Defining Your Style

Defining Your Style

In a post related to his recently released book on bouldering1 Peter Beal sat down with Carlo Traversi to discuss some of the “attitude and psychology” that goes into being an elite boulderer.  The entire interview is well worth reading, but the opening point Taversi makes stuck with me:

The way I see it is that looking at elite boulderers, they’ve defined their own styles and have excelled in those styles separately. What has defined the stronger boulderers in the world is that each has a very definite and distinct style and they have perfected that style to a certain extent, beyond what anyone else has.

Traversi is referring to elite boulderers having defined and excelled at their own styles, but I couldn’t help but feel as though people at more pedestrian levels of climbing have something to learn from reading these words as well.  Regardless of whether your limit is V15, or V10, or V5, or whatever, defining and improving on your style of climbing is something that strikes me as incredibly important.

While a focus on increasing physical strength is certainly not a bad way to spend one’s time, what I’ve found throughout my years of climbing is that the longer you climb the more physical strength takes a back seat to other aspects.  Things like flexibility, technique and, most importantly in my mind, a clearer understanding of how to move your body over rock are just as valuable as being able to do 1-5-9 on a campus board2.

Check out the rest of Traversi’s thoughts on the subject here, and then check out this video he put together of some of his alpine exploits from the summer of 2011.

  1. Which I hope to review shortly here
  2. Actually, that would be pretty helpful

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25 Responses to Defining Your Style

  1. TheDanDan January 18, 2012 at 9:13 am #

    One of the more interesting things I’ve ever read about climbing.

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  2. ChainReaction January 18, 2012 at 11:06 am #

    So true. My 7 y.o. daughter is just getting into bouldering in a big way. She’s very strong relative to her weight, much moreso than I am. In the gym, the difference between V0, V1 and V2 are irrelevant to her. It’s whether she can reach the holds! That’s an obvious example, but applicable to the rest of us in some way.

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  3. Gelu January 18, 2012 at 11:42 am #

    “the longer you climb the more physical strength takes a back seat to other aspects”
    True that.

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  4. Neil January 18, 2012 at 11:55 am #

    It’s always looked like a Fred Nicole problem forces people to climb like Fred Nicole (tight core and legs, long reaches), and a Dave Graham problem forces people to climb like Dave Graham (toe hooks, sideways movements & body rotations). Even though theoretically the line exists before the climber, the climber and his style make the line a problem. Chicken or egg? Anyhow, Carlo Traversi’s comments kinda explain this. And I wonder what lines are waiting for some distinct style to make them a problem.

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  5. Dave January 18, 2012 at 11:56 am #

    The whole ‘my style’ or ‘not my style’ thing is really just a code for an older climbing term: weakness. Every climber has strengths and weaknesses, and I suppose if you spent a lot of time with a group of climbers (elite or otherwise) you would see what they are.  In the case for the guy watching vids of elite boulderers on the internet it’s hard to tell, because they appear to all follow each other to the same problems.  

    But, ‘not my style’ seems to have become the perfect excuse for either not sending or taking way more attempts to send than a climber feels like it should have taken them at that particular grade.  Number of attempts to send being another increasingly referenced climbing metric.

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    • Colin January 18, 2012 at 2:21 pm #

      Great interview and a good comment. 

      I’d just add that “style” can also refer to the aesthetic qualities of a climber’s movements…you can bring your own unique movement qualities to a boulder or route that doesn’t suit your strengths (i.e. wall angle, hold type, etc). I got the vibe that’s what Carlo was talking about. But, agree 100% that a lot of times climbers say, “It isn’t my style” when they’re struggling more than they expected.  Perhaps it’s a bit of a cop-out, depending on how deeply you want to analyze it.  

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  6. Peter Bonamici January 18, 2012 at 12:15 pm #

    For someone Carlo’s size (and who climbs in his style), being able to do 1-5-9 on the campus board is essential.  Someone Dave Graham’s size (and who climbs in his style), 1-4-8 or even 1-3-6 might be reasonable.  People too often spend too much time trying to improve their weaknesses so they can be good at everything.  This is very rare, perhaps even impossible (in fact, Carlo’s point is that NO elite climber is good at everything, they’re each just really, really good at his/her own thing).  Carlo is by no means the first person to suggest that truly great success (in climbing and in life) might actually come from maximizing  your strengths: http://www.strengthsfinder.com/home.aspx?gclid=CNLi6bqW2q0CFSwBQAods0w8kw.

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    • Gelu January 19, 2012 at 2:33 am #

      Just to clarify what “to be good at” means: They are good at everything in the sense that they can perform way above the average in any style. And they are extremely good at their particular style (but they are not extremely good at everything).
      (You can call me Cpt. Obvious ;-)

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      • Peter Bonamici January 19, 2012 at 6:45 am #

        I think the point Carlo is making is that an elite boudlerer should be able to climb any, say, v14, but that it’s going to look very different (maybe not to the average climber, but to other elite climbers) when Daniel Woods vs Dave Graham climbs it. The point is not the one that Jeb makes above; that climbers reduce themselves to boulderers and then reduce themselves to boulderers on problems with heel hooks.  Rather, a climber who can heel  hook nothing is likely to find heel hooks to work his way through problems that others do with kneebars, drop knees, toe scums, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

        Thus, if a climber realizes that s/he is terrible at jumping but really good at finding high feet and locking off, s/he should run with that.

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        • Jeb Bruno January 20, 2012 at 10:24 am #

          Pete, 
          What I was getting at, though I didn’t articulate it well, was to make an observation about how a large group of elite climbers, especially those who you see most prolifically in climbing media, tend to focus on minutia. I think this trend is most pathological of the bouldering scene, which makes sense being as you are climbing something small rather than something large. Further, that this focus has yielded magnificent feats of gymnastic strength and precision. 
          My second point was to just question whether focusing on something specific was the best way to achieve progress (however one chooses to define the word)? And that what we see in the climbing media (what is in vogue) is only one small cross section of the climbing world and it is perpetuated by many elites like Carlo. 
          And further to question why people jump to labeling themselves as a certain type of climber. Really my post was/is not really related to this article other than it prompted me to think about some observation that I already made. - think I am just wasting everyone’s time. 

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  7. Nadeau January 18, 2012 at 12:53 pm #

    It depends what you really want! If you want to climb really hard problems outside, you should work your strenghts, but if u want to be wourld cup winner, i think you have to work on every aspect of climbing!

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    • Jeb Bruno January 18, 2012 at 3:33 pm #

      Even world cup climbs have a specific style to them.

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  8. mh January 18, 2012 at 1:06 pm #

    Glad you posted this Narc! I especially appreciated Carlo’s personal description of Dave’s climbing style as an example: maneuvering *around* holds, rather than up and through them.

    It’s a plane of thinking about climbing that was completely foreign to me up until that point.

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  9. Colin P January 18, 2012 at 1:16 pm #

    I also think there is room for style to apply to more than just strengths and weaknesses. Sure, you can look at it exclusively through that lens, but in my opinion, style is more about a climber’s approach to a particular sequence. Thus, I think style comes out more in an onsight attempt, when we get to see what method a climber chooses to employ when presented with a particular problem. Of course a climber is more likely to leverage technique that caters to his strengths, but this fact is an afterthought. So it is very possible for two climbers to approach the same sequence differently, for each of them to have a unique movement and flow, and for ‘strength and weakness’ to never really enter into it. They may both succeed, or both fail, or whatever, it doesn’t really matter as far as style is concerned. When you are working long term for a redpoint you commonly have to focus on the strengths and weaknesses side of style, and actually you may be forced to unlearn or discard your style in order to overcome this challenge. And this may cause you do adapt or change your approach in the future. This is the side of climbing, and of personal style, that I really enjoy. The fact that it is constantly changing.

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    • Narc January 18, 2012 at 1:18 pm #

      Yes. This.

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  10. calvin January 18, 2012 at 1:21 pm #

    I guess I don’t see it the same way Narc. Everyone has their own “style” or method in climbing that fits their body type – I see what Carlo is saying, but I’m not sure I understand what’s so revolutionary about it. The counter-argument (perhaps for us pedestrian-level climbers) goes: you know what you’re best at. But you’re stuck at V7. You’re not getting to V8/9 unless you get stronger/fitter/more flexible/improve finger strength – in other words, improve your weakness, not just go with your strengths. Sure, you might stick an occasional V8 that absolutely fits your “style,” but is that what you want or do you want to keep progressing? Carlo mentioned this in the article too.

    So Carlo seems to be pointing out the obvious? Elite boulderers will be pushing the levels in their own styles – and perhaps it makes sense that Dave’s hardest sends fit his style just like Carlo’s hardest sends fit his. But isn’t that the same for every climber?

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    • Narc January 18, 2012 at 7:36 pm #

      It’s more nuanced than than the usual discussion of climbs fitting one’s style.  Colin’s post above more fits with what I was thinking pretty well.  

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  11. Jeb Bruno January 18, 2012 at 3:32 pm #

    It’s interesting that a elite boulderer, someone who reduces climbing to a very small microcosm of the total picture, would see that a further reduction within ones own style would be seen as a progression.
    What does this say about someone? Through talking with many climbers it is interesting to note that people drop labels on themselves. Boulderer, Sport Climber, Traddie, Big Wall Climber, Alpinist. What has happened to the people who try to excel at all of these things? is it even possible? 

    Why is being well rounded not valued? Why cant someone just be a good climber? 

    By limiting oneself to one small form of the sport and within that small form to an even smaller sector is an interesting experiment which has yielded impressive results. Is it a progression or just a different interpretation? 

    Don’t know if this is the right place for such reflection or discussion, but its was a thought.  

    In any case, Carlos impresses me with his observations and thoughtfulness. It’s most likely that such analysis has aided him well in being an elite athlete. 

    -Jeb

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  12. Peter Beal January 18, 2012 at 8:35 pm #

    Thanks for all the feedback everyone. I find it funny that virtually no comments showed up at my blog, only here!

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  13. Narcolyte January 19, 2012 at 8:51 pm #

    im having a hard time seeing whats so insightful here. i understand the desire to romanticize our pursuits but carlos hasnt said anything revolutionary. we all have a style and we all change in one way or another to progress. just cause you can climb hard doesnt mean what you have to say is ground breaking.

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    • TheDanDan January 20, 2012 at 5:28 pm #

      Who said it was groundbreaking? It’s an interesting take on what makes great climbers so great, from a person who actually has the perspective to comment on such things. 

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      • Narcolyte January 21, 2012 at 6:20 pm #

        the guy essentially stated we have strenths and weaknesses and that impacts how we develop as climbers. this isnt interesting nor specific to hard/great climbers…in fact its just painfully obvious since it wouldnt happen any other way in about any activity in life.

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        • Anonymous January 21, 2012 at 10:16 pm #

          If you read between the lines a bit you might see that he was referring to how at the elite level it becomes almost impossible to excel at all things, hence the increasing specialization at specific “styles”. A similar statement is made in “Progression” by Tommy Caldwell about Daniel Woods and Paul Robinson and the styles that they excel at. Carlo just took that idea a bit further.

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  14. Riemer January 23, 2012 at 4:59 am #

    I think the (relative) variation in body composition in the elite climbers population very well matches the point Carlo is making. Although this group all manages to climb each others different v14 problems, they still do it in their own style, fitting to their anthropometrics and process of skill acquisition. Understanding how your methods correspond to your individual set of abilities/skills is in my opinion key to succes.

    I think this is different to the discussion of what your strong and weak points are, or wether you should train one or the other. At any given moment you just have to deal with your current set of climbing weaponry to make it the best you can do on the problem you are trying, the better you understand what you have the better you perform.

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    • Karma January 25, 2012 at 11:56 am #

      Reimer, I think you summarized what I took from Carlo’s interview really well. I think the point that Carlo was trying to make, and perhaps he came up a bit short, is that specific really elite boulderers have perfected their own style, are (subconsciously?) aware of it, and have used that style to push current standards. A few examples of how specific climbers have done this and specific routes/problems climbed would’ve cemented what he is saying a little better. I think it is an interesting read anyways.

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