Climbing means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Whether it’s top roping at the local crag, deep water soloing above the sea or jumping across volumes in a competition, all of it is climbing. In fact, variety is one of the main reasons why I love this sport so much. It allows me to constantly evolve, learn new things and never get bored of it. That being said, I do understand how competition climbing seems vastly different to climbing outside on rock and for the most part it is. However, many of the skills acquired to perform at a high level in climbing competitions translate surprisingly well into rock climbing, some more obvious than others. While climbing media likes to make you believe climbing is a strength sport, it still predominantly is a skill sport. I’ve seen a lot of physically strong athletes, but it takes so much more to be a well accomplished climber. Let me point out what I consider the most important lessons competitions have taught me.
Consideration and Intention
In many ways preparing for a competition is similar to preparing for your project, the ultimate goal being maximum performance on a given day. While climbing outside you can oftentimes choose that day, although you might be limited by external factors like weather or travel logistics. But have you ever asked yourself what your body needs in order to perform well? The answer to this will look slightly different for everyone and it usually involves a bit of experimenting. A very important factor which is often overlooked is skin care and maintenance. No matter how good you feel, you probably won’t climb your best with a split or bleeding tips. Having good skin can be a real game changer and it varies a lot depending on the conditions and the hold type. For me this meant learning how to tape well and warming up with taped fingers if necessary, using a file to keep an even layer of skin and finding the skin care products which worked best for me. Once you are actually out climbing, you want to use your resources wisely, the most important ones being energy and once again skin. If you fall off, try to analyze what went wrong and what you could improve before pulling back on. Make sure every try has an intention instead of just throwing yourself right back at it.
Recovery and Activation
Resting is probably the most underrated skill in climbing and competition climbers are no exception. There is an addictive element to our sport which often makes us continue when it would be smarter to stop. Never underestimate the importance of being well recovered, not only physically but also mentally, with a special emphasis on sleep and nutrition. It’s a fine line between pushing through a hard session and depleting your body. While some people climb their absolute best after three consecutive rest days doing nothing at all, I have found to perform at my best after a short activation session either the same day or the day before. This always includes a full warm-up and usually some form of hangboarding, preferably maximum intensity hangs. Right before a competition I focus on mobility and explosiveness whereas climbing outdoors it depends on the things I want to try. A lot of my bouldering projects involve some sort of heel hooking so I specifically activate the lower extremity in order to protect my knees which leads me straight to my next point.
Warm Up and Injury Risk
It’s bewildering how many climbers don’t warm up properly and I’m a bit unsure if it’s because they think it’s a waste of time or they just don’t know any better. Personally, I think warm-ups are pretty boring and I usually can’t wait to get on the wall and try my hardest. However, in order to do that your body needs some preparation. Competitions forced me to develop a extensive warm-up routine at a young age and I believe it massively contributed to never having any major injuries. Additionally, competitions require you to train your body in a more diverse way to keep up with all the pressing, pushing and leg work involved. Some say the more spectacular moves in competitions are becoming increasingly more dangerous and make athletes prone to injury. If we’re being completely honest, elite level sports in general aren’t healthy but compared to skiing, gymnastics or soccer the frequency of acute injury in climbing is still quite low. Arguably the most dangerous part of our sport is optimizing the strength to weight ratio through extensive weight loss, but that’s a topic for another time.
Training for competitions requires a lot of hours spent on and off the wall building the physical foundations. Lots of moves and lots of repetitions, over and over again. I’m a big believer in quality over quantity and although I’ve always been on the lower end when it comes to training volume it’s still more than most rock climbers I know. This often allows me to keep trying for longer or climb for several days in a row and still recover relatively quickly. This is especially useful on trips when you want to sample a lot of climbs that are slightly below your limit but in my experience it’s also a big advantage for projecting. If your body can maintain a high level for an extended time period you get a lot more out of each session, it allows you to try different beta options and repeatedly dial in moves or link sequences. My outdoor sessions are usually limited by skin rather than physical exhaustion.
Competitions challenge a variety of different climbing styles and although you might get away having a few weaknesses they will catch up with you sooner rather than later. A lot of climbers inherently avoid the things they are bad at because it usually means getting out of their comfort zone and taking a hit on the ego. The most common example I come across is slab climbing which is a crucial skill in competition. A wise person once told me "Competitions are lost and won on the slab" which is probably true more often than not. However, learning to trust your feet and improving hip mobility is just as useful while climbing outside. Although balancing on tiny footholds and keeping up a stretching routine isn't the best way to show off at the gym it certainly helps you climb better on rock. On the other hand, if you struggle with big moves and dynamic climbing these are exactly the climbs you should try more often instead of getting intimidated by them. It might feel humbling facing your weaknesses head-on but sticking with it and seeing progress is all the more satisfying. That being said, I still consider finger strength my biggest weakness but I was forced to work on it constantly over the years and consistency is definitely paying off.
I have never been the strongest climber and I never will be. Even if I ended up on a podium it was very rarely because I had outperformed the field physically. Modern day competition boulders require such a wide range of skills and a lot of it is based on movement and body position. Getting your hips closer to the wall, finding a sneaky toehook or getting the timing right on a dead-point will oftentimes decide between success or failure. Learning to feel comfortable in weird body positions or generating momentum off bad holds will get you a long way in competitions as well as outdoors. With problem solving being such a big part of climbing, especially bouldering, thinking outside the box and finding the beta which best suits your abilities is another extremely helpful tool. Most of us can probably learn a thing or two from trying that new set of coordination boulders at the gym or making up slab challenges and who knows, you might even find it enjoyable! Plus it’s usually a bit lower intensity and might even allow climbing around injuries.
Learning to perform under pressure is one of the most valuable lessons competing has taught me. Yes, it’s stressful and the exposure can make you feel more vulnerable than I’d like to admit. A lot of it is based on expectations and fear of failure, which are also present in rock climbing or life in general. Turning off the voices of doubt in your head, focusing on the task at hand and making smart decisions on the spot are crucial to perform at your best. A great example of this are climbers who won’t try something while others are watching, just because they feel embarrassed in case they fall off. This already puts so much emphasis on the possibility of failure, it will be very hard to climb your best. Not to mention how much you limit yourself by not climbing in front of others at the gym or even outside in a busy area. Remember that getting better at almost anything happens through trial and error and with climbing this inevitably involves a lot of falling. Accepting that falling is usually the worst possible outcome and being okay with that gives you all the power to get up and try again. Another big one is commitment and dedication. Many people wish to be naturally good at something but very few are ready to put in the work, especially if it means making sacrifices elsewhere.
Of course I’m aware not everyone is in a position to dedicate all their time and energy into climbing even if they wanted to and that’s okay. I feel privileged to spend so much time doing what I love and I get so much out of it in return. On some days I climb because I want to push myself to the limit, on others I just want to get my mind off things or spend time with friends and sometimes it happens all at once. I love the challenge of figuring out a delicate slab just as much as pulling hard on crimps or losing all my skin on a coordination dyno. All of it is climbing and all of it is real.
Climbing is about so much more than just performance and I think that’s actually the biggest downside of being a competitive athlete. Constantly comparing yourself and oftentimes associating your self-worth with how hard you climb can be detrimental to your mental health. That’s when I need to remind myself why I fell in love with climbing in the first place and that I’m doing it because it’s fun. I won’t lie, competition life can be rough but I’m sure it made me a better climber overall. Of course it doesn't provide all the answers but it’s no coincidence that most of the best climbers in the world have at least some degree of competition background.