Guest Post: Climbing Coaches Aren’t Just for the Pros

One of our ‘out West’ friends, Amanda, graciously offered to write up a short post about her experiences with hiring a climbing coach in Vancouver, BC. I would include a picture of Amanda climbing but I’m pretty sure she’d rather be incognito. If you happen to run into a sort-of UK-sounding lady who’s quietly leading Squamish trad routes that make the boys cry out in fear, it’s likely her. 

On Getting A Coach

Somewhere mid-December, I was asked if I would be interested in a climbing course or some coaching sessions as my Christmas gift. I have been climbing for 10 years but coaching has never been on my radar (neither has training for that matter, but last winter I spent enough travel time in the ice-climbing-mobile with Matt and James that I learnt some things through conversational osmosis.) I don’t have a training plan to speak of besides the hangboard routine posted at the gym and a set of core exercises I do most evenings. I can count on one hand the times I’ve walked into a weight-room in the last decade. I’m exactly the type of climber all the books/podcasts/articles say you’re NOT supposed to be: always in performance mode, looking to climb as hard as possible every time I tie into a rope. I’ve been told that I’ve probably come as far as I can just climbing hard, and I have to actually start training my weaknesses. These are steep overhangs, dynamic moves and anything requiring umphf in the arms/shoulders. However, having little background in bouldering, the technique and body positions for overhangs were a bit of a mystery. I’d been told and shown what to do; it just hadn’t happened. In summary, I couldn’t tell if my inability to pull certain moves was a lack of power or flaws in technique. So before embarking on a strength training plan (sigh, effort….) it seemed reasonable to get any holes in technique plugged; the more letter grades I can squeak out of myself before having to march to the (real) gym, the better. I’m living in Vancouver now and there are excellent gyms offering excellent courses. If you’re thinking of getting some technique advice/assessment, don’t discount courses; I personally just opted for 2 2-hour sessions with a coach because a) I have a fair idea of my problems b) the scheduling and spacing was more flexible and c) I really don’t focus/learn/climb well around Other People.

So here are some of the key points we covered. It was basically Bouldering 101 for trad climbers, well condensed, with some leading thoughts thrown in.

–Pull position: weight centred under pulling hand, i.e. your feet creating a triangle under your pulling hand, also keeping feet at about a 20 degree angle to the wall, which maximises balance but leaves room for pivoting. Tweaking pull position made a huge difference when the angle of the route kicked back.

–Direction: pointing body in the same direction of the hold opening. How did I not know that?

–Flagging: creating the above-mentioned triangle with your feet when there’s no foot where you need it. We looked at standard, back and inside flag, the back one being useful to avoid matching feet. Inside flag lets you get seriously high.

–Shoulder blades: this one CHANGED MY LIFE. I’ve made a career out of climbing with straight arms. However, turns out this separated my shoulder blades, which made it really hard to go from straight arms to a pull (I thought this was lack of strength.) By squeezing my shoulder blades with the chest forward at all times, suddenly I could get my hips into the wall and move into pulls with more force than I thought I had.

–Drop knees: useful to stem between high, bad feet. Knee below foot. Painful.

–Dynos: I did one! Okay, didn’t actually hit the hold, but I got the point of when dynoing back and up, you have to push out from the wall to minimize swing when you (eventually) stick it

–Deadpointing: mostly practicing not overshooting, keeping core tension and not getting high too early.

–Dynamic Moves: launching into quality pull position, hitting it exactly.

–Route reading: planning, contingency planning, and remembering where feet are, especially when angles change and holds get hidden.

–Staying low: don’t stand up before necessary, and climbing extended makes it harder to drop down and reassess, especially if you’ve lost your feet (see above.)

–Leading: The coach had a point that often we climb to clip (or place gear) rather than the opposite. That fear-based fixation takes away from relaxation and efficiency of movement, and technique is the first to go. At the wall or sanely protected routes, he suggested hanging out by the clip for a while, finding the best stance, and getting used to the idea that bad horrible nasty disastrous things won’t happen just because you don’t clip immediately.

–Hangboarding: the routine posted on the wall got the stamp of approval (10 seconds on, 6 off, do six times, 3 min rest, rinse, repeat.) Curiously, when I started to engage my shoulder blades my biceps felt the burn, and they have actually been getting stronger since.

So that’s the main points we covered. I also have some thoughts on the general process of working with a coach. If you’re thinking of doing the same, these might be useful to consider.

Things I’m glad I did:

–Before contacting the coach, I made a very specific list of goals in terms of style and route types and how instruction would fit in with those.

–I also made a very specific list of strengths/weaknesses. I actually thought back through specific routes or route types that have given me trouble, considered why, wrote that down, listed my self-assessed technique and strength issues. I got close climbing partner to look through it and add/subtract/change/critique.

–I edited the above list and sent it on to the coach well before. I had my partner also read through for clarity/honesty/directness/accuracy and add some things.

–I set the sessions well apart (2 weeks, which turned into 3). This gave plenty of time to get to the gym for practice in between and bring feedback/issues to the next session.

–I asked lots of questions and redirected things as necessary. In retrospect, I probably could have been a bit more assertive in this regard. Although I had communicated with the coachbefore, I think he still came in with a few assumptions, so don’t be afraid to stop your coach if it’s something you already are clear on. That said, in the course of saying something basic, he/she might have some gems that you hadn’t realised.

–I wrote EVERYTHING down as soon as I finished the session, as in free-flow all of it. Later, I organised it into categories of skills / techniques / body positions / reminders. This went in my “training log,” which, at some point, might actually contain some training.

Things I would do differently:

–Arrive warmed up and ask to get on something hard immediately. The coach’s assessment was based on warm-up climbs where I could skip holds left right and centre; i.e., where I become lazy. Going back, I would have picked 3 familiar routes where I knew my problems became glaring and had the coach watch me on those right at the start. I think this would also have helped him to clarify what I did /didn’t need and made things more efficient.

–Ask the coach what he had planned, as in sit down and go through specifics. I didn’t really do this because it felt a bit demanding / possibly cramping his style, but doing this lets you evaluate if there’s anything missing from the agenda. Obviously he/she might need to redirect depending on what they see.

Useful advice that I plan to implement:

–Mixing up my climbing routine. He suggested pushing in a different direction with each workout, e.g. climbing twice as many routes as usual except easier, or going to the bouldering area and climbing each route of a particular grade twice or three times at intervals, or choosing a particular technique drill to focus on for a set of climbs or even an entire evening. The principle being to force my body to adapt to different demands constantly.

–Practicing technique while fresh, and as soon as technique fails, get off; i.e. keep flailing, and the body will be practicing bad technique more than good.

–I need to boulder. A lot.

–CONSTANTLY route-read and climb perfectly, even on easy things, to get the practice of being perfect.

–Don’t. Freak. Out. Over. Training. Plans. Strength-wise, I need to do few basic weight exercises: push-ups, hangboarding, assisted pull-ups, and varying climbing workouts but not panic that I need **A Plan**. I’m not used training lingo or the process and don’t want to overwhelm myself to the point of avoiding training instead of doing it.

Overall, I’m quite happy with the experience. It’s been a few weeks since the sessions, and steep overhangs make a lot more sense now. According to an observer, I’m route reading better, getting my feet in better positions, and am a lot more comfortable on overhangs. I have started to go up a notch with bouldering but it’s hard to tell on ropes because the setters stiffen grades to get us working harder for the upcoming season (sneaky!) More is practise needed, but I feel that I have tools to exploit the strength I have already before I head off and make friends with the weight-room. I might go back for a clean-up session with the same instructor, possibly after the summer climbing season has wrapped up, to talk about progress and get some more things to work on when the rain starts again.

Anyway, if you’re thinking of getting a coach/instructor, I hope my experience might help you get more out of it. Happy Climbing to you, and Happy Christmas to me!


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