Think excelling at comps is as simple as just trying your hardest? Think again. Competing well requires strategizing—both with your scorecard and your mental game. For professional climber Nina Williams, who will assist coach Justen Sjong in Climbing’s Climb a Grade Harder: 5.12 and Beyond course, the latter was especially important during her primary competition years, which ran from 2003 to 2015.
“How do you compare your own performance unless you’re measuring it against someone else?” she says of competition climbing. “How do you know where you stand?”
The key, she found, was competing often enough that she developed her own assessment of her skills, and could therefore draw on her past experiences to think about how to compete better in the future. As her career became more focused on outdoor ascents, especially her love of highballs like Bishop’s Ambrosia (V11), she also took the indoor competition scene less seriously, though she still competes here and there.
To her surprise, however, this new, less-serious approach improved her performance. Here, a few tips on how to have fun and perform well at comps, be they that local comp at your gym, a 24-hour climb-a-thon, or a national event.
1. Be prepared
Make sure you’re registered for the competition and have all the gear you need ahead of time, and don’t forget water and snacks. Having everything prepared early will help you relax leading up to and during the competition, so you’re not stressing about logistics. “I totally pick out my outfit the night before,” adds Williams.
2. Watch other people climb
Excited to hop on a cool-looking route? Wait, says Williams. Usually at competitions, you have to mark every fall you take, which can dock you points. Instead, watch other people climb to soak up beta. Whether or not the athletes climbing before you send, “you’ve got some idea of how to do the climb while also conserving your own energy,” says Williams.
3. Fill out your scorecard, even if the climbs are below your limit
A lot of competitors “get all psyched, as if it’s a regular gym session where they get caught up on one climb, and they just project it the whole time,” says Williams. In the end, they don’t even have the minimum number of climbs on their scorecard. (In most competitions, your score is the sum of points from your five or so hardest routes.)
Instead, says Williams, make it a priority to get those five climbs on your scorecard—even if they’re warm-ups or below your projecting level. “You’re already increasing your chances of placing well, because a lot of the time people won’t even get five climbs,” says Williams. Once you’ve completed this minimum, use the rest of your time to seek out more-challenging climbs.
4. Pay less attention to the other competitors, and more to the climbs that suit you
Williams says that in a recent competition, this year’s Portland Boulder Rally, she watched the other female competitors to see which climbs they were doing, and assess how many points they were racking up. But then as the comp progressed, she switched gears: “I turned inwards and started looking for climbs that I knew I could do regardless of what the other girls were doing.”
At the end, she happily turned in her scorecard knowing she’d done the best she could do. She then found she had made it to finals, and was able to place second after facing off with other crushers like Kyra Condie, Maya Madere, and Alex Johnson.
“Since adopting that mindset of I’m not going to take it as seriously, I actually have been having a lot more fun in comps, and as a result I’ve been doing better,” says Williams. “I’ve really had to learn over my entire climbing career to not compare myself to others and to only focus on my own performance.”
Want to learn more ways to climb your best? Take Climbing’s Climb a Grade Harder: 5.12 and Beyond online course.