Climbing - It's a team sport

I love the banter in climbing, generally, and on UKC. It's like being in the pub, reflecting on the day. Wisdom, piss-takes, debate; even a few grumbling oldies in the corner still wondering what happened to mild-and-bitter and what anyone sees in lager.

So sorry, because I'm going to be dead sober for a bit and ask whether sport climbing is the purest of all sports. Bear with me even if you don't think it's a sport at all. And we'll have a glass in a couple of minutes.

Big Rock Milton Keynes Youth Comp - November 2011  © tony4433
Big Rock Milton Keynes Youth Comp - November 2011
© tony4433, Nov 2011

Plenty of sports claim to define sport itself. Their advocates assert that their sport is more about teamwork, physicality, challenge, focus or risk than any other. Open the debate in the pub and boxing usually wins.

I'm quite sure, after a couple of years following my son round comps and crags, that sport climbing can go into the ring with boxing and punch above its weight. From the perspective of a non-climbing outsider (that's my hedge against getting something wrong and waking the oldies up), here's why, from what I've seen, I think sport climbing could well claim to be the purest of sports.

Take teamwork. Climbing is an individual sport. You climb or compete quite alone, right in the moment up on the overhang. No-one can help you. Your success is yours alone. But I have never seen such inspirational and selfless teamwork as I see in this sport in competitions and outdoors. If you've grown used to what I'm going to describe you should watch it the next time you're at a competition and be proud of your sport.

Members of the new GB Bouldering Team at Teeside University  © Nick Clement
Members of the new GB Bouldering Team at Teeside University
© Nick Clement

It's the moments as the climbers arrive together, as they prepare for the mental and physical challenges of isolation, and go to observation. For the first couple of minutes of their allotted six they stare up and down the route, absorbing everything for the first time whilst looking for the entire world, as they mimic the sequences, as if they're stacking marmalade jars back on a high shelf or opening stiff sliding doors.

Then, all their individual plans made, they gather together, competitors against one another at the highest level, hoping to earn the respect that climbing gives its champions.

And what do they do? They turn to one another and try to help each other. Chat away with their mates, pointing up at the wall.

They say (and what they actually say is a secret only they share and I gather you do this at your peril in international comps) 'I'd clip from there' or 'Got that foothold out left', perhaps 'That hold looks rubbish' or maybe 'Rest there'. They separate, look again, stack some more jars, slide some more doors, then come together to share their ideas again. They're preparing to do their best whilst helping their opponents do their best against them.

Sport shines a revealing light on the true nature of its participants. And these six minutes are a display of generosity and graciousness that I don't see anywhere else in sport.

Imagine Sir Alex putting his match strategy in the programme. He'd turn the hairdryer on himself. Can you see a boxer saying to his opponent: "Duck and go right. I'm about to chin you." Nope, thought not.

It's the same outside. I've watched just this weekend as top climbers, the ones you read about on here, 100% focussed on their project for the day, take time to help kids they'd never set eyes on 10 minutes before with beta, tips and encouragement

Round one then, teamwork, to climbing.

Round two: the challenge. In sport climbing, the opposition, I think, presents a unique and elemental challenge. The other climbers aren't the opposition. The route is. And there's nothing you can do about this. The route is the way it is and it ain't going to change.

It's the way geology or the route setter have challenged you to use your brain, balance and brawn. You're not going to get a fly half pass that drops a reachy hold into your fingertips, a following wind isn't going to speed you to a foothold round an arête and you're not going to get another chance, or a break before a second half. This is it. Your mates, in comps at least, can't give you a single bit of help. And no sport climber ever throws in the towel.

The route, your opponent, isn't going to get tired or demoralised. It has no human characteristics or frailties to exploit. You can shout at it; it isn't listening. You can psyche yourself up, but you can't psyche it out. However hard you are, it's harder and it's going to stare you down. It isn't even going to high five you if you beat it. It really doesn't care.

And, the thing is, there's just no comparison to boxing or any other sport. Climbers take on a predetermined and unrelenting, unchanging opponent in a way that's unique in sport. Boxers too take on an intimidating challenge, facing the certainty that 400kg of violent force is going to hit them in the face at 35mph about five times every three minutes until it's over. Let's call it honours even then for that round.

Respect has to be an important element in debating which sport best epitomises sport itself. Competitive sport shouldn't undermine essential humanity. We can quickly knock many contenders out of the argument here: Bloodgate, Thierry Henry, Dwayne Chambers, the Renault F1 team, Andre Agassi. The trash talk in boxing is commercial ugliness and is taught early in the gym.

Why does sport climbing deserve to win the points in the respect round? Because respect runs from top to bottom of the sport and back up again. (It may not, yet, always get respect from throughout the climbing community; let's find them a mild-and-bitter and perhaps they'll have a little kip.)

WC BRNO 2009
© MYSSAK, Nov 2009

How many of us have watched children playing other sports repeat the televised gamesmanship – OK, call it cheating – they've seen their heroes indulge in, or been appalled by the behaviour of parents on the touchline

I've watched as children at comps cheer each other up routes and problems, shouting encouragement even when getting a hold puts their opponent ahead of them. Parents quietly wish their youngsters luck before a climb and wrap a congratulatory or sympathetic arm round them afterwards. Judges patiently explain why they've not given a move and the climber nods in understanding. A climber misses a clip, is told to come down, and goes off to curse their mistake – their mistake; no-one else gets the blame. I've seen a few sulks and grumbles and walls kicked after a fall, so it's not all angelically perfect and it's unrealistic to expect it to be, but it very nearly is.

And then when the youngsters share events like the BLCCs and BBCs with the adult climbers – the stars they aspire to be – what do they see? Exactly the same behaviour: courtesy, supportiveness, regard. So they mould themselves on their role models and respect goes deeper and lives longer in climbing's DNA, indoors and out. We can't let the grouches jeopardise this.

You can take fitness, fearlessness and focus for granted in climbing. If you haven't got those you won't be pulling hard, if you treat it as a sport, in the first place.

For this judge then it's a win on points for climbing over the three rounds that I think really count: teamwork, challenge and respect. And, appropriately for climbing, a three round boxing contest has amateur status. Let's hope, with the Olympics maybe on the horizon, that money doesn't diminish climbing's unspoken values, but that's another debate currently running on here.

My son told me he wrote on his Facebook status 'Why is climbing the only sport where the people who do it love it every day?' And he said loads of youngsters that he's met who chat about climbing on Facebook just hit the 'Like' button. No words needed. I think they might innately realise that they're taking part in what could just be the purest sport.

Drink to that?

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20 Dec, 2011
20 Dec, 2011
I'm not remotely motivated by competition climbing, despite being a competitive person. However, I thought this was a really good and interesting article. I did wonder while reading it though if the Olympian ideals discussed haven't soaked through from "normal" climbing, and whether they'd remain if money and greater glory played a greater part, and if there were greater separation between "normal" (for want of a better word) and competition climbing.
20 Dec, 2011
That's a great photo but the article just doesn't seem to make much of a point. I've been very impressed by the way competitors cheer each on at youth comps but never thought of it as a team thing. It's sportsmanship not team work. If anything, it devalues sportsmanship if we are so obsessed by the word 'team' these days that we use the phrase to mean other things just because the word itself resonates.
21 Dec, 2011
What have you got against Andre Agassi? Didn't he win all 4 slams. What have you won on grit? k
21 Dec, 2011
Reading this made me consider my other chosen sport, sailing. At a grass roots level, the folk (adult and kids) I see racing each other every week, I see most of the positives highlighted in this article about competitive climbing. I think it may be the similar nature of mother nature as the opponent, although sailing does have a little more of the direct competition element. I'd like to add a word of caution regarding the 5 ring circus. I don't see those elements of the sport so clearly at the elite end of the sport and I don't put this down to the competitors. The sport is put under pressure to conform to the requirements of the olympics, appealing to TV audiances etc. Sailing actually has a different rule book at the elite events supposedly to add a more athletic element and make it more appealing to the TV, but for me fundamentally change the sport. I'm just hoping this sytle of sport doesn't move to the grass roots and if climbing is selected to the 5 ring circus the governing bodies fight to preserve the attributes highlighted in this article. Gareth
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