In this exclusive mini-series, the legendary Johnny Dawes gives us his unique off-beat perspectives on three essential components of movement skills – Footwork, Dynamic movement, and Balance.


1. Footwork

“or how to conjure supernormal lift amidst your own personal light show.”

Climbing is a rear wheel drive sport. Even a 4wd WRC rally car gets most of its thrust from the rear tyres. Climber’s biggest muscles, unless they really have lost the plot and are carried around in a King Louie sedan, are their leg muscles. Like in a car it’s all about finding the grip that is there. Good footwork depends on recognising what are potential footholds, not just the commercially necessary blobs that stand out in lurid colours, (which I still manage to miss!) but all the features that are there. You should develop a chess player’s eye for ones that couple up. One high, one low and you can sometimes pull on the top one to pull yourself in and save the ‘guns’. Footholds that face each other invite a bridge, others facing away, a clamping frog. Spot them all and the repositioning of the body to use pesky handholds becomes feasible. Malham Cove comes to mind where a constellation of polished nothing smears is essential to oppose the next undercut hold.

It is one thing to see them and another to form a reliable mental map of them. It seems a bit of an arse but when you’re on your own, look at a problem, spotting ALL the holds. Shut your eyes and try and recall their position. This is quite difficult for most people. I find it easier if I use a trick of the mind. I imagine that the direction in which each hold works best throws out a beam of light. When you shut your eyes you have a one take light display. All you have to do is remember that one array and all the detail is preserved to help you move at the speeds at which the moves are completed most easily. The angles of the holds must be precisely determined. The act of doing this gives you the time to really look. It’s a good time to clean too. Germanic preparedness is not a pretty term but it is the first key on the ring to the castle of your desires! Show some respect for the rock and clean your boots, perhaps even do up each lace how the crux holds suggest. Boots… buy the ones that make you feel good. Buy them snug, even if they are borrowed and a bit big you can put a piece of material in the heel. Joe Brown, the Stockport plumber legend, insists on two pairs of socks being the ticket!

So your light display is on. You shut your eyes, spin around and the holds lines of grip haven’t moved. Although it seems unlikely, your body, distinct from the fast idiot on top of you (I include myself in that slur), has all it needs to place feet first and go blind. Experience will eventually show you that practice is learning to do the whole thing simply, without extra personal hullabaloo.

Let me review what I have said. You have to find the holds and see how they work. Most of us don’t really look. Bend your knees and actually look. It is not that you know to look. You have to actually look… In my coordination classes I tell people to see where they would land a tiny remote control helicopter! This makes you look. Another way is to imagine hammering the hold once with the aim of taking off the most material with that blow, this idea will reveal the resistant sharpness of the hold, the direction you use – the angle of the beam of grip illuminated.

You should pay most attention to the footholds that are farthest out from the climbing surface. These are the holds that render the climb least steep. In many situations the position of a smear takes precedence over its angle or size. If it supports you then it’s a big hold. Even if it doesn’t quite support you, with a timely press into its line of best grip it can often be made to work. It’s like downforce in a car. Modern F1 cars cheat and use wings to generate the opposite of lift, but rally drivers use countersteer before the corner or throttle modulation over bumps to subtly sway the car to ‘slap’ small variations in the tarmac. We too can use the alchemy of movement to conjure supernormal grip by employing the slow extended movements of our body mass to provide a source of momentary high force deployed in the line of best grip. If your grasp of how each hold works is still fluffy just mentally pour oil on the hold. Faced with the prospect of its slippery nature how to make it less slippery comes to mind. The mind is the master of the body. Give it clear instructions…