Last fall, after a long absence, I started coaching competitive youth climbers again. It’s exciting to see how youth competitions have developed in the past 14 years; the number of competitors is fairly large, as is the number of coaches. I’d guess that preparing youth for competitions is probably the largest source of coaching revenue in the US, and correspondingly it’s a task that a great number of coaching hours are spent on. Yet public discussions, and published material regarding youth competitions are almost non-existent. So, I think it would be great to start a discussion on how we prepare young athletes for bouldering competitions.
My primary concern is discerning the athletic abilities that contribute to successful performance in competitions in order to design programs that will foster the development of those abilities. The ABS utilizes two different structures, yet both structures favor the climber who can get the greatest number of points in the fewest number of tries. At isolation style competitions such as divisional and nations there is the added pressure of a strict time limit for each problem and the number of tries is used as part of the scoring. In local level competitions any climber can only put in so many tries in a given day before they are exhausted, the more tries each individual problem takes the more fatigued the climber is for subsequent efforts. This fatigue factor often contributes to a climber’s top four problems having widely different point values. With these facts in mind I think that the most important variables in competition performance are as follows:
1- the climber’s consistent on-sight level. In this case the V-grade she may be able to on-sight several times in a single climbing session.
2- the climber’s ability to recover quickly between efforts. Obviously 4 minutes is the rest benchmark set by the ABS structure so climber’s need to be able to achieve a complete recovery in that time period. In addition we can’t over look the 30 to 45 second rests that are typical of the time between efforts in the work period of an isolation competition.
3- the climber’s stamina level, how much high intensity climbing he can handle in a 3-hour period.
4- the climber’s ability to control his or her emotional state during the course of the competition; in which the climber will undoubted face excitement, frustration, success and failure.
Each of the abilities listed above can be broken down into a number of elements, which I won’t list because I think most readers can do an able job of creating their own lists. Not everyone is going to agree on these four points, and that’s fine, different coaches are going to analyze the dimensions of performance differently, over time we can compare and refine our different assessments in the hope of making them more accurate.
In the remainder of this post I want to address on-sight climbing. It can be one of the most difficult things to improve in climbing performance, and it’s harder to work on that red pointing and it is based on a number of sub skills. As a pragmatic concern I used three different activities to improve flash / on-sight climbing.
The principle activity is Continuous Intensity Repetitions. A pattern that I have seen a number of times is that if a climber can perform 40 repetitions of a grade in a two-week period, after a rest they will be able to flash or on-sight the next higher grade. Lets say a climber’s current on-sight level is V3, if that climber can do 40 repetitions of V3 in a two week period he or she will very likely be able flash V4 in the third week. Naturally there are some conditions, the problems need to be accurately graded, second, the climber needs to do a variety of problems at the V3 level, the length, style, hold types and wall angle should be widely varied. The other thing to know is that it can take time before the climber is ready to do that volume in a two-week period. If the climber is new to this kind of training, he or she may need to start by doing a mix of V2s and V3s such as a workout in which a total of 12 problems are completed eight of which are V2 and four of which are V3. From that starting point the climber will work up to being able to do 10 – 12 V3s per workout in order to achieve 40 or more in a two week period. It’s the high volume at a contorolled intensity within a short time period that encourages a significant jump in on-sight performance. Note that the climbers for whom 40 repetitions in a two week period creates an increase in on-sight level have all been experienced climbers. I do not have as good an understanding of how this might work for less experienced climbers.
The other two activities I use are movement training and on-sight practice, as you might expect these are done in a specific manner.
With on-sight practice I use 3 steps. The first is having the athlete do a complete read of the problem from bottom to top, and they are encouraged to go into as much detail as they can. For some this might mean simply knowing the available holds and coming up with a basic hand sequence. For others it will mean knowing the exact sequence, where the crux is, how is move is going to feel and be initiated, as well as specific points of focus for the more difficult moves. The second step is to have the climber make the on-sight attempt, which is recorded on video. Third, immediately after the on-sight attempt the climber reviews the video and discusses how the actual performance compared to the expectation created during the read. This type of practice is used long term and is engaged in weekly.
The third activity I use, and the probably the most important, is movement practice. Climber needs a broad base of movement skills in order to excel at flashing / on-sighting, in the on-sight context even small gaps in movement skills create failure, so over time the goal is to develop mastery of the widest range of movement skills possible, including skills that are often found in competitions but are less common in other climbing situations. I do need to be caraeful about describing the goal of movement practice here, it’s not just about learning a finite set of known movement patterns, it’s about developing a high degree of body awareness, as well as a high degree of conscious control over movement. These last two elements are the most important and allow climbers to quickly make important refinements to moves that other climbers can’t. I also think movement practice is the most important because of what I have seen at competitions. Last season at the local level the vast majority of youth climbers I saw moved rather poorly and a few were doing things in their movement that was potentially harmful. Only the very best local level climbers had some sophistication in their movement, but those climber had a lot more to learn as well, and it’s movement learning that will be the foundation upon which futher athletic development will be based.
One of the challenges of teaching movement to young climbers is their willingness to engage the process and work at a technical level. Not all youth climbers are equally interested in or willing to undergo this kind of training, meaning that we as coaches need to both communicate the importance of this work to our students, while at the same time providing meaningful incentives at daily practice.
Movement practice is used every day and results are tracked and measured over the course of months.
Finally, how each of these three type of practice are engage in does depend on the age and experience of the climber, as well as their motivation level and where they are in the development curve. These forms of practice are not one size fits all, they are modified for each climber as necessary.
In summary, these three forms of practice are used in the short, medium and long term, with periods of preparation leading up to the actual increase in on-sight level. It’s the quality and timing of these period of preperation that determines when an actual increase in on-sight level will be achieved.
So if any coaches or parents are reading, how do you assess the skills and fitness needed to prepare youth climbers for boulder competitions?
In future posts I’ll address the other points listed above.