Tactics and the Mistakes We Don’t Know We Are Making

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A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to climb with, and observe a climber in his 20’s who is currently working his way through the 5.11 grade. One of the climbs we were on together was a 5.11d, a grade he had not yet successfully climbed. On his first attempt he essentially tried to flash the route and fell at the crux. He hung on the rope for a minute then tried the crux again; and again he fell. After another rest he tried again, and fell again. He repeated this pattern several times before getting through the crux.  Higher on the route he took a large fall because he climbed past the obvious clipping position and attempted to clip from a far less stable position with his feet five or six feet above the last bolt.  He left the crag that day without doing the route, without learning much about the route, and with his cage rattled due to a big fall.

What I found interesting about this climber is how crude his approach to the climb was. He started from the ground and climbed until he fell.  After each fall he pulled back on the rock and again climbed until he fell. He never asked his belayer to “take”, he also did not look for better sequencing options during his rests, and he didn’t review sections of the climb after he successfully climbed them. At the end of his first burn on the route he was tired, emotionally drained from the repeated falls, and had learned very little about the climb.

It bears repeating that success and failure in climbing don’t happen by accident, they are both constructed. They are both the natural outcome of our movement skills, our climbing specific fitness, our emotional state, and our tactics. This climber was excited about climbing, he was fairly fit, but he had poor movement skills and had no tactics that would aid him in the learning and memorization of the climb in question. Let this last idea sink in a bit. Imagine being engaged in a complex motor learning activity, at a high level of difficulty, with a large number of moves to memorize without having a learning methodology to aid you in the process. Isn’t that doing things the hardest way possible?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this young climber lately because he had no idea that he was making any tactical mistakes. He was doing what he thought was right. He had no idea that it was his lack of tactics that was causing him to go home that day without sending his first 5.11d.  This is what makes tactics such a tricky issue in climbing, it’s very difficult to gain an awareness of how our climbing behaviors hinder our progress. In all fairness I’d say that it’s pretty much impossible for us to see how our tactics create failure until we are exposed to better tactics and learn how and why they work. In the case of the climber I described above better tactics might have include the following:

 

1-    Using his first burn as a learning burn. This would have meant intentionally stopping and taking at every bolt on the route. Stopping and resting at every bolt would have allowed him to review the moves he performed in the previous section, for the sake of evaluating their efficiency, or committing them to memory. Stopping at every bolt also would have meant getting more rest so that he could climb and learn each section without being tired or pumped, which fosters better motor learning. Finally, stopping at each bolt would have allowed him to read sequences and moves for the sections to come. He could have formulated a plan or at least known the holds available to him prior to launching into each new section.

2-    Taking fewer falls. Taking falls in the redpoint context is fine if you are experimenting with the fall to see how if feels. It’s also fine to fall when going for linkage. Falling becomes a problem when it’s unnecessary. The climber I was observing was falling because he had not read the sequences, and was just trying random things on the fly. This is bad because taking repeated falls was draining his emotional energy, and made him feel that he was far from success. These falls did not aid the learning process. In this case it would have been easy for the climber to taken instead of falling, or he should have advanced the rope above him so that he could have tried the difficult moves on top rope.

3-    Reviewed the climb. When lowering off a route after working burn, the climber could have reviewed each section by reviewing the hold and his sequence, and he could have climbed sections again where he found his information was incomplete.

There are more tactics that would have helped the climber in question, but even this brief list would have been a tremendous advantage over what he was doing. I realize that tactics don’t excite many climbers the way physical training does, and many climbers don’t give their on-sight and redpoint tactics much thought, but without good tactics our training and our psych to climb won’t get us very far compared to what we could achieve with good tactics.

 

4 Responses to “Tactics and the Mistakes We Don’t Know We Are Making”

  1. Dan HagueNo Gravatar says:

    I’m afraid this is all too common. I was out this past weekend watching numerous climbers “work” their projects, which to them meant making repeated attempts to send before really learning the route. Learn the route first and then try to send; I guarantee you’ll make fewer attempts and send the route with far less effort.

  2. FelixNo Gravatar says:

    Excellent advice! I was certainly in the “go for it and see what happens” camp for a long time, and recently switched to focusing on learning routes before trying to send. Results: sent my first 12a! (with plenty of gas left in the tank)

    Any advice for finding more unkown mistakes, both in tactics and climbing technique?

  3. Douglas HunterNo Gravatar says:

    Felix,

    Maybe the advice should be: Spend a lot of time watching the tactics of climbers who you know are really good at different skills. don’t be impressed by how strong or smooth they look. Examine the procedures they use to learn. Compare and contrast the methods of great red point and on-sight climbers to your own. Also, I think part of it has to be that we just assume that we should be climbing at least 1 letter grade harder than we currently are, or should be red pointing routes faster, and that our tactics are what hold us back.

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