“It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.” – Coach John Wooden
The coronavirus situation is still here. I never thought I’d be writing that in May, but here we are. Hopefully, you’ve stayed safe, stayed motivated, and have made measurable progress with your training. Things are starting to open up in certain areas of the country/world. If you aren’t climbing yet, however, things are still relatively unchanged from a training perspective. The goal, for now, should be to build a solid foundation of strength. Helping climbers do that with minimal equipment available was my goal in writing the TrainingBeta At-Home Training eBook and I believe it still applies.
That said, there’s a lot more to improving our climbing performance than just getting stronger. Whether it’s footwork, route reading skills, comfort on lead, projecting tactics, or any myriad of other not-so-measurable skills, I think all of us could pick out a few more skill/mindset areas that would directly improve our climbing performance. The crux right now is doing so without the access to actual climbing we’re used to.
So where does this leave us? Personally, I think it’s a great time to take a step back. Rather than obsessing over the relative merits of different hangboard protocols or the set and rep scheme on your deadlift, let’s make sure we are covering the basics. Just like building a foundation of general strength, covering the basics of healthy living and developing good habits around them will give you a platform to continue to develop and express your climbing abilities.
What follows are three “basics” that I believe developing good habits around will benefit all climbers. This is by no means an exhaustive list. These are just three areas that feel like low hanging fruit right now, and that I believe we can all make meaningful change in right now.
It’s no secret that hydration is important for sports performance. Just look at the billion-dollar sports drink industry. We don’t need to go into the science behind this, but know that dehydration can prolong muscle soreness, increase recovery times, and have negative effects on tendon strength. Considering that as climbers we want to recover as quickly as possible between climbing days/training sessions, and that our sport relies heavily on the strength of our tendons, it’s a no brainer that we should try to avoid dehydration.
The good news here is that it’s a really simple thing to do: drink water.
As with most things, however, simple doesn’t mean easy. I know I personally struggle with this one all the time. It’s easy for me to get caught up in what I’m doing – whether that’s working or climbing – and finish the day having drunk next to no water. Add in a love of coffee and craft beer and you’ve quickly got a recipe for neglecting hydration altogether.
I have, however, been doing better with my hydration lately using two strategies:
- Attach drinking water to a morning routine.
- Commit to a water bottle and never leave it empty.
The first one was really easy for me. The first thing I do every day when I wake up is make coffee. My new habit is to drink 10-16 ounces of water while I wait for my coffee to brew. Since I never skip morning coffee, attaching drinking water to the making of it ensures that I don’t forget and get a jump on my hydration goals for the day.
The second strategy seems so obvious. Put water in a vessel and drink it. Great advice, right? My question for you, however, is how many of you have a cabinet full of water bottles or pint glasses that sit unused? I definitely do. For some reason, I could never manage to just go pour myself a glass of water. To change this, I picked a water bottle that I liked and decided that I would never leave it empty. The bottle itself is just a basic Nalgene bottle, but I go to bed with it full and when I finish it throughout the day I fill it up immediately. I’ve been using this water bottle and sticking to these rules for several months now and have only had a couple days where I drank less than four full bottles. That’s a gallon a day, and more importantly, way more than I was reliably drinking beforehand.
Now, exactly how much water you should drink every day is a constantly debated topic. I’m not even going to go into it here as debating between whether two liters, a gallon, or more is the optimal amount is missing the point. Don’t obsess over the minutia. Figure out how to make hydration a habit and just drink the water.
Like hydration, sleep is important for recovery. A simple google search on the topic will definitely take you down the internet rabbit hole. Remember, however, we are talking about the basics, not in terms of absolutes, but in terms of improvement and about this time as a good opportunity to create positive habits that facilitate them.
Sure, it would be great for our climbing/general health if we could all go to bed early, sleep until we woke up naturally, and get a reliable nine hours a night. For a lot of you, that’s a pipe dream. That said, don’t let our inability to achieve this ideal situation prevent you from making strides towards it. Can you get in bed an hour earlier each night? What about thirty minutes? How about fifteen? If the answer to those questions is still no, ask yourself if what you are filling that time with is really important or if you are willing to sacrifice it in the name of bettering your climbing.
All of this sounds great in theory, but as we learned from the hydration example, simple doesn’t mean easy. I like watching tv and relaxing at the end of the day as much as the next person. Just telling yourself you’re not going to do it isn’t going to work. You’ll always be able to find an excuse to watch one more episode on Netflix.
The solution I’ve found that has been making the biggest difference for me is simply separating spaces. I watch TV on the couch in the living room. Once I get into bed, there’s no “one more episode.” I draw a hard line and say once I get into bed there’s no more screen use for the day. This means no checking my email or scrolling through Instagram. I might not fall right asleep and I still read and listen to audiobooks in bed. The key difference, though, is that by leaving the screens in the living room creates a physical boundary and removes one more distraction letting me fall asleep much easier each night.
I still don’t sleep great every night and definitely don’t always get nine hours. My rule of leaving the screens in the living room may seem like a small change, but I’ve found it’s made a dramatic impact on the amount and quality of sleep I get each night. My sleep habits aren’t perfect, but I moved the needle in the right direction and that’s what counts. Figure out a way to do the same.
One of the features of climbing that makes the sport so special is that there is just so much to learn. Simply look at the number of “lifers” who’ve been in the sport for decades and are still as captivated as ever by the process of improving. The majority of the experience these lifers has is earned through the trial and error of actually climbing. There’s really no way to shortcut this process, and not having the access to climbing that we are accustomed to complicates that.
That said, you’ll notice that in the previous two instances we didn’t let the idea of perfect get in the way of doing the best we can with the resources we currently have available. With that in mind, I firmly believe that embracing a learner’s mindset is extremely important for continued growth.
Personally, as a climbing coach, continuing to learn about how we can improve all the facets of our training and performance is a big part of my job. To ensure that this actually happens, I’ve done two things.
First, I’ve attached a half-hour of learning time to my morning coffee routine. This means that when I sit down with my coffee it’s with a book, podcast, video, or website that I’m consuming with the purpose of expanding my knowledge as a coach.
Second, I keep a stack of books on the corner of my desk. Not only is this helpful as I always have the next book cued up and ready when I finish one, but it also serves as a physical and visible reminder to embrace learning as the central feature of what I do as I go through my day.
You may be thinking, “That’s great for him, but I’m not a climbing coach. Why do I have to do this?” You’re not wrong. At least not entirely.
I’d argue, however, that embracing a learner’s mindset is important for your climbing, even if you’re not learning directly about climbing all the time. Just look at the example of the climbers who’ve been continually learning over decades of time in the sport. Do you think that’s an accident? No, they’ve made a habit of it. So if improving your climbing performance is really your goal, then devote some time to learning about what it takes.
Ideally, you can do this through actually climbing and books/articles/podcasts are simply a supplement. Even if you can’t climb right now, however, don’t let it stop you from cultivating a learner’s mindset. Spend some of the time that you would normally spend climbing trying to learn – even if it’s not about climbing. Making a habit of this kind of curiosity now will make it a lot easier to maintain and apply this mindset to your climbing once that’s a possiblity again.
To help you get started, here a list of climbing and coaching-related books I reference and return to often:
I started this article with a quote from the legendary basketball coach John Wooden. The gist of the quote is that the small details and tending to them well are what lay the groundwork for success. If you watch sports documentaries, the best professional athletes from every sport emphasize over and over again the idea that mastering the fundamentals and ensuring that you do the little things right are the keys to our success.
In our current climbing/training culture, I see plenty of people who are obsessing over the little details. What hangboard protocol is the best? Is the plank or a hanging leg raise a better core exercise? Is it better to train with barbells or with bodyweight?
All of these questions are grounded in a desire to exercise control over your training to ensure that you will keep improving. While I completely understand this desire – I have it too – it’s important to remember that these kinds of details aren’t the fundamentals or the basic little things that need to be done well. They are the icing on the cake and they are only going to mean the difference between success and failure if you’ve covered the basics first.
My hope is that this article not only gives you a place to start reflecting on whether or not you are actually taking care of the little details, but also motivates you to start addressing them, even if you can’t get them “perfect.” The changes you make may feel small, but as Coach Wooden said, “Little things make big things happen.”
Cover Photo: Sander Pick on Atlas Shrugged V12 | Photo: Matt Pincus | @mpincus87
About The Author, Matt Pincus
Matt is a boulderer and a sport climber based out of Jackson, Wyoming. He splits his time between training at home in Jackson and traveling to pursue his climbing goals around the world. Matt is also TrainingBeta’s head trainer. He’s a seasoned climber and coach who can provide you with a climbing training program from anywhere in the world based on your goals, your abilities, the equipment you have, and any limitations you have with time or injuries.
Train With Matt
Matt will create a custom training program designed to help you target any weaknesses so you can reach your individual goals. Whether you need a 4-week program to get you in shape for an upcoming trip or a 6-month program to make gradual strength gains, he’ll create a weekly schedule of climbing drills, strength exercises, finger strength workouts, and injury prevention exercises tailored to your situation.
Matt is still currently taking clients during the covid pandemic and is now teaching online classes to help you make the most of your training. If you’re motivated to train, Matt is here to help no matter how little equipment you currently have available.