Climbing tactics 101: What tactics are, and why they matter

Have you ever spent the entire drive home from the crag beating your head against the steering wheel, because you know if you had just done something a little differently that you would have been able to send? Maybe you were tired, because you didn’t bring enough food. Maybe you messed up your skin, and tape prevented you from being able to stick to the holds. Maybe you spent too long trying one beta, when you should have explored something else earlier.

These situations constantly come up in climbing. Unlike many sports, where at least some variables are fixed, climbing is wildly multi-factorial. It takes place inside and outside. Every venue and playing field is different. The performance season could be anywhere on the calendar year. We might climb for just a few minutes in a given day, or from sunup to sundown. Climbers have to make a ton of decisions to account for these variables.

What are tactics?

“Tactics” includes all the secondary decisions you make during a climbing session. Deciding what parts of a climb to try, what links to try on a sport route, how often to make attempts, how much and what food to eat, managing your skin – these are all basic examples of tactics. Filming and reviewing yourself climbing is a major tactic that all climbers should embrace. Using a stick clip to bypass the crux of a route and explore the top of it. Having a friend hold a pad to keep a hold in the shade. Using a portable fan to cool one’s skin, or to cool or dry the holds on a problem. There are a million things we can do to improve our performance indirectly.

Decisions made away from climbing – such as what crag to go to this weekend, what project you should try this season, whether to change your diet – would fall under strategy. However, these bigger picture decisions are still incredibly important to our performance. The concept of tactics, and thus this post, is more focused on once we’re at the crag.

Why tactics matter: Technique

Individual movements that you use on the wall, like dropping your knee, perching on a foothold, or choosing to match a hold, are all techniques. These are not tactics. But, deciding which technique to try, or deciding how much time and energy to invest in a certain technique, definitely falls under tactics. In this way, technique and tactics overlap considerably.

We often hear people say, “wow, that person has great technique.” We’re implying that they’re using the right techniques at the right time. Some of that is intuitive – you’re just climbing, and your body is letting you know that you should twist your hip into the wall. But some of it is also deliberate. Imagine a session where you watch ten different people try a boulder ten different ways, and then it’s your turn – deciding which of those ten ways to try is the meeting point of technique and tactics.

When you walk up to new boulders in the gym, or outside, you go through a ton of small decisions about what to evaluate and try. This tests both your tactics and your technique, and it’s important to figure out how to improve at both.

Why tactics matter: Strength

Tactics can change the course of your session or day immediately. Getting stronger is slow. In the middle of your session, you can’t suddenly get stronger. But you can make decisions that enable you to suddenly perform better.

Let’s say you’re from America and you go on a climbing trip to Australia. Once you’re there, on your trip, in terms of strength you just have what you have. You’re not going to get any stronger in the few weeks that you have. (There are probably some minor gains that you’d make, like you’re gonna feel a lot stronger when your jet lag wears off, and maybe minor gains in neuromuscular coordination made by suddenly climbing outside at high velocity a lot, but I’m setting those aside.) For the most part, the strength you have coming into your 3 week trip is the strength that you have for the whole trip. So how do you make the best of it?

Tactics are really where the rubber meets the road. These little decisions we make during each session are what enable us to make the most of the strength that we have. After all, climbing at your limit is a game of millimeters. There are tons of little things you can do to eke out a millimeter here and there. Assuming that you just need to be stronger to do a move is a way of giving up, of deferring the problem of how to perform better right now

Flying all the way home, training for a year and flying all the way back is great if you’re super motivated. And I don’t mean to be too harsh here, but few of us are so lucky. We have limited money and, frankly, limited years. We have to make the best of the time available to us.

Once you start seeing it this way, you will realize that your projects closer to home are really the same as the Australia example. A weekend trip with a few hours’ drive incurs a significant time cost on your life. Your local crag, which is so easy to get to, still requires making space at the margins of your life to go try the project. Every choice to go try the project is a choice not to do something else. Very few of us are lucky enough to get to try our projects as much as we want.

We should show up as strong as we can, but once we’re at the boulder, we need to focus on making good decisions, and improving our decision-making “meta-game.”

3 tips for better tactics

1. Tactics are context-specific.

In other words, if you want to compete, you need to spend time competing. You should be doing a lot of comps, mock comps, climbing on comp-style boulders, and investing time in understanding the decisions you’ll have to make during a competition. You will not learn these tactics puttering around the gym. Similarly, if you want to boulder outside, you need to go bouldering outside. We all know climbers who train inside for months and months for that one week trip, and then disappoint themselves. Often, it’s not their muscles that let them down – it’s a series of small bad decisions that add up to inadequate performance.

If you want to climb El Cap, but you don’t live somewhere with big walls, then you need to do your best to simulate El Cap conditions. Spend big days out climbing at your local crag. Hone your systems. Go through the exercises in self-rescue and anchor building books. Do what you can to get experience with the decisions you will need to make when you’re in the performance context you’re aiming for.

Take every opportunity to try to perform in the context in which you want to perform.

2. Keep a logbook of your climbing. Don’t make the same mistake twice.

Write down things you try and analyze what worked. Write down big lessons that you learn on projects. Write down your beta. Write down what links you tried and made on sport projects. Don’t make the same mistake twice.

Have you ever gotten a flapper because you were too impatient to manage your skin between tries? Have you ever just run out of energy at the end of the day, because you didn’t bring snacks that you actually liked? Have you ever brought too few pads, and dropped from the topout of your project, quaking with fear?

If you have, then you’ve felt the sting of bad tactics. Hopefully this experience impacted you enough that you started solving that problem before it arises again. There’s nothing wrong with learning the hard way; just make sure you actually learn!

Your experience is a deep, deep well of information. Relying on your memory to draw from that well is a huge missed opportunity. Keep a logbook or journal of your climbing.

3. Be conscious of the people you climb with, and embrace opportunities to climb with better climbers.

When you meet new people and climb around them, they’re going to introduce you to new ideas and new ways of thinking about climbing. This is a huge source of information. Spending time on instagram, reddit, or youtube is a good way to pick up a few things here and there, but it’s no match for spending entire climbing days out with good climbers.

Learn to recognize the difference between climbers who are stronger than you, and climbers who are better than you. Strive to spend time around climbers who are better than you. Grade is a poor indicator of how good of a climber someone is. Pay attention to how dialed someone is, how often they’re sending new climbs, their attitude when they’re tying into the rope, how often they’re participating in the context you want to perform in, etc.

Much like the common adage that we become the 5 people we spend the most time around, our climbing tactics will begin to resemble the tactics of the climbers who we climb with. Choose these people wisely!

Summary: tactics are a chance to be creative

Perhaps my current boulder project is a good example of this. Here are some things I noticed and wrote down in my last session:

  • It’s tearing up the skin on my right hand. Partly this is because the hold is sharp. But, the hold is also condition-dependent. I’m going to spend some time away from the project to let my skin heal and toughen; but I’m also going to pre-tape the hot spots for my first few attempts when I return next.
  • There are two kneebars, both quite technical. The one at the beginning is very intense and finicky, and puts force on my kneepad in a direction that pulls the pad down, even when it’s cinched tight. This reduces my leg’s range of motion, and makes the next kneebar harder. I’m going to try bringing a sleeve-style kneepad, that I can duct tape to my leg, to hopefully reduce this slippage.
  • The crux move is only two moves in, and is very powerful for me. This sort of “one-mover” climbing is notoriously frustrating to project. However, there is also an endurance component after this, where I’ve already fallen more than once. This means I need to rest a long time between tries, but be warmed up enough that I won’t numb out on the end. Before each battery of tries, I’ll climb the middle section of the problem to get my heart rate up and some blood in my arms. Then I’ll rest a few minutes, and try the first few moves several times. If I don’t stick the move, I’ll take a short rest and eat and drink.
  • So far I’ve tried the project in a few different conditions. Recording this is helping me home in on what conditions I think are best for sticking the move. My last session was around 40F and windy. While this was good for holding on to the holds, I was having a hard time staying warm between tries, especially since I was wearing shorts for the kneepad to stick better. Since the shorts are mandatory, I might want slightly warmer temps, or at least no wind. This sort of thinking helps me figure out what day is most worth spending my hard-earned free time on the project, and hopefully avoids sessions where my performance is poor.

This kind of analyzing and processing is what helps develop new tactics. The correct tactics for this boulder will be slightly different than what I’ve used on any other hard boulder. This makes tactics one of the most interesting and creative components of climbing. It’s an opportunity to get to know yourself as a climber. Figure out how you work internally, and you’ll figure out how to get yourself to send.

After all, we spend most of our time not sending – so that’s where we really get to express ourselves.

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