Wednesday 28 April 2010

Oversimplification of sport

Last night my extended post about school, influences and looking for shortcuts sparked off some interesting comments over on my Online Climbing Coach blog. They prompted another post from me about the subtle but critical difference between ‘chasing numbers’ in sport and actually improving. Commenting on that this, Gian questioned how the two can have such different implications for enjoyment of sport, since after all “numbers are meant to be a description of difficulty”.
Simplified numbers or statements often are used these days to form the whole story about sport, and that is one of the reasons it’s so fraught with commoditization, unfairness, predictability and cheating. In big sports, a lot of money and time goes into finding ways to keep on top of drug cheats, so far with arguably little effect. In my opinion, it’s attacking from the wrong end. Attacking the incentive to cheat would work many fold better, and the weapons of war are the pens of the marketers of sport and the media that consumes it.
Numbers are an index of difficulty of a climb (or some other task), but not an index of performance. To get a fair idea of how impressive a sport performance is, we usually need two, sometimes three bits of information sandwiched together. A climbing example: 
One bit - “He climbed that E7”
Two bits - “He onsighted that E7”
Three bits - “He onsighted that E7 in the rain”
One bit headlines are always more attractive for media and they resort to it more and more in all corners of media. It’s a short term way to get more hits (and a long term route to implosion but that’s another blog post). Two bit headlines at least are needed by everyone to keep sport working. When I say everyone, I mean athletes themselves as well.
Using numbers as a one bit index of performance is drain on the motivation in the long term and an continued improvement is destined to stall big time! “I’ve climbed E7!” is not enough, because the two bit headline in the background might be “I’ve climbed E7 but it was a soft touch...or it was a fluke…or I fasted for a week...or I cheated”
For athletes, the improvement is most motivating and hence sustainable if the number is the secondary part of the headline:
“I climbed well, got over my fear, and climbed that E7”
“My footwork is much better this year after all those drills, so I knew I could get that 7a”
“I really disciplined myself to rest properly, and I’m stronger for it”
That kind of thinking shows how there’s more to taking satisfaction from improvement than the number. It’s not a lot more - just one or two extra bits of information - but crucial. Sports don’t need to be super complicated to be motivating, but rounding everything down to the lowest common denominator all the time is very toxic for motivation.

Footnote: I do a lot of headpointed trad routes, and a few people get very concerned that folk out there might not properly weight the performance of, for example, 'E11 headpoint'. Sure, a few inexperienced onlookers might not understand the significance of the second bit of that statement. I don't think this small group are really worth worrying too much about. As for the rest of us, I think people are smart enough to get their head around the idea that the number takes on a different meaning if you climbed in headpoint style.


  1. Great post! You've really put your finger on the subtlety of gauging performance. The distinction you make applies so well to the current climbing scene. When the climbing scene and individual climbers are governed by the one-bit measure of performance we're left with a pretty impoverished and indeed "very toxic" way of deciding what's valuable in climbing (achievements, climbs, climbers, etc.).

  2. Absolutely.

    In such over-simplification there's the danger of disconnection from the essence of climbing, and the world of potentials that can't be defined (or limited) by numbers and pigeon holes. Aye, indeed, the danger of a cold and sterile relationship, of sorts.

    There's no poetry in it.

  3. Anonymous02 May, 2010

    i think in the short-term OR long-term, it can be very encouraging to break through to a new grade. In the US, 12a, 13a and 14a are kinda big deals, because of the jump in the number; i would suspect in euroland, 7a, 8a, and 9a carry similar significance. In running, it might be a 4 minute mile, or a 10 second 100 meter etc etc.
    "numbers chasing" is simply an understandable and motivating goal for the climber who is interested in "improving", and i don't think there is anything inherently wrong with it. Caveat: it would help if we understood exactly what is meant by "numbers chasing"!

  4. Anonymous02 May, 2010

    Roger Bannister was a "numbers chaser", right? All he cared about was breaking the 4 minute mile, poor bloke!

  5. interesting, thanks for sharing

  6. A great insight into climbing. I am only a begginer and am curious to learn more.

  7. Roger Banister - Poor Bloke?? Would you know his name if he did not break that barrier?