Sweating the grades

I sweat the grades.  As much as I tell myself not to, I do.  I had a really frustrating session last night on a new set at our gym, where I couldn’t climb anything harder than a V4.  To put that into perspective, I had topped everything on the previous week’s new set, bar one V8/8+, including several at grade V6, V7 and V8.  A week later and I’m feeling weak and frustrated with this new set.  “What’s going on with the grading?” is ringing in my ears.

At our gym – the excellent Rock Over Climbing in Manchester – we are treated to a new set of typically 20-30 problems every week.  We used to go to Manchester Climbing Centre, which, whilst still a great gym, is far less bouldering-focussed, and they’d wait 6-8 weeks between resetting.  Now we’re at Rock Over, on the day of a new set, when I get a ping from Rock Over’s social media that a new set is underway, all I can think about that day is getting down there and jumping on all those new problems.  I’ll speculate about whether any new volumes will be put up; any dynos (who doesn’t love a dyno?); how many of each grade there will be.  We’re spoilt at Rock Over not only with the frequency of the setting but also the quality.  Much of the setting is done by Jamie Cassidy (one of only two UK-based IFSC World Cup setters) along with a rotating squad of co-setters who work at Rock Over.  The problems are often full of ingenuity, with the harder problems posing a real challenge not just in topping them but in figuring out betas to try out in the first place.

All these new problems and I’m stressing about the grades?!  Doesn’t make sense, for a few reasons.  First, the grading is so subjective: it reflects the body type, height and strengths of the routesetter; and equally, your ability to climb well on a given problem will be determined by your own body type, height and strengths.  Last night’s new set was largely short, vertical climbing, that required a lot of balance and flexibility over strength and power endurance.  The former are significant weaknesses of mine and no doubt were at the heart of my struggles last night.  Equally, dynamic moves are more my thing, hence why I was killing it on the previous week’s set.  I’m short too, so have often seen the advantage this gives me over taller climbers who can get squashed into awkward positions (and them an advantage over me on reachy moves).

Second, focussing on grades indoors distracts from the purpose of going to the gym in the first place: to get stronger; to try new moves; to learn.  The mindset – the one I find myself slipping into – whereby a grade is a badge of honour, and therefore climbs at a significantly lower grade are beneath you, is unhelpful.  Each problem is unique – it has never been set before and will never be set again – and thus offers an opportunity to learn and improve.  That’s what I love about climbing; that’s what I should be focussed on.

Finally, if you carry this mindset onto the crag, you’ll be tough on yourself at a time when you should be savouring every moment.  On our first trip to Font, I was way too focussed on grades and chasing achievements that it got in the way.  I stressed the grades and left dejected.  I now try to focus on the incredible surroundings and all those stunning problems, regardless of the grade.

So, my advice to you – and to myself – is to not let grades get in the way of doing what you love.  They have a purpose, as a rough guide, but a great climb is a great climb regardless.  Those you don’t top can prove just as valuable as those you do – just try to learn something from each session.  So, don’t sweat the grades.  And I’ll try to do the same.

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