gotta do is wear the product..."
    I don't think we should have such high expectations for our American climbers simply because they're representing our country. The climbing community is small and Bouldering World Cups arent Olympic. These climbers have the praise they do have because they're putting themselves out there. They put in the mileage and they clean those holds so just because no one placed for once doesn't mean they're not putting up V16/5.15. Theyre doing their jobs and I ,like most, believe the best training is climbing itself.

  7. "For roped climbing, which might be quite a bit more involved training-wise, US climbers as a whole are nowhere near the world standard at this point in time"

    I'm pretty sure that Sharma still is the 'world standard' of roped climbing. So is he no longer considered a US climber because of a few years living in Spain?

  8. "with only a very few exceptions" and the exception is not going to necessarily disprove the theory

  9. I think that it really depends on what the professional climber is going for. In the past years, Americans reigned the world cup circuit where this year, many of them are focusing on climbing outside and putting up new stuff (especially the men). I think that their intentions as a climber may have just changed. Maybe these intentions will change next year as well and we may see some more Americans podium as they decide to train more for these events.

  10. You may have a point about the European climbing teams as a whole putting more time into training than the American team, but doesit really matter? On an individual basis, the top climbers (European or American) don't necessarily follow any strict training regimen. For example, in UrbanClimber's recent Adam Ondra interview/profile, Ondra states that he doesn't follow any specific diet or training program. He simply climbs a lot and campuses a lot. Since he's won both the World Cup Bouldering and Lead as well as set a standard in the sport on real rock, I'd say how much a climber focuses on "training" doesn't determine how well they perform on plastic or rock.

  11. This question of whether the Euros train more is one I would like to answer more definitively. Ondra climbs like someone possessed and I seriously question whether anyone on the planet has logged as much vertical distance on 5.13 and up in the past three years. The point of Pretty's article was that the B team made up for deficiencies by solid consistent dedicated training.

    @Trevor, the comment from Alex Johnson illustrates it perfectly. If he is able to do his thing and not work particularly hard for it, good for him. He doesn't set the rules. But the "V15/16s" that are going up are in some cases proving to be a bit less than advertised and I am less convinced that the mileage is actually happening.

    Sharma and Ondra are outliers in any event and most rock climbers are going to have to work incredibly hard to even taste that level of difficulty. Training may not determine one's level as a climber but if I had to choose between natural talent and natural talent plus serious training, I would bet on the latter every time.

  12. "Training may not determine one's level as a climber but if I had to choose between natural talent and natural talent plus serious training, I would bet on the latter every time."

    This is the crux of the matter and no one can dispute it's validity, in any sport. If you combine talent with structured training you will always get better results.

    You see less talented athletes train hard who are then able to compete with the talented(and lazy) in many sports.

  13. The abundance of pushback in the comments above itself seems to embody the curious attitude of US climbers toward training. I think you are spot-on. If US climbers want to excel on the world stage in a competition format, then its time to get serious and formalize the process. I also agree that sponsors should play a roll and require a lot more, including product reviews and assessments, from their athletes.

    Nothing prevents any climber from defining exactly the experience he or she wants out of climbing, just as it's always been. But at the elite, pro level it's time to take a critical look and expect more. Good post!

  14. @kt What is a pro level in climbing? You have to climb a specific grade? Now what is grading? Gym climbing is soft compared to real rock and outside climbing is so subjective and diverse as it is. i.e. problems that require you to walk from one huge feature to the next hold (Womens 1 of the 2011 Vail Finals) are hardly boulder problems and just ways to keep the "ignorant" crowd more entertained. Or another example is when homeboy number 1 is projecting a route,sends it after a year of hard work then turns around and gives homeboy number 2 all the beta and he sends it 20 minutes after walking into the bouldering field.

    I think the topic we're failing to tackle is the difference between climbers who train specifically to compete and climbers who just show up to comps because they are obligated by their sponsors...

    I believe that there should be a definitive but with the limited number of climbers at that level how do we divide?

  15. Climbing has evolved into 2 different sports. Sitting outside and spending weeks or months under v whatever or 5.14 and then sending it, is way different than turning around and climbing a plastic problem in 5 minutes. If you do train, the training would be way different for both disciplines. I think this is why strong outdoor climbers often do not due very well in competition. They climb outside all the time and think it transfers, well it does not.
    In every sport, you have coaches and a training schedule. The training would be non sport specific as well. This program works in other sports, climbing is no different.
    In Europe, the best climbers are well coached and train properly compared to USA climbers that just climb a lot to be good. You can see the difference in competition, the euro's look like they are coached, most USA climbers do not. How many have actual coaches that plan a training schedule for them? Not many. Until this occurs, the USA climbers will get exposed at times in high level competitions.

  16. "Sharma hardly uses his feet and is still putting up 5.15 lines without an ounce of training."

    I think this is a meme that should be dismissed. I was lucky enough climb with Sharma and Kauk for a few days in Yosemite when he was a young kid like 17 and even then I thought his footwork was pretty on point. Sure, not as technical as Kauk side by side, but very effective for his size and always putting him in "good position" When you climb harder steep stuff sometimes the most efficient way to move is to campus through.

    Examine the first few moves of FRFM on video carefully, watch him kip and how his whole body "caterpillars" as he campuses through those viscous pockets---probably the hardest type of campusing due to extreme accuracy necessary. For all that training Paxti does, it doesn't seem that he is climbing at the level of Ondra or Sharma-I suspect maybe "overspecializing"...sure you could say genetic differences, or like Peter says, outliers (which might be totally accurate, idk) but I am inclined to say "psyche" and "rock time"...jmo...

  17. " I think this is why strong outdoor climbers often do not due very well in competition. They climb outside all the time and think it transfers, well it does not."

    To begin SEVERAL strong "outdoor" climbers have been highly successful in competitions including Paul Robinson, and Daniel Woods (and yes just because Daniel woods didnt make finals in Vail doesn't mean we have to discredit all his other victories\podiums in the past.)
    Secondly, who are you, or anybody (including sponsors) to say how much an athlete should train? Is it your money that is funding their competition expenses? No. Were they hand picked from a series of try-outs to "make the team"? No. Is anything except your America is\was\always will be the best attitude negatively affected when they don't "stand atop the podium"? NO! Also the sponsors aren't just there to sponsor 'competition' climbers. Who do you think they sponsored before competitions became popular? They are there to sponsor those who push climbing's limits and expand the sport. Whether this through putting up 5.15x sport routes, Projecting hard boulders or winning competitions it's the athletes choice. For example if SPONSOR 'A'threatens to drop ATHLETE 'A' if he does not adhere to a strict training regimen do you really think ATHLETE 'A' is gonna think twice before walking away from his sponsor and going to buy his own shoes for 150$? Honestly, what happened to climbing for fun? Competing because you like to and because it's a fun way to measure up against others climbers? Has all this been lost to an age where success and funding is becoming the driving force of something originally supposed to be FUN?

    Maybe you should ask yourself these questions before writing another ignorant article about those who are pushing the sport in a positive direction....

    -Matty Ice

  18. Matty,
    Thanks for the opinion. First off I didn't say anything about outdoors and indoors necessarily being mutually exclusive. You quoted somebody else. I always sign my opinions. But let's take the example of Daniel and Paul. My question was whether they can do well outside of the country in competition. I wrote "I wonder who is actually strong enough as a male competitor on the American scene to make finals in a world cup setting, especially away from home." Vail is a great comp but the majority of the WC events are overseas. Any thoughts on who that would be?

    In any event, I did not discredit previous wins of either climber and I know both individuals fairly well. Paul is not concerned in the least about doing World Cups and his sponsors don't care either. Daniel is obviously more concerned about success in the competition arena.

    Regarding training, I am acquainted with a number of coaches in other sports who have made it clear what the expectations are for serious athletes, pro or amateur. I know what the typical routine for many top climbers is and the two are far apart in terms of time and effort. So yes I am fairly well qualified to talk on the subject. I don't see what my money has to do with it.

    The example of Sponsor A and athlete A you give is exactly the problem. There is no good reason for a climber to work hard for a $150 dollar pair of shoes beyond pride in one's ability and self-motivation. But if a climber is being paid a substantial salary, as in real professional sports, they are expected to attend practices, train hard, and be at all games and team events. That's not always fun but professional sports is not necessarily about having fun. You get cut from the team if you act on that assumption. Since climbing doesn't get much real backing in the US, why expect anything from the climbers? Exactly my point.

    If sponsors want to hand out product to charismatic personalities who are not particularly gifted but represent the product well, that's fine too.

    The idea that climbing is all about having fun is something that is hard to see at the very top levels. The sport has grown up considerably since I started, to the discomfort of many.

    Regarding the use of the words "ignorant article" your comment seemed to be talking about another post altogether, one written by someone else about something else.

  19. Matty,

    Go read the Woods interview on this blog. Exactly my point! Climbing outside is not the best way to prepare for an indoor competition.