Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Let Your Setters Inspiration Flow

Dear Gym Managers,

This is what it looks like when you let your setters go nuts: Spot setting blog.

Seems to me like they afford their setters (and community) complete creative control over the entire experience. This is probably one of the most interesting, unique and exciting competitions in the country.

I very much doubt it's a coincidence that it has massive attendance and community support. The lesson? Let your setters go nuts sometimes. Try different formats - redpoint comps, onsight comps, mixed, pumpathons. Addon comps. Takeoff comps. Dyno comps.

Or, deep water solo comps. I've been dreaming about this forever. Thank you world. In my opinion, this is the next step in mainstream competitive climbing. Combine the wildly dynamic routes from Battle in the Bubble with a 50 foot fall, and I think any average sports enthusiast could get involved..

Happy setting.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Thoughts on Balance

I read an interesting climbing physiology article that made a distinction between dynamic and static balance. This got me thinking quite a bit about balance, both in general, and as an aspect of climbing.

Having good balance seems like it can be distilled down to these concepts pretty easy. Imagine a guy on a highline. While he's making slow, gentle foot movements, he's maintaining good balance. This is static balance, in the sense that his center of gravity is not making any sudden shifts that cause a need for him to react. If there's a sudden and powerful gust of wind, and he kicks one foot off, waves both arms and compensates to bring his center of gravity back, that's good dynamic balance. Both are elements in climbing. Actually, the gust of wind as a metaphor can be pretty effective: foot pops, big moves on the route, or improper footwork causing a difficult move can all be unexpected factors of dynamic balance. Obviously, dynamic moves will also need dynamic balance; but the climber will have more mental time to prepare for the body positions required by that move when they arrive at it.

Very often I see novice climbers turn static balance into dynamic balance, or try to force their way through sequences with dynamic balance. In my opinion, this tendency can be used as a way to encourage good movement.

The Tipping Point

A concept I find fruitful for setting good balance is the tipping point. Think of the tipping point as the position where the climber's center of gravity could (or must) depart its comfort zone while making the next move. The tipping point can occur during a foot move, hand move, or body positioning switch. Good climbers, or at least climbers with good balance, will find a way around a tipping point. The climbing concepts of counterpressure, compression and three-point tension are ways around tipping points. As with many concepts in this blog, the tipping point varies dramatically by climber.

As a routesetter, you can use the tipping point to enforce good movement habits in climbers. Setting a move that uses good static balance, but is very difficult to do dynamically, will encourage methodical, calculated climbing. Setting a move that requires good dynamic balance but is difficult to do statically will nurture confidence and comfort moving past the tipping point. A healthy balance of these tactics will keep routes fresh for climbers.

Personally, I like to think of balance as a strong counterpart to the choice-reward system in climbing. It's one of the most natural ways to create a choice. Different climbing styles will automatically lend themselves to static or dynamic balance. In routesetting, it's fairly common to see a route where static balance is favored over dynamic balance - for instance, doing a big lockoff instead of jumping to gain the next hold. In many cases, this is because the dynamic effort tends to require more energy (again, all physiological considerations aside.) On hard routes, that wasted energy can serve as the punishment in the choice-reward system. It's less common, but you will also occasionally see routes that punish climbers for using static balance: for instance, attempting a big lockoff but without enough momentum to reach the next hold. For these moves it becomes difficult to retreat and start over if you don't generate that initial oomph. A lot of the time this can be forced with a lockoff that requires both hands to stay on until the climber maxes out their body position and gets most of the weight on their legs.

Most moves can be accomplished with static or dynamic balance without a huge variance of energy expenditure. For many moves, the type of balance used to gain the next hold will have less impact on energy expenditure than the body positions chosen to successfully maintain that balance. This is why climbers wind up with different styles - because their physiological traits (and sports/athletic experience, and a ton of other things) affect the body positions they feel natural in.

When setting, I try to explore different types of balance, and try doing moves at different speeds or body positions. Moves that only feel balanced in one or two body positions can be frustrating, but rewarding. Moves that are comfortable in many positions can create a natural feeling during climbing, but be somewhat less fulfilling. To summarize, experiment with as many types of balance as you can, on as much terrain as you can.

Setting exercises:
Force a barn door on an arete (easy)
Force a barn door on a severe overhang (easy)
Force a barn door on a vertical wall (medium)
Force a lockoff that requires static balance, such a big rockover move on a specific foothold (medium)
Force a lockoff that requires momentum to get into the right body position (medium-hard)

See if you can get climbers to use different styles of balance when you expect them to.

Happy setting!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Just Another Climber, Just Another Route

I've been following around my "other" job lately, and I haven't had a ton of time to set routes. While this can be frustrating, the upshot is that I've had plenty of time to actually go climbing. Here in the PNW, the weather in October can be less than forgiving, so most of that time has been spent indoors.

Actually, in my climbing career this is the first time I've regularly trained at a gym away from my "home gym," so to speak. And being there just as a climber has been interesting. I don't really remember a time at my local gym where I felt disconnected from the routesetting the way I do at this new venue. In other words, I've gained a bit of perspective.

The routesetting community as a whole seems to have a focus on competition setting, and rightly so. If we're going to move indoor climbing forward - as a sport, as an activity, as entertainment - then competitions are probably our best bet for getting attention. Getting climbing in the Olympics will certainly not be a question of having enough gym rats turn up to testify for the Olympic Committee.

Here's some things I think are common misconceptions about what good setting is for a community. I'll state the myths in bold.

A bigger community means harder climbers. In the last two months I've climbed at major gyms in four states. This includes Boulder, Colorado, which is pretty infamous as one of America's hard climber epicenters. And yes, I did see some absolute crushers in all of these gyms - but the main commonality across the board was people falling off of routes that the routesetter probably rushed through to go set their next rad line in the roof.

The biggest shift for me has been going from a valley of about 80,000 people to a metropolitan area of 2.2 million. There are definitely more people in the gym total - to an absurd degree - but still most of them fall in that sweet spot between V2 - V4 / 5.10 - 5.11-.

Harder routes should take longer to set. Any setter who has an ounce of experience should be able to bang out a V1 in ten minutes, right? Well, maybe. But hard routes can be set just as fast with basic movement. And sometimes, they should. To elucidate my point, I just mean don't put too much energy into any one area. And if you do, concentrate it on the bell curve in your gym. I think a lot of routesetters can easily fall into the trap of spending their time setting for the red curve, when their gym actually climbs at the blue curve. I'm not saying slap together the hard routes - mutants are in your constituency, too - but remember to spread the love.

I know I've made this mistake, repeatedly. It's a hard habit to break, because the joy of climbing and the job of routesetting are, in a lot of ways, difficult to separate. Being able to make that distinction is one of the main traits of a skilled, mature setter.

Not every route has to be interesting or special. The truth is, when we were all new setters (and less experienced climbers, probably) every route we set was, in some way, an experiment in forced movement. Now that we have those basic movements down, it's pretty easy to recall them and slap something on the wall. But if we set with that drive to be fresh and exciting, we can consistently surprise and impress our gym community. When you're starting out, watching the mutants crush the latest project is fun - but people don't go to the gym to watch.

There have been some frustrating experiences at my current gym where I've not flashed or even struggled on a route that feels like it's in my "easy" range. As a setter this is hugely frustrating, and feels like a failure on the gym's part. I've never been a fan of gimmick routes. But when I watch climbers work on these problems that are at their limit, I remember how it felt as a gumby to unlock a specific or even gimmicky sequence. If someone's coming in to the gym as part of a group, or just trying climbing by themselves on a lark, learning strange movement is still part of the "hook" for them. And if we're setting for our community, we should be doing our best to get inside their brains. However, I do think there's a point where the emphasis should be on applicable climbing technique. V0-V1, new here. V2-V4, probably just hanging out in the gym. V5+ there's a pretty good chance they're there to get strong.

Setters shouldn't have comfort zones. There seems to be a pervasive belief that setters should be able to conjure any style of movement on a whim. That would be nice, right? But it doesn't work that way. The style and personal touch you bring to the craft is what makes your routes yours. Even if you're a powerful climber setting on a slab, the climber is going to sense a bit of that when they climb the route. At my home gym, I could almost always tell who set a route when I climbed it. Be able to branch out and try new techniques and styles. But if you're setting in a team to satisfy an entire community, don't be afraid of your sweet spot. It's where you set your best routes, and there's no reason to deny or suppress that. Of course, it helps to have a varied team. A gym where every setter was a 6' powerhouse climbing V10 might leave something to be desired.

The most puzzling thing about moving to a big gym has been the loss of that tight knit feel. It feels strange not to know the gym employees all by name, and to actually have to sign in when I get there. But it's been a therapeutic experience, remembering what it feels like to be one of the great unwashed masses of the gym community. At one point, I spun a hold and chuckled to myself when the guy on staff wanted me to show him where the spinner was instead of just handing me the wrench.

It's Fall, and memberships are about to start spiking. It's the most important time of year to have not just an inviting gym climate, but an inviting mixture of problems. So, the best advice I can give you is go to a different gym. Go to as many as you can. Remember what it felt like when you were just a climber, and your only responsibility was to yourself and the wall. Then remember that now, you as the routesetter are responsible for creating that feeling, and for creating the community that binds it together. Besides, they can use the money from your day pass. After all, their setters need fresh holds too.

Happy setting!

P.S. Being Fall, it's also the time of year to have a thousand diseases floating around on your plastic. Wash your hands before and after you set/climb. I re-learn this lesson every year..