Gender, grading, and the mental game

My idea was to promote this new sport by challenging climbers to improve their technical skills to the point they were capable of  “bouldering level” difficulty, but discourage the degeneration of bouldering itself into a numbers-chase.

-John Gill, on his invention of the first rating system for bouldering

The logical follow up to Gill’s statement is to question why attention to grades in bouldering is undesirable.  The answer is basic: bouldering is the most democratic branch of the worlds most democratic sport.  Running may, for example, at heart require only a pair of shoes (if that), but performing meaningfully at the top level requires participation in meets and races.  Competition remains a thriving aspect of climbing, but the most hallowed achievements will remain ascents of climbs outside.  Bouldering requires the least gear and least technical knowledge, which no doubt explains its status in the last 15 years as the most popular discipline in climbing.  It is not only possible for a complete unknown, more often than not from a climbing backwater, to burst on to the public scene with world-class ascents, it is common place and to be expected.  Even more since the proliferation of climbing gyms.  As is the case with most sports, the top practitioners today are likely but not necessarily better than the best 50 years ago, because the genetic pool is bigger and competition is fiercer.  This is not to say, for reasons I’ll come to presently, that had Gill or Robbins been climbing today they would have been even better.

They may have a silly name, but Louder Than 11 does excellent work.  The following is their best to date.

My theory—again, likely to be unpopular with the ladies—is that women in general lack something that seems to be more common in men: not muscles, not wingspan, and not any of the other oft-cited reasons you hear for why the ladies are a few grades behind the guys. Rather what they lack is that particular brand of male arrogance that causes us to go out on our own and conquer unknown terrain. More specifically, women lack the belief that they can do things that haven’t already been done (usually by other women).

-Andrew Bisharat

I don’t find Bisharat’s thesis enormously compelling, but I do wholeheartedly agree with the underlying premise that mental attitude has much more to do with climbing performance than is usually admitted.  While competition can spur an athlete on to greater things, the presence of peers is just as likely to predefine a limit of the possible.  A mental construct which becomes a physical reality with startlingly definitive ease.  Gill is a perfect example.  Almost without exception his greatest achievements in climbing were done effectively in total isolation from a significant peer group, and often in obscure areas with little other climbing traffic (living in an Air Force Force base in central Montana, training without other climbers present, and driving long hours to climb the Thimble).

I like Sasha’s climbing because she is both strong and skilled.

This is why the preoccupation with grades in bouldering is so unfortunate, an irony only compounded when the fact that the V system was invented at the behest of a publisher is considered. Grades make more sense in the context of the commitment inherent in climbs taller than 30 feet. More people would climb better if they were able to decide whether or not a problem was possible only after having tried it, rather than after looking at a guidebook two weeks before the start of a roadtrip.

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3 thoughts on “Gender, grading, and the mental game

  1. Nice video link, thank you.

    “More people would climb better if they were able to decide whether or not a problem was possible only after having tried it, rather than after looking at a guidebook…”

    I’ve been on a ~3-4 year hiatus from climbing, mostly bouldering. My greatest passion was actually climbing solo, and doing so in fairly obscure areas, often undeveloped; Gill was a big inspiration to me in this regard. I think you’re absolutely right- as soon as a grade for something entered my head, it often completely changed how I approached the problem. As I plan on getting back into climbing regularly, I intently look forward to being outside alone early in the morning, climbing without guidebooks or beta, climbing completely free.

  2. Another thought-provoking post. First thought re: Bisharat’s comment is Lynn Hill, first to free climb Nose route on El Cap. Plenty of men had the desire and arrogance but not the dedication and creativity. Second thought is my experience of taking my daughters to and watching youth climbing comps the past four months. I’ve been blown away by the reaction of kids to the sport, especially girls. Seems like a sport undergoing rapid growth under mainstream radar. How exciting last month to see news of two 10 yr old girls send v.14s within days of each other (Ashima Shiraishi, Brooke Raboutou). With growth of gyms/competitions, there’s a danger of sport losing its “soul” but I don’t see that happening yet. So much the sport seems to lead people inward, to introspection and doing things that they find personally rewarding and interesting and into closer contact with nature. But very important to get kids out of gym and on real rock. We’ll see what happens if it becomes an Olympic sport.

    • In many respects climbing gyms saved rock climbing in America. When I started in the early 90s Americans not only lagged seriously behind the rest of the world, we were horridly self-serious about the whole affair. Then Chris Sharma (IMO the most influential climber of the last two decades) came along and showed that you could be the best in the world, have fun, and smoke tons of weed at the same time! I do not think it a coincidence that post-Sharma a lot of the old guard started climbing a lot better.

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