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Udo Neumann: Bouldering Competitions Today

The Studio Bloc Masters in Germany were the last big competition before the IFSC World Cup season kicks off in Meiringen (SUI). After an exhausting open qualification, semi-finals and finals were run with IFSC rules. The major rule change for 2018 is that the number of zones (prev. "bonus") is now more important than the number of attempts for Tops. This rule change had no influence on the podium for either men or women at this event. The spectators enjoyed an exciting and fair Bouldering competition. Fair because of many volumes, where every athlete could find their own best position. Unfair "morpho" situations have largely disappeared. Exciting because of the many different wall angles and the accordingly diverse physical, and more importantly, intellectual challenges. Several times, the routesetters managed to create problems that required moves outside some of the athletes' repertoire, resulting in confusion that could either not be resolved, or only after numerous tries. The requirements in regards to mental and physical quickness have had an impact on the typical body type as well: athletic and strong athletes have largely replaced the more emaciated type. This is a very positive development for Bouldering!

Real Climbing and Bouldering Competitions

Modern bouldering competitions receive criticism, too. Mainly that they don't have anything to do with "real" climbing anymore. By real climbing, critics often mean steep sport climbing, which has existed since the 1980's. That type of climbing requires a strong upper body and heaps of contact strength. It mostly takes place on rather two-dimensional surfaces. On steep rock, pushing and pressing are typically less efficient than pulling and holding. Jumps are often not possible because the contact points are small and painful. The three-dimensional jumping and stemming is serves critics as an example for their claim that indoor bouldering has gone further and further away from climbing. Running jumps in particular are often criticised as "circus tricks".

Bouldering competitions from a human history point of view

Looking at modern bouldering competitions from a human-history-point-of-view instead of a sport climbing point of view quickly reveals that today's bouldering competitions return to the roots of climbing! Among the different ways of moving that humans have learnt by necessity, climbing takes a special place because of its age. Up until 2-3 million years ago, trees and cliffs were key habitats for our ancestors. It could serve as a place to hide, sleep, or observe. A good climber was less likely to be eaten by a predator (a requirement for reproduction!) or get an overview of their surroundings. Additionally, the climbing was rewarded by a rush of hormones, just like it is today. Climbing is so attractive nowadays because it is a successful evolutionary concept. Climbing is to humans what swimming is to fish, or flying to birds. By climbing, we explore a complex, 3-D habitat, in which movement requires more focus and neural control than on the ground.

As the distance between contact points increases, risk assessment and complex coordination of movement become more important. All of our relatives (i.e. all monkeys) use combinations of running and jumping to reach the next contact point. Jumps of gibbons are light years ahead of what we are capable of!  From an evolutionary point of view, combinations of running and jumping were always a requirement to be able to climb. I view combinations of running and jumping in bouldering as something natural, as the obviously optimal method to cross large distances between contact points! In the following paragraphs, I will discuss the basic aspects of movement in bouldering, with some examples from the Studio Bloc Masters. 

Crossing Gaps

The crossing of large distances between contact points is repeatedly required by routesetters. In all rounds, both men and women had to use combinations of running and jumping to overcome such sections. Failed attempts are the consequence, even for the best climbers. Gaining momentum and keeping it, as well as high-frequency stepping moves and generally the coordination of movement axes and degrees of freedom in 3-D space are the most challenging aspects.

10 years ago, the main issue with dynamic moves was to reach the next hold. It would usually be positive enough that how the athlete would get to it didn't matter, as long as they reached it. 

This is no longer the case. The challenging part now often begins with the moment that you reach the hold. Contact strength is still important, but modern holds cannot be held anymore unless the body is positioned perfectly in relation to the hold.

Coordination

Coordination is the harmonic cooperation of sensory organs, peripheral and central nervous system and the locomotor system. Coordinative skills enable impulses within movement that are well "coordinated" in terms of timing, strength, and scope; and that accordingly reach the right muscles. The performance of different analysers is an important parameter for the quality of coordination skills, which in turn defines the movement repertoire of a climber when approaching a boulder problem. (Analysers are the functional entities that deal with receiving, processing and forwarding sensory stimuli, e.g. kinaesthetic, tactile, static-dynamic, optical and acoustic).

Pirouettes

Climbers' movement repertoires are for instance still limited when it comes to rotations around their own axis, like pirouettes. Engaging movement via a rotation from and to the standing leg was required in women's semi-finals and in men's finals at Studio Bloc. For some athletes, this movement was obviously not part of their repertoire, they had difficulties to find the centre of mass, to coordinate building up momentum and most importantly to control their gaze, the so-called spotting.

Keeping a fixed focus for the eyes

„What, spotting?“ asks the boulderer. Yes, right, spotting, but in the sense in which dancers use the term

As a dancer turns, spotting is performed by rotating the body and head at different rates. While the body rotates smoothly at a relatively constant speed, the head periodically rotates much faster and then stops, so as to fix the dancer's gaze on a single location (the spotting point, or simply the spot). The gaze waits, so to speak, and then turns faster than the rest, before waiting again. When using similar techniques in climbing, spotting could indicate the direction of movement and significantly improve orientation in space. 

The Quiet-Eye

Sports in which hitting a target is the challenge will inspire climbers in the future. In recent years, it has been shown that a long fixated gaze before initiating movement - the so-called quiet-eye  - influences performance. Quiet-eye is defined as the last fixed gaze on a target or last tracking of a movement (see here for more). The duration of this last gaze depends on skill and on the probability of hitting. At the moment, climbers don't seem to be aware of the quiet-eye, in any case, video analysis shows that without controlling one's gaze, failed attempts become more common.

Coordination skills

Looking at basic coordination skills, it becomes obvious that the ability to rhythmize was not relevant in bouldering competitions until very recently. Nowadays, combinations of running and jumping require making very fast steps, and so the ability to rhythmize has become very important. Again, significant differences between athletes are visible.

In climbing, physical and coordinative skills are always related, if you can't hold the contact points, you can't initiate a move with it. While differences in contact strength had little visible impact on the results in finals at Studio Bloc in 2018, differences in mobility, hip control and reactive leg force were decisive.

Balance and body tension

The efficiency of all movement depends on balance and body tension. Balance and body tension depend on proprioception, which is our body's ability to be self-aware. This ability is controlled by a system of receptors in joints, muscles and tendons. Their signals are used to fine-tune the feedback mechanisms between muscles and nerves, in particular small muscles that stabilise our joints to keep the balance. This system provides the reflexive stability that makes efficient climbing possible. Balance and body tension are mainly nervous operating processes, where raw power is less decisive. Moreover, our brains seem to use less of their capacity for the intended movement than for reflexive stabilisation while this movement happens.

 

Balance
In order to initiate efficient movement and/or stabilise the body, muscles and joints have to be operated with the right timing, coordination and communication. Our locomotor system works in such a complex and specific way, that we only improve in situations and movements that we train. It can be assumed that as of now, not all athletes have access to the cruel routesetting that they need to improve on this front. Again, decisive differences could be observed between the possibilities of different finalists. 

 

Between detraction and contraction
The term "body tension" is insofar prone to misinterpretation as in fact an optimal intermediate state between full contraction and complete detraction of all muscles must be found, in which either our body (or a body part) can be held with a minimum amount of effort, or a movement can be executed with precision.  Modern climbing holds are very sensitive to peaks in force transmission. Hooking positions are also much subtler than they were 10 years ago. As far as body tension goes, modern bouldering competitions require "as much as needed, as little as possible".

Adaptability

Boulder problems require solutions that work. What "works" in each case and what leads to success, depends entirely on the individual athlete. During the four or five minutes that they have to find the solution, they have to simultaneously compare their skills and the requirements of the problem, and gauge the result. In Studio Bloc finals, very different solutions could be seen, both in detail and globally. Almost no movement seems mandatory for all finalists.  For the athletes, it is this advantageous to focus on solving the problem, rather than being distracted by what they guess were the intentions of the routesetters. Courage, self-confidence and most importantly confidence in one's own solution decide bouldering competitions!

Here is the corresponding video:

Facts

2000 Griffe

58 NATIONEN

834 ATHLETEN

20.000 FREIWILLIGE ARBEITSSTUNDEN

500 KG CHALK

Climb. Come together. Celebrate!