EXPERT’S CHAT: CLIMBING COACH ROBIN O’LEARY
If you enjoyed the last WHY I Interview with climbing double World Champion Shauna Coxsey MBE and have been inspired to hit up one of the many indoor and outdoor climbing facilities available in the UK (it is now one of the fastest growing sports in Britain), keep reading.
Professional rock climbing coach and GB ParaClimbing coach Robin O’Leary is a go-to name in performance coaching, and if you cast your eyes to Robin's Instagram and you'll find that he coaches a number of the UK's brightest talents. I joined Robin for a coaching session where he unravelled a few bad habits and got me so excited to climb more I am setting out for a full summer of it in Portugal.
I sat down Robin for an Expert's Chat, with top pointers and more from the elite coach himself.
ROBIN O'LEARY'S PASSION FOR CLIMBING
"My dad was a very keen traditional climber back in the '70s and early '80s, but stopped climbing when my brother and I were born in the early '80s. I have memories as a child being halfway up a rock face with my brother on a small ledge, be it in north Wales or on the south coast (Swanage), but it wasn’t until after university that I really decided that I liked it. So I have been climbing for basically 11 years now. "
"Climbing is a great and hugely fun alternative to the gym. It can take you around the world and provide some of the best memories and friendships you can ever ask for. I have the dream job, I really do. I work with such enthusiastic clients on a daily basis, go around the world coaching/climbing and never feel like I work a day."
"Follow your passion and dedicate yourself to it, everything else will follow."
"There is so much to this sport I love! The challenge and physical pursuit are initial attractions. With climbing, what you put into it, you get out. Hard work = success. But I also love the fact that it is never the same.
"The movements that you make can be indefinite – the hold you can be going for can be any shape or size, at any orientation and at any angle. "
The places it takes you; whether you are into competition climbing on artificial walls and you compete around the world, or you love rock climbing. There are world-class destinations almost all over the world – from fairly popular locations to far-out and remote crags. Finally, the people you meet. Climbing attracts people from all walks of life and I think that is a wonderful thing. You could be climbing with a Doctor and a Chippy."
TOP TIPS FOR CLIMBING
The best way to get involved is to see where your nearest walls are and to give them a bell. Get booked on to a taster session for either rope climbing (sport climbing) or bouldering (over soft crash pads) and give it a go. It really is that simple and it is so much fun.
My top tips for those climbers who are just beginning is to have fun! Go to the wall and just climb!
Watch those that are clearly pretty handy and see if you can pick up any tips, but ultimately it is “moves in the bank” that get you better.
Climb as much as possible and you will build up the necessary (sport specific) strength and fitness needed.
"People always assume it is all about upper-body strength, but really, it is all about footwork and body positioning. Your core is so important and you can often climb without having to pull at all. It sounds unbelievable, but you can dance and pivot your way up the wall just using momentum, hips and legs."
"The fundamentals about climbing all surround body positioning. You get big bulky gum bods going to the wall and getting blown off by their dainty girlfriends, it’s excellent."
Yes, being able to pull can help, but ultimately it is understanding how to move around these holds as efficiently as possible that makes it far easier.
You have to keep your body weight as close to the wall to make sure as much weight goes through your legs and feet as possible – alleviating the weight going through our arms. Our arms are so weak in comparison to our legs and core.
Feet determine everything – a poorly placed foot has huge repercussions and will probably end up with failure.
Pay attention to slow and precise movement and try to drive up the wall with your leg and hips.
COMMON MISTAKES MADE IN CLIMBING
The biggest mistake people make is thinking that their arms and hands have to be secure. Focusing on these alone and pulling their body up the wall, letting their feet slide around and slip off holds is very common. You get tired so quickly and end up falling off pretty rapidly too. Everyone does this to begin with and it teaches you quickly to focus on form.
WHY CLIMBING IS A GREAT WORKOUT
It’s hugely physical. You can work every single muscle in your body and a 2-hour session can leave you absolutely shattered.
Most climbers are in great shapes and it is testament to how physical it can be.
"Another aspect which is often overlooked is the mental workout. You hit the wall and any of life’s troubles are left at the door. You are consumed by the activity – you have to focus so much that you can’t afford to let your mind wonder."
You have to remain in control, even when you sometimes face big (but mainly safe) falls – I love this aspect too. It starts off being scary, but you learn to embrace it and it is one of the aspects that make it such a unique sport.
Arguably the best element of our sport is how diverse it is. You can be climbing an off-vertical wall (slab) with tiny feet and no hands or flying around on a 60 degree overhang. You can be hanging from your feet and upside down or running and jumping across features of the wall. It is sociable, fun and the climbing community is so supportive. No matter what grade you climb, we all face the same challenges.
CROSS-TRAINING FOR CLIMBING
Historically most climbers have just climbed, but it can leave you fairly injured due to imbalances. We have to pull a lot in our sport, so doing our antagonist exercises (opposites) is very important. A lot of climbers are now focusing on cross-training to ultimately make them athletes rather than just climbers.
Variation to training is key for enthusiasm and many of the exercises can be training weaknesses without us really knowing. It could simply be performing plyometric jumps or learning to handstand, or more serious like performing deadlifts.
Flexibility is also hugely important and an aspect I really neglected for a long time myself. Many of the best climbers are able to climb some really hard routes/problems by essentially thinking outside of the box and using their flexibility to help them. Again, this can be done by merely stretching, or a lot of climbers also do yoga to make it more interesting too. I think it is important to make sure we stay as injury free as possible.
"Making our bodies as even as possible is very important and working our weaknesses usually helps make this happen."
I always recommend speaking to a professional of their domain when it comes to cross-training and refer my clients to various strength and conditioning coaches, dieticians, physios etc to make sure they get the most out of the training I offer them.
ROC-UP CLIMBING CAMPS
"Essentially I wanted to offer something no-one else in our industry offered, and that was the chance to be coached to the highest standard by resident coaches, but also climb with, be coached and hang out with the best climber in the world!"
We offer bespoke climbing coaching holidays in some of the best climbing destinations around the world.
You get incredible, top-level coaching all day, with video analysis and a day’s feedback every evening with a drink in hand looking over a stunning sunset, whilst hanging out and being inspired by some of the best climbers who walk this planet.
The feedback we’ve had is incredible and the fuel we need to run more. It really is a dream job!
Book Robin for your own coaching session:
Founder of the Youth Climbing Symposium - inspiring the next generation - http://www.youthclimbingsymposium.com
Founder of RocUp Holidays - be coached by your heroes - https://www.rocup.uk
And Check out my round-up of my favourite adventure activities in London including my favourite climbing walls