Setting the Stage
It’s the morning of Friday, November 22, and I’m at Mori Park, Tokyo, Japan—a collection of outdoor retailer outlets with restaurants, climbing walls, sports fields and courts. I’m here for a conference and training camp to help Japanese climbing coaches learn from the best coaches from elsewhere in the world. But it’s not lead climbing or bouldering help they’re eager for. The Japanese National Climbing Team is all-in when it comes to the Olympics, but they have a weakness: speed.
The Japanese Team is squarely concentrated on preparation for the Olympic Games in 2020, which they will host in Tokyo. They excel at bouldering, and can certainly hold their own in lead. But Speed climbing is another matter, as is their understanding of how to “combine” all three disciplines.
To that end, the Japanese are leaning hard into new trends. Shinji Mizumura organized the camp on behalf of the Tokyo Mountaineering Federation and with the support of Tokyo’s government. Mizumura—also the Japanese National Team’s head speed coach and the head of the Sport Climbing Bureau of the TMF—has invited Sergei Sergeev, Russia’s head speed coach, and Stanislav Kokorin, a Russian athlete and coach to the event. They are two of the foremost speed climbing experts in the world, and Mizumura hopes to absorb their expertise to figure out how to integrate the speed discipline into the Japanese team’s training for the Olympic Combined Format.
The Russian Approach
Russia has a climbing history which has positively shaped their value for speed climbing at a collective level—which in turn has shaped their ability to learn to do it. We’ve all heard about athletic “hubs”—programs, cities or countries where a single sport dominates due to an interesting mix of social pressures and genetics. In Russia, the city of Tyumen lives and breathes speed climbing.
Over 50 years ago, the Russians began competing on real rock at Dombay in the Caucasus mountains, an area that is now a resort for skiing. Due to the difficulty of judging who was superior, they decided to use time to measure success. Over the years, specialists developed between those who climbed for the problem-solving aspect and those who climbed for speed. Sport climbing developed as well, but the Russians found timing their ascent to be more exciting—both for themselves and spectators.
Tyumen, which lies in Siberia, became the heart of Russian speed climbing. When the Cold War ended, speed climbing walls were easier to build and maintain than lead walls. It was an access issue, but one shaped by Russia’s history. Now, even though they have climbing walls for all three disciplines, Tyumen’s climbing school prefers speed because of this micro-history, as well as because of Russia’s overall tradition of elevating the speed of an ascent as a worthy goal.
Today in Tyumen, champion speed climbers are always nearby, giving the next generation something within arm’s reach to aspire to. The environment matters for producing success. In Tyumen, young children write their personal records on the wall in a gesture of friendly competitive fun. The very best that stick with it and show a particular aptitude for speed climbing just might end up on the Russian national team.
If they do, they’ll be under the tutelage of Sergei Sergeev, Russia’s head speed coach and the most successful climbing coach in history. One need only look at a list of his accomplishments (see photo at right)—the numbers speak for themselves. His athletes have medaled 82 times at World Cups, with an astonishing 42.7% of those medals being gold. Moreover, his athletes have medaled 12 times at Wold Championships, an event usually only held once every two years.
As I talk with him in Tokyo, Sergeev has great things to say about American youth climbers. He admires how supportive they are of one another, and thinks it’s important that their families frequently accompany them to competitions. At first, I’m confused as to why this is important enough to him to mention. But as I come to know Sergeev’s personal coaching style—one based on developing relationships and trust—and the history of speed climbing in Russia more intimately, it makes more and more sense.
Another Russian speed legend at the training camp is Stanislav Kokorin. He has won 19 medals in speed at World Cups, including 10 gold, four silver and five bronze. He has also won the Speed World Cup season medal three times. Kokorin is fast and smooth and is as unassuming and humble as Coach Sergeev. Kokorin’s analysis of speed climbing ranges across every aspect of his life. He speaks about the distinctions between speed climbing shoes and chalk, the nuances of mental preparation, the impact of nutritional supplements, and more.
Something Kokorin stresses is the importance of maintaining motivation, and this translates directly to the Russians’ very ethos of how to train.
The Russian approach to pure speed climbing starts with their warm-up philosophy: it emphasizes (1) play, (2) dynamic stretches, and (3) explosive movements with the goal of preparing the body to be agile, powerful, quick, and technically-adept at speed—all for a 15-meter speed run that takes less than 10 seconds.
They don’t want their warm-up to be too long and they often don’t warm-up on the wall. One of the warm-up exercises consists of using a Thai-made Takraw, or a kind of kick-ball about half the size of a soccer ball. It’s hilarious to watch World Cup-level climbers trying to keep this thing in the air, but it’s clear they’re having fun and getting psyched.
Another aspect of the Russian approach is their focus on the physicality of their training and their de-emphasis of the speed wall. At one point I ask Kokorin when and how he makes recommendations for changing beta or changing technique. He shakes his head: It is the requirement of each individual athlete to find and hone his or her personal beta. In fact, Kokorin hasn’t changed his own beta in years. He’s not sure he can.
In general, the Russians take the technique out of training by using the speed board. The speed board appears to be a collection of rungs slightly bigger and deeper than a campus board’s rungs and separated by short distances. The rungs go straight up a wall for 10 to 15 meters. In practice, it looks more like speed crawling up a wall at an insane velocity.
The Russians believe that the number of runs on an actual speed wall aren’t proportional to improvement in speed climbing. They spend less time on the speed wall, and when they do practice on it the emphasis is on high-quality runs with their proven beta. They spend more time on physical training, using gym weights and machines to get strong. They also highlight numerous, individual, non-climbing related factors—from the normal training gym to the environment to their equipment to their nutrition—which can bring them success.
I may be oversimplifying, but what human doesn’t employ heuristics in order to learn? Trying to affect all potential variables may be standard practice in many high-profile sports, but the extent to which the Russian speed athletes do so is exceptional. They try to control all the factors in their environment which could contribute in some small way to their success. What would happen if other climbers subscribed to this philosophy just as diligently?
The Japanese Approach
The Japanese approach is a stunning contrast to that of the Russians.
Things are diametrically different right from the get-go, starting with the warm-up. Japanese warm-ups for bouldering are long, slow affairs of movement, foam rolling, stretching and climbing. Since most of the Japanese Olympic contenders are boulderers first-and-foremost, I expected to see this trademark warm-up before speed climbing, too—it’s what they know. Thankfully, the Russians assumed the teacher-roles here and ran the Japanese through a warm-up only slightly less awkward looking than the Takraw warm-up. But it was one filled with amusement as the Russians snapped pictures of the famed Japanese mobility.
Another major difference with the Russians—who memorize set beta-routines and stick with them—is the more open-minded, creative approach favored by the Japanese. The Japanese bouldering focus gives them a strong desire to “project” moves and try new, more “convenient” beta on the speed route. Since the auto-belays on the speed route constantly try to lower you, a mad scramble ensues after each fall as the climbers claw back to the wall and contort themselves into the strangest positions imaginable while resting for another burn. I watch several amazing young women spend five to ten minutes projecting a route that normally takes five to ten seconds.
The athletes of the Japanese team weren’t the only young women to leave me in awe. Takako Hoshi is a Japanese coach who was on the road over a hundred days at competitions during 2018 and helps to manage Japan’s talent across the different disciplines. I naïvely expected that a giant of Japanese coaching such as herself would have little interest in learning from me. I was dead wrong.
Hoshi showed me that I could be both learner and teacher, that it was not an either-or dichotomy. She balanced learning and teaching in a way that can only be described as collaboration. She sat down with me at every opportunity to discuss talent development, strength building, and what we were learning from the Russians.
At a practice session, Mizumura and I are watching current 2018 Bouldering World Cup season winner Miho Nonaka experiment with newly-found beta the Japanese are fond of. It is a sequence almost no women are attempting yet. Nonaka is struggling with the move. I follow Mizumura over to his tablet which is set up and running constantly. He walks over to Nonaka, speaks to her, and she tries again. It’s not perfect, but it’s a sea change. She lowers off, beaming. I ask Mizumura what he said to Nonaka. He laughs and tells me it’s a secret. I laugh, too: he’s not the first Japanese coach I’ve met who finds amusement in the idea that they have “secrets.” He immediately tells me the words he used to provide Nonaka with the needed information.
Later that evening, Mizumura and I discuss details about his approach to teaching. He brings out his phone and we look at graphs of research about dart throwing. In essence, they show that two darts can hit the same target despite following very dissimilar paths. Mizumura gave Nonaka some very simple advice but left the rest up to her—a tactic designed to facilitate learning.
Combining the Approaches for the Combined
One day, during a joint Russian-Japanese training session, Sergeev sees something that drives him a little crazy. It is a perfect illustration of the differences between the Japanese and Russian approaches.
First, the Russians end their practice while they are still relatively fresh, after a small number of speed runs and some physical training. The Japanese, however, keep climbing. Sergeev is against continuing, but Kokorin is a little more flexible, noting that the athletes don’t have many opportunities to get on a speed wall—there are not many of them in Japan.
Sergeev’s main issue is how the technical movement will develop while the body is tired. After one particularly bad run, Sergeev throws his arms up in the air and gestures animatedly while streaming sentences in Russian. Kokorin leans over to me: “He’s not happy with that run.”
One of the ironies of the Olympic Combined Format is in the connection between bouldering and speed. We often think of bouldering and lead climbing as connected because they have a similar goal, i.e. the challenge of getting to the top. Speed climbing, on the other hand, is about who gets there quickest. These are fundamentally different units of measurement. But the irony comes from the fact that there are significant overlaps between bouldering and speed due to the requirements for dynamic, powerful movement.
I first noticed this irony when one of the athletes I coach at home in the U.S.—a young woman whose two best disciplines are bouldering and speed—won three medals at her second international event of the season: Gold in speed, bronze in bouldering, and silver in the Combined. She didn’t make finals in lead climbing after we de-prioritized it entirely due to her performance in the previous international competition.
Now the Japanese have picked up on this combination. When leveraged with the mathematical scoring of the Olympic format, which gives slightly more weight to better placements, there may be a strong reason for the bouldering-dominant Japan to be interested in upping their speed game. Final standings are calculated by multiplying an athlete’s placement in each discipline; the lower the product, the better you’ve done.
Consider the following: A first place finish in one discipline and two fifth place finishes in the others (1x5x5=25) would beat three low-podium third place finishes (3x3x3=27). (Again a lower score is better—like golf!). This is an argument for being good at one discipline versus being good at three. So where does being good at two disciplines fall?
Mizumura is aware of the math and the combinations, and is doing his best to integrate speed climbing from the best: the Russians. He’s doing his best to get their athletes time on the speed wall. And he’s balancing intelligence about what to do with how to approach it with his athletes.
The Japanese athletes’ projecting of the speed route is something that Sergeev believes the Russians can learn from. Russian speed climbers are “taught” the moves, so they don’t often come up with new approaches to climbing beta. The Japanese on the other hand, through experimenting so much, have identified a new type of hand-foot beta for one of the more complex moves, a way of reducing deceleration and creating a straighter and more fluid path through certain section. This is the beta we were watching Nonaka try.
This new beta comes into play on the part of the speed route described to me by French speed-climbing researcher Pierre Legreneur as “the turn.” The Turn starts on the right side of the wall, heads left, then veers back right, forcing a deviation from the hypothetical straight path to the top.
Everyone in the speed climbing world is talking about this “new beta.” Some love it, while others are intensely skeptical. However, Sergeev admits that we wouldn’t be having conversations about new beta without experimentation. And he’s also willing to admit that he has something more to learn about the Japanese approach to experimentation—a quality I will readily argue contributes to making him one of the most successful climbing coaches in the world.
Collaborating to Build…to Learn…to Teach…to Crush
If the Japanese and Russians share one overarching “secret” amongst them, it’s this: learning. These are humble individuals with fantastic minds for teaching, who appear to have a foundation of constant learning and are updating their mindsets with the changing time.
Toward the end of our time together, Kokorin returns to our conversation about beta: he may need to change up his up next year. As an older, established speed athlete, he’s hoping he still can.
Did witnessing the Japanese boulderers route-project a speed wall suggest an alternative perspective to Sergeev? Will Mizumura be able to balance a desire to win speed competitions with the overall goal of becoming good in multiple, sometimes conflicting, sometimes overlapping disciplines for the Olympics?
I imagine that Kokorin will experiment and see if new speed beta works for him. Sergeev is probably already considering how to integrate his experience with the Japanese bouldering mentality. Later conversations will prove to me that Hoshi is learning every day to better manage the strengths and logistics of the Japanese team. And as for the coach who helped organize the conference? Mizumura will continue to learn how to balance the needs of speed climbing with Japan’s dominance in bouldering in order to help realize Japan’s Olympic ambition.
Taylor Reed is director of the Beta Angel Project—a project to bridge research and practice in climbing. With one foot in the door of each world, he coaches a selection of athletes, consults and engages in his own research projects. He is sponsored by Evolv Sports. He currently lives in South Carolina with his wife, Jennifer.