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High Expectations

2018 Climbing World Championships

High Expectations

Training with the Austrian national climbing team in Innsbruck

Text: Simon Leitner, Pictures: Johannes Mair / Alpsolut

With just a few weeks to go until the start of the IFSC Climbing World Championships, the Austrian climbing team got together for a two-day training camp at the indoor climbing centre in Innsbruck. Sport.tirol joined the climbers and chatted with them about their preparation and goals for the up-coming World Championships.

The Innsbruck Climbing Centre is once again heaving with climbers – a sign that it can’t be long until the start of the World Championships. Wherever you look there are top competitors from countries around the world, some of whom have already been in Innsbruck for some time preparing for the IFSC Climbing World Championships in September. Climbing alongside them are plenty of Austrians, keen to make the most of the perfect training conditions in the city’s new indoor climbing centre. Although competitive climbing is an individual sport, we join the members of the Austrian national team on a day when they have gathered to train together. 

“At the moment we are simulating a boulder competition for the World Cup event in Munich,” says coach Ellie Howard ahead of the competition, which took place on 17/18 August 2018. “The men climb in the morning, the women climb in the evening.” Just like in a real competition, the climbers have to complete a certain number of boulder problems within a limited amount of time. Boulder problems are very short climbing routes characterised by series of complex and dynamic moves, often including jumps, demanding not only excellent coordination but also problem-solving skills. The closer a competition gets, the more the training sessions are adapted to recreate the situations the climbers will have to deal with at the contest. During the off-season climbers continue to work on specific skills such as strength and technique, but during the competition season this event-specific preparation becomes essential.

Ellie Howard and Roman Krajnik joined the team of coaches at the Austrian climbing team this year.

The coaching team is made of up Ellie Howard from the UK, head coach Roman Krajnik from Slovenia and Pavel Draga, who is responsible for speed climbing. Since their appointment in January of this year they have had the chance to work closely with the Austrian national team and have been impressed by what they have seen: “The athletes are in good form – they were able to show that in recent competitions.” Among the strongest performers have been Jakob Schubert and Jessica Pilz, who have impressed in the Lead disciplines at this year’s World Cup events and will lead the national team going into the World Championships.

Howard explains that the coaching team’s overarching goal is not only to prepare the team for individual competitions but, in the long term, to bring Austria back to the top of the tree in competitive climbing. “In both men’s and women’s climbing there is very little difference between the top athletes, so often it can come down to small details. As coaches we try to work on these little things and prepare the team as well as possible for the years to come.” With just a few days to go until the World Cup competition in Munich and the World Championships in Innsbruck now just a matter of weeks away, the training sessions are not as intense as during other times of the year. Rest and recovery between competitions is a key element of staying fit and healthy throughout the season. “Now,” explains Howard, “it’s all about putting the things they have practised over and again in training into practice a competitive situation.”

Simulating competition conditions

Today’s competition simulation sees the team take on four boulder problems which have been specifically created for them by the coaching staff. The riders go in intervals: five minutes climbing, five minutes rest. They don’t get to see each boulder problem until the start of the five-minute climbing interval – and they are not allowed to watch as other climbers try to solve the problem before them. Like in a real competition, climbers must spend their five-minute breaks between boulder problems in an isolation zone where they cannot see the other competitors in action.

Howard and Krajnik stand side by side during the training session and watch the members of the team climb. They both take notes at regular intervals, writing down pieces of advice and noting how many attempts each climber needs for each boulder problem. Krajnik is responsible for keeping an eye on the first two boulder problems, while Howard pays attention to boulder problems three and four. Apart from occasionally calling out how much time the climbers have left – “2:20!” – and the odd word of encouragement, little is said during the attempts. The coaches are just as concentrated as the climbers themselves, who are relaxed but focused as they try to solve each riddle on the artificial climbing wall.

The training session shows that bouldering is a discipline which tests a competitor’s problem-solving skills as much as their climbing technique – and can in some cases come down to good and back luck. The most difficult thing is often reading the boulder in the right way and understanding what needs to be done. Failing to find the right approach in the limited amount of time available will leave even the best of climbers flummoxed. Even Jakob Schubert struggles with a few of the problems posed by his coaches: “The boulders aren’t really that hard, but they are tricky to understand. In two cases I just couldn’t work out how to do it. Once you know what you need to do it’s no problem climbing them.” The Innsbruck native explains that it is first and foremost this problem-solving aspect which can become extremely frustrating in a competition situation – when you find yourself staring at the climbing wall with no idea how to get from bottom to top.

Schubert, who will be competing in all the disciplines – Lead, Boulder, Speed and Combination – at this year’s World Championships is determined to avoid such a situation in September. That is one of the main aims of simulations such as this. “This kind of training session brings you back to earth with a bump. It shows you that you really have to work at each individual boulder problem, even when you are in good form,” he explains. Teammate Jan-Luca Posch adds: “That’s why we do these kinds of training sessions – to climb unusual routes we would otherwise not necessarily come across and to work on our weaknesses.” The 20 year-old emphasises the importance of gathering experience and getting into the right frame of mind ahead of the World Cup events and the World Championships.

Posch, like Schubert, has been nominated as a member of the Austrian climbing team for the 2018 World Championships, but unlike Schubert he will only be competing in his preferred discipline of Boulder. The young man from the town of Imst in the west of Tirol is trying to stay relaxed ahead of the event: “I don’t want to put myself under too much pressure. In recent years I have done that and it hasn’t worked out well for me. I just want to have fun – if you enjoy what you are doing then the results look after themselves.” He adds that he hopes to qualify for the semi-finals – anything above and beyond that would be a bonus.

Training camps and simulations such as this one are more the exception than the rule. Most climbers train individually, be it alone or one-on-one with coaches from the national team. That is ultimately a personal decision left up to each climber. Posch often trains with Krajnik, while Schubert prefers to design his own training sessions – though he remains in regular contact with his coach. Despite his preference for training alone, Schubert says that he enjoys getting together with other members of the national team for camps such as these. “There are lots of advantages to training as a group,” he explains. “It’s more fun and keeps you motivated. You can learn from each other and push each other.” Posch confirms that the mood in the camp is good: “Everyone in the boulder team is really happy when anyone from our team is successful, no matter who it is. We support and motivate each other. That’s really cool.”

Group dynamics

Proof of this strong team spirit can be seen later on in the day during the women’s training session. As they warm up in the boulder area on the first floor of the climbing centre there is plenty of fun and laughter. Despite the high spirits, all of the climbers are 100% focused as they step towards the wall a few minutes later for the first exercise of the day. They are asked to complete a number of moves one after the other, sometimes alone and sometimes in groups. These moves are chosen spontaneously and without warning by their coaches. While one person climbs, the other members of the team look on and occasionally call out words of advice or encouragement.

Among those taking part in this simulation is Jessica Pilz, considered the biggest medal hope in the Austrian women’s team. Originally from Lower Austria, she has been living in Innsbruck for the past two years. She used to train mainly alone but these days she spends much of her time working with Krajnik: “I used to really enjoy training on my own, but recently I have got into working more closely with the coaches – they can push you harder and motivate you even more, ” she says. Pilz is a big fan of the new coaching team, Krajnik in particular: “Roman is without a doubt one of the best coaches around. He teaches us a lot.“

Pilz will be competing in all the disciplines at the World Championships. She thinks her best chance of a medal is likely to be in Lead, especially as she has shown in this year’s World Cup that she can mix it with the best. “Things have gone so well for me this year in the Lead World Cup that I am hoping to finish on the podium at the World Championships. If everything goes to plan then that is a real possibility,” says the 21 year-old.

After warming up indoors the climbers head outside for the simulation on the boulder wall.

Pilz’s teammate Berit Schwaiger will be concentrating on the Boulder competition at this year’s World Championships in Innsbruck. She explains that her goal is to qualify for the semi-finals: “I want to put on a good performance in the qualifying round, but bouldering can often be tough: if you have a bad day or a boulder problem doesn’t suit your skill set, you haven’t really got a chance, even if you are in good form.” This, she adds, is where training together as a group can help: “In rock climbing, and bouldering in particular, there are generally several different ways to solve the problem on the wall. Even if you can’t find the solution yourself, often someone else in the team will be able to. If you train together as a team you can learn from the others and see how they go about things.”

The 24 year-old is currently focussing on improving her strength. “That is something where I can still get better. My technique and coordination skills are good, but I there is room for improvement when it comes to my finger strength.” However, she quickly adds that in this phase of the season it is not so much about building up strength or fitness but instead maintaining the form she currently has in order to be in top shape for the rest of the season. As a contest gets closer the training sessions become less intense and the focus switches instead to recreating a realistic competition environment. “Simulations like this are designed to get us used to the feeling of being in a competition situation and to help us prepare mentally,” explains  Schwaiger.

Rest and recovery also play a key role at this point in the preparation for the World Championships – especially for climbers who have been competing in the recent Lead World Cup events and had to do four contests on four consecutive weekends. “After the four World Cup competitions I was really tired,” says Pilz. “My shoulders ached and I had pain in one of my fingers. I had to take a few days off to recover. Those are the situations where you notice just how much competitions take out of you.”

Sky high motivation

After a thorough warm-up the climbers head outside to the external boulder wall to take on a series of problems set for them by their coaches. As with the men, the climbers complete the problems one by one. The problems are not the same as those used for the men, but like those given to their male counterparts they have been specifically designed for this training session. 

Pilz is first up this evening. She carries out a few final stretches before turning her eyes to the wall. She doesn’t immediately start to climb, instead taking plenty of time to look at all aspects of the boulder problem from several different angles, working out the moves she will need to take her to the top. Her first attempt is unsuccessful, but she perseveres and manages to complete the boulder at the second time of asking. She then heads to the isolation zone for five minutes of rest and recovery before returning to take on the second boulder. “Colour?“, she asks Krajnik. “Blue,” replies the coach. Pilz strides over to the blue boulder and the whole process starts again.

Once all the climbers have completed all the boulder problems the training session comes to an end – at least officially. As with the men in the morning, some of the women decide to stay on after the simulation and work on certain things. Pilz, for example, takes on the boulder problems set for her male colleagues a few hours earlier. She receives a few tips from Krajnik, who is very pleased with the way today’s training session has gone. “Everything went well – things are moving in the right direction,” says the coach from Slovenia. Of course there is always room for improvement, he adds, but the team is in form and the mood in the camp is good. Asked about his goals for the up-coming World Championships, Krajnik keeps his cards close to his chest. Of course he has high expectations, he says, but he doesn’t want to outline any specific goals. “Let’s just say this,” he finally adds with a smile: “I’m feeling confident.”

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