There are a few things that every climber should do in his or her life.
Climb El Cap (obviously).
See a longterm climbing project to completion.
Take a huge, unexpected whipper onto your trad gear.
And schedule a 1-on-1 training session with “The Sensei”: Justen Sjong.
Over the last three years, I’ve had two sessions with Justen; I wrote about the first one here. Justen didn’t ask me to write about that experience, but I genuinely felt as if I had learned so many interesting tips and helpful skills that I wanted to share them with my readers. When I went into our second session, at the Movement Denver gym, I didn’t think I was going to learn anything new, necessarily. I was merely expecting to hear a repeat of what I’d learned in the first session.
Once again, Justen totally surprised me with the wealth of knowledge he holds for what makes a great free climber. He demonstrated an astute ability to immediately recognize all the tiny, little errors that I was making—the physical stuff, for sure, but also the mental stuff.
Although the “Hall and Oates” duo of climbing training, the Team of 2 Training, which consists of Justen and Kris Peters, has now officially broken up, last year I sampled their online training program, powered by the online Addero Solo software, over five weeks. There were parts that I loved, but there were also numerous problems that prevented me from being completely successful, most of them being my own problems. From lacking some of the equipment I needed to perform various exercises, to lacking easy access to training facilities, to just having a hectic life schedule that saw me traveling and moving around last winter, I ultimately failed to make the online training program work as effectively as I would have liked.
Online training programs, of which there are now quite a variety, including Justen’s latest program, Climbing Sensei, can be effective. If you have a regular work schedule, good access to an indoor training facility, a solid background in knowing how to perform a variety of exercises with proper form so that you don’t get injured, and, most important, you’re self-disciplined enough to make training a priority, I think an online training program can be successful.
However, the reason that I’m going down the tangent of online-training courses is because I felt as though spending 60 minutes in the gym, one-on-one with Justen, was more valuable and helpful to my climbing than the five weeks of online training that I completed with Team of 2.
Anyway, here are some great tips from Justen that really helped my climbing improve. And if they helped me, perhaps they’ll help you, too.
“I’m Too Heavy”
Before climbing, the first thing I complained about to Justen was that I had gained about 10 pounds over the last year, and, man, could I feel it when I climbed.
“Well, let’s see you warm up,” Justen said empathetically.
He belayed me on a 5.10, and I climbed it twice in a row. As I climbed, I tried my hardest to put on my best performance for the Sensei. I wanted to make no mistake. I felt focused and serious. I climbed better on my first lap, for some reason. I made fewer tiny mistakes—such as a moment of hesitation, or choosing the exact right foothold on my first try—than on the second time.
“I can see why you feel heavy,” Justen said. “And it has nothing to do with your weight.”
Justen explained that I was climbing extremely statically. By trying to move in control and “look strong” on each move, I was moving very statically, which makes each move feel much harder than it needs to be.
A big part of our session became focused on getting me to loosen up, demonstrate some swagger and style on the wall, and move fluidly from one hold to the next.
It ended up being a lot harder than I thought.
It’s All in the Eyes
What your eyes do while you climb ends up being extremely influential on the state of your anxiety and therefore performance while climbing, Justen explained.
“Your eyes were darting all over the place,” Justen said, after I warmed up.
His tips to soften my gaze while climbing, while simultaneously focusing on one thing at a time, have become some of the most useful pieces of feedback I’ve ever gotten on my climbing.
Think about those times when you’re climbing and your anxiety is high, whether it’s because you’re onsighting and you’re not sure what to do next, or whether it’s because you’re run-out and want to get the next piece of protection clipped. If you’re anything like me, there’s a tendency for the eyes to start darting around, trying to figure out a solution. You may not feel as if you’re outright panicking, per se; but you are needlessly raising your anxiety and it’s not helping you climb well.
Next time you warm up, try to pay attention to how your eyes are moving. Keep the gaze soft but focused. My favorite tip: at rest points, pick one tiny little crystal or feature in the rock, and stare with a soft gaze at this feature. Don’t look up; don’t look down. Just stare with a soft gaze at that single point in the rock, while bringing the mind’s focus inward to lowering your heart rate and recovering your forearms.
I’ve been employing these tips on everything from warm-ups to redpoints and it’s made a huge difference in my ability climb well. I haven’t been in the best shape of my life lately, but I feel as if I’m climbing better than ever.
Swagger Like Ondra
As I mentioned, a huge part of our session involved pulling the stick out of my ass and getting me to loosen up and approach each climb with my own brand of confidence and swagger.
What does this mean, exactly? And why is it important?
Performance begins before you even step onto the rock. And it begins with a positive, confident mindset. The manifestation of that positive, confident mindset can be seen in your posture, your eyes, your breath, and, overall, just how you carry yourself.
When you’re thinking positively, when you’re summoning those memories of past successes and the times you just felt badass, it’s been proven to yield an increase in strength. Let me repeat that: you are stronger when you are thinking positively.
Having swagger up on the wall is, of course, even more important. What does swagger look like? Justen and I watched this video of Adam Ondra climbing. He’s climbing 9a onsight as if it were a redpoint he’d already rehearsed hundreds of times. Adam pulls onto the rock confidently, and he carried that decisive, perfect execution of movement right up to the anchors.
What Justen was trying to teach me that day is that you don’t have lose 10 pounds necessarily to feel light on the rock. That feeling of lightness comes from climbing dynamically, confidently, fluidly, athletically, and decisively. In other words, it comes from having swagger.
Level 10 Breathing
During our first session, Justen tried to get me to start exhaling audibly.
During our second session, I wanted to show Justen that I had taken this advice, so when I pulled onto a 5.12c, I instantly started exhaling forcibly as if I were mid-sprint.
Justen instantly gave the call-down, and corrected me on what I was doing wrong.
“You’re breathing at a level ten,” he said, “and you’re not even at the hard part yet. When you start out at level ten, you can’t go up from there. You want to be able to bring yourself up to level ten when you need it, not before and not after.”
That made a lot of sense. And I realized that I had been making this error on one of my projects in Rifle. I’d pull onto the wall and start breathing like I were Bruce Lee mid fight sequence, and by the time I got to the actual crux, I had already blown my reserves because I’d been climbing as if the whole route were a crux.
All routes demand different levels and types of breathing, all at different moments along the route. Your breath should be a response to the difficulty of the current movement that you face. Good climbers are constantly monitoring their breath to make sure that it matches the intensity of the situation. They are able to go to level ten when they need it, go back to a six or five for the easier parts, and bring it down to a three at the rest points.
Beating the Old “Crimp & Pull”
Probably one of the most valuable, and tangible, things I learned during our session involved working a single, awkward move on the systems board.
The single move that Justen set for me involved taking a crimp with the left hand and placing my left foot on a jib while flagging my right leg behind my left, and then deadpointing to a pinch with the right hand.
I rehearsed this move several times while Justen recorded video of me with his iPad. We analyzed the video and continued to work this single move until I was able to do it perfectly—meaning, with the best technique possible. In this case, that involved keeping my left arm straight, driving myself with the left leg, and using my right leg as a rudder to keep myself balanced.
Although I was strong enough to do the move with “bad” technique, I was being pushed to really, really focus on the subtleties of the technique involved in making this move work consistently.
Soon, with some practice and mental visualization, I reached a point where I felt confident that I could do this move 10 out 10 times.
Then we switched to a new drill. I wore a heart rate monitor, while Justen pointed out holds on the systems board and I simply climbed. The point was to raise my heart rate up to just below the point where I was redlining. Once my heart rate was up, I was told to climb into the move that I’d just spent the last 15 minutes rehearsing.
I grabbed the crimper—(Man, it feels so much worse now that I’m pumped! I thought)—placed my left foot, and deadpointed for the pinch. I came up short and fell.
What the heck had happened? I was certain I had just mastered that move—clearly, though, I hadn’t.
We reviewed the video, and sure enough, my technique had fallen apart with my elevated heart rate and pumped forearms. Instead of keeping my left arm straight, I was bearing down on the crimper and my elbow was cocked out. My right leg didn’t act like that rudder guiding me in the right direction; it flailed and flapped around like a dead fish.
Essentially, I was trying to strong-arm my way through the move with crimping and pulling, when I should’ve been pushing myself up into the move, using my left leg and generating momentum and stability with the right leg.
As it turns out, “crimping and pulling” instead of using technique is a common error, and one of the most common reasons we fall when we’re pumped. The holds that we’re accustomed to grabbing fresh off the hangdog feel much worse on redpoint. So what do we often do? Try to grab on even harder, and muscle our way through the move. This can work on routes below your limit, but it won’t work on the routes that are actually at our limit.
“The climbers who are able to visualize how holds are going to feel while pumped, and who are better mentally prepared to deal with that, are the ones who send routes faster,” Justen explained.
In situations like this, it’s easy to write off your failure as simply not being strong enough: i.e., “I was pumped, and couldn’t do the move. I need more endurance.“
Of course, we could all be stronger and fitter and that would help. But we can all also maximize our existing levels of strength and fitness by improving our ability to execute moves with technique and skill, not just off the dog, but while pumped silly.
This drill opened my eyes to the fact that my climbing technique still has a long way to go. It also affirmed the importance of really working on moves, doing drills on a systems board, and perfecting technique because that’s what’s going to save your ass when you’re pumped.