German Boulder Coach, 2009–2017
“Coaching, is a training or development process via which an individual is supported while achieving a specific personal or professional competence result or goal.“
In 2009 I was asked by the DAV (German Alpine Club) to coach their boulder team. At that time I was not even a member of the DAV, which is also the governing federation in Germany, for reasons not unlike the ones that made me finally stop working for them eight years later — namely the
practical constraints and politics involved in dealing with such a large organization (the DAV has more than 1.1 million members). In the end, I was frustrated of spending more time on federation politics than coaching my athletes and decided it was time for a reset.
Having said this, I’m very grateful for the challenges and opportunities this freelance job had to offer! The DAV only recently employs full time coaches for their government- funded olympic program, a level of professionalism that only the Austrian and the French Teams enjoyed in previous years. What the boulder team and I did during those years was comparatively amateur, experimential and free-wheeling, but brought out some nice developments nevertheless as you can see in the graphs below!
My job had many aspects that I want to tell you about in the following. From the start on, I had a clear idea of what needed to be done to improve my athletes chance of success, but was also very fortunate to have two very open and forward-thinking athletes that I knew from before -Juliane Wurm and Jonas Baumann. Below is an early movement experiment from the winter of 2009/2010.
I tried to facilitate thinking or learning new behaviour and improve physical skills for personal growth and advancement in the demands of bouldering contests. Another aspect is to transfer as much of my knowledge and experience to my climbers. Watch the clip below to get an idea of my approach to coaching.
The informal, freelance job description allowed me to be involved in all the aspects of the sport, including physical and mental development and the application of tactics and strategies during the contests. Competitive bouldering was relatively young in 2009 when I started to work for the team, so common sense on training program design and injury prevention was (and is) not yet established.
Climbing still is for most athletes a self-taught activity, so that some athletes were not used to being coached. We had to establish a practises of feedback and critique, what proved to be trickier than expected. The reason is, that obviously the athlete perceives a contest from a first person perspective, feeling a slippery hold or fading strength first hand — whereas I have an outside overview — observing body language, comparing the competitors’ different solutions and keeping the judging in check. To bring these two perceptions to match and to keep the communication running so that we both benefit from our different perspectives is the biggest challenge for any coach.
Often I would just ask questions and offer opportunities that would challenge my athletes to find answers from within him- or herself.
Let’s look into situations we encountered on our trips to the Boulder World Cups and international championships.
the German Bouldering Team
of course has changed over the years with new talent joining and others moving to other aspects of bouldering. Getting along through frustrations (only the two winners are truly happy with the outcome of a contest, the rest is more or less frustrated) is crucial — common interests beyond bouldering help!
Most of my athletes were already strong before I meet them, they have to be successful on a national level a long time before they are considered for international contests. Physical training almost doesn’t play a role once the season is on — but is of course very important for general conditioning and especially injury prevention.
In our workshops during the preparation phase we focus on climbing technique in the broadest sense — they have to be prepared for anything the route setters throw at them! Most of my athletes climb a lot outdoors, only during the season they should take it easy on their projects!
Designing meaningful training for the performance level of our athletes can be tricky. In most commercial gyms are rarely enough hard problems to keep them occupied for a longer period. For our workshops I cooperated with our route setters, not just in the planning, but also for debriefing — just as my French colleague Nicolas Januel does with Jacky Godoffe in their training facility in Fontainebleau. Unlike them, we didn’t have training facilities though, but had to organize our training in commercial gyms. Watch the clip about how I collaborated with our route setters for the successful 2014 season below.
making up training as we go
When travelling to world cup destinations, we very rarely find a full fledged bouldering gym as above or even a nice bridge as the one Juliane Wurm is warming up on for the finals of the 2011 Boulder World Cup in Barcelona.
Instead of staying in the hotel room though, our team likes to explore its surroundings. As boulderers, we all have a high level of curiosity.
When we are travelling we have to work with what we find, for example at playgrounds in Chongqing, China or Baku in Azerbaijan. Over the years we all have become very creative in this regard and can find meaningful exercises in basically any environment. Watch this inspiring clip of the training we improvised!
The heat is on
Once the comp has started, everybody involved has the most intense time possible.
The route setters bite their nails, hoping that their plans play out. The coaches, who just before had thought they’ve seen it all, realize the true meaning of “expect the unexpected” since boulder contests never go as planned. Especially if they have more than one athlete in a heat, keeping an overview about how things are going is difficult, especially in the Semis. This is why we are recording as much as possible on video. Did competitor “X” start in a correct way, was he touching the forbidden wall while swinging out? And did he really control the top hold for two seconds?
Meanwhile the competitors try to find their way into the contest. World Champions struggle with easy qualification problems because they have not achieved the correct performance state yet.
And than of course you have the little tragedies behind the scenes that go unnoticed by most people: pulled power cables, the timing system freezes, an injury while warming up — the list goes on and on…
It is all in the head!
Performing delicate moves in front of a massive crowd, coming up with creative solution within 4 or 5 minutes and staying relaxed and optimistic even after a failed attempt — more than anything bouldering contests are mind games! All the competitors are strong, all know how to climb, the true distinction is in the head!
Sport psychologists tell us that the ability to stay focused on the present moment is a key factor in performance success. Another key factor is confidence. It is a common misconception that elite athletes are full of confidence and never have self-doubts, this is just not true. Elite athletes are not “super beings” from a different planet they have exactly the same self-doubts and are just as self-critical as anybody else.
After the contest is before the contest! The competition is not quite over yet when everybody tries to figure out what the lesson was here. If successful, do we know the secrete formula now? How can so-and-so climb so quickly? Why can she match on this tiny hold? And, why did X, who barely made it into the semis, finally win?
Questions, questions, questions — to sort through them I relied on my video records, a practise that comes easy to me, since I have been working with video analyses since the late eighties.
When it clicks
May 18, 2103 was a beautiful windy day in Innsbruck. The atmosphere within the team was great. Last weekend in Slovenia Jan had made second place whereas Jule, for the first time ever, didn’t make it into the semis. We rode the longboards to the finals on Innsbruck’s market place. Apart from that, Jule and Jan hardly warmed up in isolation, Jan didn’t even put his climbing shoes on. It became chilly in the evening, both of them climb better when it is like that. The problems demanded skills they had prepared for. They kept their head together. In the end they had both won their first world cup. We celebrated, gratefully aware of how many details have to align perfectly for such a success!
Juliane Wurm, Boulder World Champion 2014!
Juliane „Jule“ Wurm had been vice European champion in 2010, third at the World Championships 2011, had won two Bouldering World Cups before these world championships and is known for her outstanding technique — but would she be able to keep her head together? She had so many fantastic performances over the last years but never quite nailed championships.
During our workshops prior to Munich she presented herself in the shape ever, but once the contest started it became clear that also Alex Puccio had come to Munich for the title, watch the clip below to see how close it was between the two of them!
The finals became an exceptionally close battle between her and Alex, both performing on the highest level of female bouldering yet — it became almost irrelevant who of the two would be world champion — both were in a once-in-a-life-time-zone!
This night Jule made her coach very happy!
I want to thank everybody involved in this journey, mentioned here or not and am looking forward to high level coaching in the future!