Improving Your Ability to Onsight

heist comp

If you want to be successful in competitions, being able to onsight can be very important. Some people also just like being able to onsight whenever they can. Some people might want to be efficient onsighters so they can climb more on their climbing trips. There are many different reasons why one might want to, and there are many tips to help you improve.

One of the most important aspects is being able to read routes well. This is something that takes a lot of practice, experience, and understanding of how your own climbing movement works. Routes, whether sport or boulder, have a lot of moves to remember. Chances are you won’t remember them all from off the ground. However, you first want to look up and think about the whole climb when piecing together your movements. You don’t have to remember it all, but you want to make sure the sequence you are seeing at one point matches with the rest of the climb. Sometimes we think it looks obvious to go up with one hand, but then discover going up with that hand will put you in an awkward spot for the next series of moves. You might realize a bump or cross is more effective. Once your sequence works, pick out rest spots. These are important so that you have the energy to finish the climb. It is also important because then you can remember the moves up to the rest, take a pause, look at the next section and remember those moves. Sections are much easier to remember than an entire route.

You want to spend some time practicing reading routes before you need to. You want to have time to make mistakes, learn from them, re-evaluate, and try again. Even though you are practicing on-sighting, while practicing you may do the same climbs over. If you fall and have failed to read the route, you want to take in the new information and try again from the bottom. This way you can learn from your mistakes and practice seeing them from the start.

Anna at Lincoln Woods

Think ahead of what surprises await you. Do you see a move you are unsure of? Do you see a hold you’ve never touched? These are things that can mess up an on-sight. You might throw to what looks like a jug, only to surprisingly slide right off a sloper. You might get to a section after feeling pumped and tired only to realize you’ve never seen this before and are too tired to make a wrong move. It is important to see potential obstacles ahead of time and try to familiarize yourself. If you are trying to onsight outside, really get to know the rock before trying your onsights. Feel what it is like, understand what moves are common and how it flows. Rock is different everywhere and it will make you do different things everywhere. However, once you get used to the rock and know it well, you will find it is easier for you to predict what will happen. If you are onsighting in a gym or indoor comp, then get to know a lot of holds. Find what companies make what, how they look and how they feel. This will help limit the unknowns you can face when it is time to onsight.

Also take into account any fear of falling you may have and practice different falls. You don’t want to lose points in a comp from being too scared or blow an easy flash. However, you also don’t want to get injured from being too stubborn and remember we talked in a previous article about how some falls are bad and the fear is legitimate. Make sure to practice falls or come up with a plan when route reading for how you might address some sketchy areas.

Ring of Fire

Remember to warm up really well. When you warm up, you can get in some good practice. A lot of times we don’t put much thought into warm up climbs because they are easy enough to get up even if we mess up or make mistakes. However, unless the route setter or developer was really doing a poor job, easy climbs have a sequence and flow as well. Try to read them and execute with perfect reading. If you make a mistake think about why and try it over the right way. This will not only give you practice, but also get your mind warmed up to reading. Be sure to be really well warmed up before trying your onsight so you don’t get flash pumped. When you are on something you really want the flash for, you are going to try to hold on no matter what. It is best to be well warmed up for this so you can keep going.

Remember to stay calm. Sometimes a person will rush to the top or panic when they fear they may blow their chance to a mistake. It is important to keep calm so you can think clearly and save energy. Do not skip shake outs and chances for rest out of fear of not making it to the top. You need those rest spots and they were mapped out for a reason. You can stay psyched, just not panicked. Focus on your breathing and movement to keep you in the moment. Focusing on the end result could cause you to miss a crucial step. Focus only on each move and the breathing to get through them.

Instead of feeling discouraged when you don’t succeed. Try to learn from each mistake. What went wrong? How can you make it work on the next climb? If a certain hold surprised you, get used to how it feels. Feel it from all angles, find the sweet spots, and know it’s look for if you see it again. If a foot pops, what can you do with your positioning to keep that foot there? One time I was trying a boulder problem and my foot kept popping off the hold when I went up. At first, I just figured the move was dynamic and maybe it would just happen. After a few unsuccessful attempts, I played around with my body positioning and precise foot placement. A little adjustment and it didn’t pop no matter what happened with my hands and the next hold. Sometimes subtle little body twists and positions can really make a difference. Maybe just turning a shoulder instead of a whole upper body twist, etc. Maybe dropping a knee.

Josh at Red Rocks

Try to think like a route setter or developer. What were they thinking when they put that hold there in that direction? Why did they pick that spot on the rock? The more you can make the sequence a logical thought process, the easier you will understand it and remember it. Kind of like how people remember the alphabet by learning a song. Understanding the movement can help keep each move in your memory.

Also remember even if you were great at reading routes one day, keep practicing. It is something you need to keep in your head to keep doing well. There have been plenty of times I was good at route reading and then after a return from an injury or a long rest period, my head was fuzzy. You will get it back but practice is needed. Try picking a route you want to do the next session and either visualizing it or drawing it out while you are away so you can keep thinking of the moves and come back to climbing already somewhat prepared. You could also watch climbing videos and if the video shows enough of the climb, try to figure out the route before the climber does it. This could be a fun way, but don’t take it too seriously as some climbers will have different styles or beta.

Most importantly, climb a lot! The more you can get climbing, the more used to the moves, setting, sequences, etc. Mileage is key for reading routes and getting more familiar with what you will be in for. If you have a competition at a gym you’ve never been try to go to the gym before the comp and do a lot of their routes. Chances are it will be the gym setters or at least the same holds. This will help you get a lay out of the land and learn what type of holds and moves will be there. For the Heist Competition, the setters were brought in from different areas. Therefore, I could practice on their setting. However, going ahead of time would have helped me understand what the walls are like at the gym, what holds they use, and what degrees of the wall I would have. How much is overhanging, how much is flat, etc. This is helpful. For a trip to a new location you couldn’t test it ahead of time, but you could watch videos of that area. You could read what kind of beta people use and what they describe the rock as being like. When you get there you could do lots of easy climbs to get used to the feel of the rock and the movement.

When we went to the Red River Gorge, it was common knowledge they have loads of pockets and really endurance dependent routes. There are two things right there we can practice locally and that will help. We can build up endurance by doing laps. We can do climbs with pockets.

red river gorge

Hopefully, some of these tips will help. Let us know about your great onsights and what helped you prepare before.


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