Climbing Coaching Catching Up

I sparked a conversation with some local climbers about the strong youth climbers coming out of the Midwest.  As many online forum conversations often go, this one took a slight turn in a different direction, to coaching (or sometimes lack thereof).  In that exchange I received this very solid quote from one of the strongest climbers out of Minnesota, Nic Oklobzija.  Yes, that Nic O.  The First Ascentionist of The Raven (V12) and co-author of the upcoming Midwest Bouldering Guide.

Nic Oklobzija“The only things holding [climbers] back in the Midwest are that our facilities are ill equipped to train at the same level as our counterparts out west and our coaching. I think the coaching is more a national level problem not just the Midwest. [Certain teams] are making it better but it does not compare to the same level athlete training that other sports enjoy.”  – Nic Oklobzija

So why has it taken so long for climbing to catch up?  Lets dig into this just a bit.

Rock Climbing as a “sport” is actually relatively new.  Early on, climbing was almost purely an adventurous activity.  As the focus moved slowly away from Aid Climbing to Free Climbing, the challenge to increase both the difficulty and volume of climbs began to gain notoriety.  But information moved slowly.  And often inaccurately.  Like the telephone game we would play as children.  Hearsay and anecdotal.  All the while, in many sports around us, methodical and documented study was being done.  Which leads us to today.  Climbing is right there.  Missing by a hair on the short list into the Olympics.

FootballI grew up playing team sports.  Let’s use the example of Football (as opposed to Futbol).  I had a head coach putting together the overall strategy.  I had an offensive coordinator working on a specific part of that strategy.  I had a position coach working with me specifically on my role within that strategy.  I had a player-leader calling audibles when needed.  I had a strength & conditioning coach as well.

Now I understand that Rock Climbing is not a team sport, but I wrote the above paragraph to show the vast contrast.  Climbing probably compares more closely to swimming.  I can almost guarantee that an elite swimmer has a stroke coach, maybe several that specialize in each discipline.  They likely have someone that consults them on the strategic pieces within a meet.  They have a strength & conditioning coach, maybe one for each.

ExperienceSo this begs the question, why do the majority of climbers still get their information from hearsay, or worse their own personal trial and error.  Don’t get me wrong.  I am a strong proponent of the Try-Fail-Adjust growth philosophy.  By all means, try things.  And learn from everything you do.  But as the saying goes, learning from other people’s experiences is truly the best teacher.  So check this math out!

(Technique Specialist + Physiology Specialist) x Hard-Working Climber = Raising the Bar

It might look something like this…

While the discussion of having coaches makes 100% sense when it comes to competition climbing.  I’d like to expand one step further.  In other sports/activities, athletes have the option for a personal trainer  to help them improve.  Example: my wife runs marathons and now triathons.  Not professionally or for sponsorships, but for personal gratification.  She contracted a run coach.  She’s worked with a triathlon coach.  She has a swimming mentor.

So even the everyday, regular climber types (those wanting to progress from 5.11 to 5.12, from 5 pitches a day to 10 pitches, or V5 to V8) can benefit from increasing the emphasis and value being placed on coaching.

What are your thoughts?  Comment below!!

~ Climb 4 Real ~


About wicoxfreedom

Husband, Father, Rock Climber, Entrepreneur, and much more.

Posted on August 6, 2013, in Competitions, Training and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Douglas Hunter

    I just found this post today. I think you raise one of the most important issues we face. Climbing is full of bad or incomplete information about how to make great performances at any level. At the world youth championships earlier this month there were no Americans on the podium. not one! At the latest bouldering world cup only one American finished in the top ten. So our lack of committment to spots science is showing I think, as I know that there are a number of European who do have a good scientific understanding of climbing.

    One of the biggest problems is that even people who are considered experts on training in American climbing spread a lot of bad information and don’t understand the principle of specificity very well. For example, the video you linked to has a bunch of shots of climbers doing sit-ups, and a curl type activity as if these are important training activity for climbing. But even the most basic bio-mechanical or kinesiological analysis of climbing movement suggests that these activities are not going to do much for climbers at all. There is a great moment in Steve Bechtel’s book Power Endurance where he writes: “Stop the sit-ups! The requirements of hard climbing don’t include sitting on your ass and drawing your chest to you knees,” Beyond being funny, he is also right. foward flexion of the spine is just not a significant aspect of climbing movement. Granted the video is a marketing video, so the perspective is that of the director and editor of the video and it probably does not capture the perspectives of the trainers regarding specific activities, so we allow for that and don’t harp on those guys too much.

    The point is, all training must be based on a scientific understanding of the demands of the sport. Among these are the physiological demands, as in what energy systems are at work in different types of performances; and most importantly a rigorous understanding of the movement patters found in the sport. Even the so-called experts in American climbing don’t seem to have a very good grasp of climbing movement (and yes, I include myself in that statement). So we here in the US have a problem, we want to make coaching and training more professional, yet the professionals don’t know all that much. And as you say, most of the training advice people are following is Hearsay and anecdotal, it’s really quite a mess. Nice post though, you hit the nail on the head!


    • I’m honored you took the time to respond. I have enjoyed your books thoroughly. I still mentor pretty much every climber with silent feet, glue hands, and same side in. What do the perennial WC winning athletes/countries do differently? For instance, I remember a brief scene in the BIG UP film “Progression” where the training of Patxi Usobiaga seemed very scientific and calculated.

      Is there a lot of secrecy? It seems like there is more sharing in climbing than other sports.


  2. I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed the books! What do the euros do differently? Well, that’s a big issue. I am not really an expert on the differences between European and American methodologies but I suspect that are a few meaningful differences, such as the fact that their institutional infrastructure is way ahead of ours. The French, for example had a pretty good certification program for climbing isnstructors in place in the 1980s, and even in the 1980s there were several publications addressing working with youth specifically. Thirty years later the US does not have any such program and only one book has been written that addresses the specifics of working with youth climbers. I am also pretty sure that there are a larger number of coaches in Europe who have an appriciation of sports science, and degrees in science. Eva Lopez for example is finishing her Phd right now in Spain, and her thesis is specific to climbing. I’ve been corresponding with a coach from Sweeden who is deeply immersed in sports science and keeps a good collection of all the science published on climbing that he can find. So in general while I know the top minds in European coaching feel that there is still no where near enough scientific information being generated in Europe, they seem to have a greater understanding of the importance of sports science and generating data than we American’s do. I also think that some of the institutional structures here in the US may be hurting climbing. There are a number of people coming at climbing from the perspective of the strength and conditioning industry. The norm in that perspective seems to be to get people using traditional tools of that industry such as the typical machines found in gyms and exercises suchs as planks. The problem is that a deep understanding of climbing movement does not seem to inform the choice of activities and how they are structured. Also, its really difficult to use typical machines to train for climbing, the ranges of motions they allow are often wrong, the types of muscle contractions are incorrect, there aren’t machines that do a good job for certain climbing specific movements, etc. So I think the end effect is that US climbers are getting low quality information from a source that we sort of assume we can trust. There are also important cultural differences, between the US and Europe such as the acceptance of climbing as a “real” sport, the number and quality of gyms / crags. These things also matter. Pragmatically speaking I suspect that there is a greater emphasis on the use of interval training, and a better understanding of how it works among European coaches. Addressing your specific example of Paxti I think we need to be cautious, I saw that clip as well and his stated motivation for his training didn’t make much sense, neither did the quazi-sport-specific and non-sport-specific activities the video showed. But the purpose of most videos is not to accurately represent the individual’s training, videos are about emotion and publicity, so who knows what he really thinks or does.

    As for secrecy, I’m not sure, I know there are some people who are very secrective here in America but my opinion is that there are no secrets, it’s really just about how well we know and apply sport science to the specific challenges of climbing. I think there is a lot more sharing in other sports, golf, baseball and gymnastics for examples have HUGE bodies of coaching literature, monthly publications, and significant on-line communities that are organized in interesting ways. For example, the coaching Apps Ubersens, and Coach’s Eye, have thousands of videos posted that coaches can analyze and discuss, so these are things we don’t have in climbing. But those communities are much bigger than climbing, so maybe you are on to something, that for the size of the community there is a lot of sharing in climbing, but I wish there was a lot more.


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