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Think and Climb Hard – The Five Habits of Successful Climbers

I had busted my chops all year, training, climbing, dieting and strategizing, and I was running out of time to hit my goal of red-pointing 5.13a. The season started off strong with some 12+ sends including a 13a the year before, but I needed consistency.

A friend of mine jokingly defines being sandbagged as attempting to climb a route while little elves at the top throw sandbags at you. As I climbed last winter in Red Rocks, I couldn’t help but feel that these elves were conspiring against me the whole trip. I had busted my chops all year, training, climbing, dieting and strategizing, and I was running out of time to hit my goal of red-pointing 5.13a. The season started off strong with some 12+ sends including a 13a the year before, but I needed consistency. Now, here I was in early December flailing on some horrid 12c. The dream was over, the elves had won.

One question continued to resonate in my mind. With all the work I put in, what went wrong? What do all the best climbers in the world have that I don’t? Surely there was some habit, some training method, something that they were doing that I wasn’t. While reflecting on my situation, I recalled a book that I had read in my early 20s – Napoleon Hill’s classic Think and Grow Rich. Published in 1937, Hill revealed the fruit of 20 years of research into the wealthiest Americans. What he found was that this group exhibited 13 common principles. If the reader was to adopt these 13 principles then they could achieve the same great wealth. Perhaps this concept was universal. Were there things that all elite climbers did, that I was not doing?

Dale Sood
Dale Sood in Squamish. Photo Kamil Bialous

Determined to discover if this was the case, I created an survey and sent it to every friend, and every friend of a friend – thank you, Facebook. The only criteria for filling out the survey was that you had to reliably onsight 13a/b. I interviewed top climbers from eight countries, both male and female, ranging in age from 15 to 46 years. In order to encourage the most honest answers I promised confidentiality. So while I can’t disclose the names of the survey participants, I promise that you have seen them in this magazine and every other major publication in the USA and Europe. What I learned was that elite climbers share five common principles.

Principle #1 – Easy as ABC “Always be climbing”: It’s not surprising that if you do something a lot, you’re probably going to get really good at it. But how can focusing on quantity produce greater quality?

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell’s recent best-seller, he reveals the results of a study which found that for someone to achieve an expert level they had to apply their craft for 10,000 hours. Similarly, Canadian computer scientist and designer Bill Buxton relays a story in his book Sketching User Experiences about a divided pottery class – half focusing on quality and the other on quantity. At the end of the semester, the half that focused on quantity created the best pots. Buxton goes on to say that they were “much better than the pots made by the students who spent all semester trying to create that one perfect pot.” The biggest thing that elite climbers have going for them is that many of them receive sponsorship money, which in varying degrees allows them to climb almost full time. In fact, most of the climbers in the study climbed considerably more than 200 days per year. They also had a number of things working in their favour.

One was location. Save for the Rossassen boys and their clandestine prairie training facility, most elite climbers have quick and easy access to both outdoor crags and a local gym. In fact, most of the climbers surveyed either grew up around, or lived within 200 km of a major climbing area. They had also climbed in nine countries on average. With that type of proximity to cragging and a high volume of climbing, most elite climbers were able to red-point 5.12a in the first three years, 13a in the first five, and 14a in the first 10 years of their climbing.

Another factor was a supportive family. The realities and perceptions of climbing are not always easy for a parent to wrap their heads around. Again, nearly every climber cited their family as being extremely supportive throughout their early years in the sport – providing not only emotional support, but also financial. Simply put, a paper route won’t pay for a flight to the World Cup.

So, how does quantity improve quality? Well, consider this: high volume climbing doesn’t just improve a climber’s physical prowess. It changes how they view climbing, their sense of self-worth, and the strategies they employ for success. Because they are more familiar with the climbing experience as a whole, they begin to adopt a success oriented mindset. They can visualize solutions to problems quicker and with greater ease. Greater than any training method is their ability to believe that they can send their projects. Self confidence allows the elite climber to persevere where the average climber would have given up and moved on.

Principle #2 – Know thy self, know thy enemy: Elite climbers are quick to recognize their weaknesses and focus their training efforts towards conquering them. How many times have you chosen a route or a boulder problem because it suited your style? Sadly, we humans are hardwired to avoid unnecessary hardship. I hate thin crimpy routes, so I avoid them. This only ensures that I flail and bail when I get to a crimpy section on a steep route.

There is no denying that when red-pointing at your peak level, you need to stack the odds in your favour. Choosing routes that fit your style and your training is key. However, to progress up the grades, climbers must train their weaknesses and climb their strengths. Nearly every elite climber surveyed spent the off working on their weaknesses. When they emerged from hibernation, they were naturally stronger and better than the year before.

Principle #3 – Seeing is believing: Every elite climber is great at visualizing success. Before every hard red-point, the climbers would visualize the route, move for move. Imprinting in their minds images of successfully sticking hard moves, and flowing through the sequences.

Stepping onto hard red-points before adequately warming up the mind, is simply like driving blind folded. If you can’t see all the curves in the road, you’re going to end up in the ditch. Most importantly, seeing yourself pulling through all the hard moves, whether you have before or not, is the first step in helping trick your mind into believing you can do it. In Think and Grow Rich Hill asserts that “all thoughts which have been emotionalized (given feeling) and mixed with faith begin immediately to translate themselves into their physical equivalent.”

The difference between the average and the elite climber is that from the very beginning, the elite climber can see themselves succeeding, even before they have physical proof that they can. How else can elite climbers send hard first ascents when no one has first shown that it is possible? All elite climbers include positive visualization in their warm up routine. They also check their knots and as one climber advises, “blow into your shoes before putting them on. I had a scorpion crawl into one of my shoes once.”

Principle #4 – It’s not what you know, but who you know: Regardless of the grade we climb, we’ve all experienced those days where the vibe is good and we’re climbing really well. Reflecting back, can you point to why you think you climbed so well? When I pressed elite climbers for what empowers them when climbing, the answer was remarkably unanimous, and not what you might expect.

More than being well rested, good temps, and eating well, nearly every climber said that their friends were what empowered them the most. An example of this can again be found in Think and Grow Rich, where Hill proclaims the necessity for a master mind group, further defining it as a “coordination of knowledge and effort, in a spirit of harmony, between two or more people, for the attainment of a definite purpose.” Essentially, no great climber is self-made.

Great friends make equally great coaches, as they have an objective view on your climbing. They can believe in you more than you believe in yourself, which in turn can cause you to believe in yourself. Friends can evoke a healthy competitive spirit and most importantly, the right friends provide a great positive atmosphere that is conducive to success.

There is a sign in the lead area of my gym that says “choose your climbing partner wisely.” This sign speaks volumes more than its intended safety message. Choose friends who are always psyched and supportive. It’s also important to choose climbing partners who climb as hard or harder than you, so that there is always something to learn. Most importantly, choose friends with reliable vehicles so that you can get out and climb with them.

Principle #5 – A man’s reach should exceed his grasp: The only real way to turn desire for something into a reality is to clearly define what one wants. Every elite climber admitted to goal setting. Climbing competently at high grades demands that climbers know exactly what they want.

Goal setting is the only way to see the bigger picture and to weather any storms that might arise. Most of the climbers surveyed had injuries so bad they caused them to leave climbing for two months or more. Some injuries were so serious that they had to learn to walk again. Yet here they are at the top of the climbing world. Many elite climbers will also try the same route more times than we’ve climbed routes all year. What drives this type of persistence? Precisely knowing what they want, and following it to its end.

It is this goal setting, and persistence that helped Chris Sharma send the world’s first 15a/9a+ and Wolfgang Güllich to create the campus board, which not only helped him send Action Directe, the world’s first 9a, but also created a valuable training tool for all climbers.

It was this same principle that lead the one of the wealthiest men in history, Andrew Carnegie to accumulate his wealth. Hill recounts, “it was no ordinary desire that survived disappointment, discouragement, temporary defeat, criticism and the constant reminding of a waste of time. It was a burning desire! An obsession!” Later in the book, Hill continues, “[Success] comes in response to definite demands, based upon the application of definite principles and not by chance or luck.”

All elite climbers share this one unwavering quality. Climbing deeply empassions them, and that burning obsession matched with a define-able outcome produces staggering results. From there they can begin to put to work a plan to achieve their goals.

The next time I head to the crag, I’ve got a few presents for the sandbag elves: a schedule full of climbing, a winter’s worth of bouldering, some great friends and climbing partners, some hard goals and a fistful of persistence.

Dale Sood is a climber living in Toronto and is currently training for his next road trip, visit his site here. This article was published in Gripped magazine in 2010.

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