Editor’s note to issue 19 of Vertical Life. Download the Vertical Life App from iTunes or the Kindle Fire App Store here.
‘You don’t get strong just sitting around talking about climbing, mate.’
A friend said this to me the other day. Dropping it like a bomb to end a discussion on training, they marked it by clapping their hands, a trail of chalk motes caught in the slanting light as they bounced purposefully towards the bouldering wall. Surely no one is going to argue with this fact-grenade. For sheer unquestioning simplicity, it’s up there with, ‘It’s not gonna climb itself, mate.’ (By the way, a flatly intoned ‘mate’ used at the end of any sentence means the speaker entertains no argument, mate.) It’s an obvious paradox, it really isn’t going to climb itself.
I am cursed with an uncomfortable autonomic reaction to any declarative statement, I always disagree with it. Doesn’t matter what you say, my mind says no and my mouth-hole says, ‘No.’ Or at best, ‘Yes, but…’ This happens even before I could have possibly processed your point. Contrarian, agitator, fool. I am not sure which is true and maybe they all are.
Naturally, as he bounced through the Mandrake-like cloud of chalk buoyed by his pithy wisdom, I thought, ‘Yeah, but maybe not, mate.’
As you might expect I spend a lot of time talking about climbing, reading about climbing, looking at pictures of people climbing, and this accumulated meta-climbing adds up to way more time by a magnitude of order than what I spend actually climbing, or training to climb for that matter. So I would be rapt to find out that all of those hours were not wasted.
At the heart of my mate’s declaration is the idea that to get stronger one must train physically. The modern climber is a trainer. It seems more and more that climbers are obsessed with practicing and perfecting. ‘Training’ as an idea is having a moment right now, of course, climbing as a pursuit that requires conditioning and skill means training is always going to fundamental, but it seems even more pronounced – that trends are embedded at the heart of the zeitgeist makes it particularly susceptible to single concepts being ascendent and so ‘training’ is buzzing. In sports you can see parallels with AFL people currently banging on incessantly about ‘structures’ (I played AFL for 25 years and I have no idea what they are actually talking about) or football pundits having to use the term ‘technical’ whenever they talk about a player they like (again, I have not idea what they are talking about). It could be that ‘training’ is also used as a marker to differentiate ‘real’ climbers from the upstart newcomers who are racing into the sport and fuelling its growth. Ergo, I train therefore I am (the real deal).
Training is a process through which we gain performance improvement. Climbing here is not some mystic salve for the soul or ecstatic connection with nature, it is an aspirational pathway providing data points in the quest for self-improvement. We quantify, note down, create spreadsheets, strive to get stronger. To get better. Being strong, though, is not synonymous with being good, so being stronger is not synonymous with being better.
In order to examine whether you can get better by talking about climbing, I looked at my conversations with my favourite, most combative audience, me.
Talking to ourselves makes us better. The evidence is in, mate. A meta-analysis of published studies confirms that ‘self-talk can help by enhancing attentional focus, increasing confidence, regulating effort, controlling cognitive and emotional reactions, and triggering automatic execution.’ Sounds like a recipe for redpointing right there. The studies showed both instructional (‘push with your toes’, ‘activate your traps’) and motivational (‘C’mon’, ‘Yes’) talk are effective, and that enhanced concentration and focus lead to greater execution of fine motor skills. Better yet, whilst you get immediate results as soon as you start talking to yourself, practicing self talk enhances the effectiveness of the technique, so you get immediate payback and then get larger improvement as your ability to have a good chat with yourself increases.
You might ask: what can we tell ourselves that we don’t already know? Well, similar to how just because your partner knows that you love them doesn’t mean that you are excused from saying it, you’re not going for revelation here, indeed you are going for repetition.
Similarly to this, as Ash Hendy points out in her piece on on mental training in this issue, visualisation works. For arguments sake, I’m going to support the – albeit contested – theory that thoughts (as opposed to sensations, pain, light, etc) are based in language, so thinking then is talking to yourself, visualisation of a route is talking to yourself about that route ergo ‘talking’ about climbing gets you stronger. Furthermore, running through sequences just before you have a burn puts them into working memory, making them accessible and increasing your chances of executing them accurately (aka performing better).
I’m not saying that you don’t have to do the hours of cranking on crimps and building a bulletproof core. Training is pulling and pushing, harder and harder. Yeah, but it’s more than that, mate.
It is moving, breathing, resting, thinking, controlling, being. And talking, even if that is talking to yourself, either stern words to steal your resolve or explicit instructions to remember sequences.
Consider this missive then as your free pass to daydream. To release yourself to flights of fancy, to give over to the voice in your head, and imagine yourself getting through the crux, feel the pressure radiate out from your fingertips as your latch the hold you haven’t held before, squealing with exertion as you clip the chains. Exclaim ‘yes’ with every move, go through sequences in your head until they are dialled, speak calming words as you look up from the rest at the unfamiliar territory of the onsight. Mumble under your breath, scream at the heavens. Talk yourself strong.