Women’s Climbing Symposium 2011 report

Posted by Ged MacDomhnaill, The Climbing Hangar on 15/11/2011
The panel of pros

Women from around Britain met up for the Women’s Climbing Symposium at The Climbing Hangar in Liverpool on 5 November 2011. The event, organised by British Bouldering Champion Shauna Coxsey, attracted over 100 attendees.

Through Shauna’s experience of coaching other women; having a window through which she can see women’s perceptions of themselves and their talent as climbers, she was inspired to organise such an event:

“It seems women take a very dim view of their own climbing and are needlessly self-critical which prevents them from enjoying their climbing a lot of the time,” Shauna says. “In a self-assessment questionnaire I did with my first coaching group, five out of six said they had no strengths but all could list numerous weakness, one wrote – I’m rubbish at everything! I felt I had to do something about this and not just at a local level.”

As the event entered the public domain, scathing forum comments attacked the event.  Assumptions were that the event was a ‘lefty feminist’ affair; reflecting upon this Shauna felt that:

“The forum gave us an excellent platform to demonstrate the event was as political as a youth climbing day. Women are climbers, the event was for them, it addressed matters relevant to them. The critics had not even bothered to read the event webpage“

Upon the completion of the day, the feedback forms were bursting with people surprised at how good the day was. Instead of some sort of ‘girls club’ type event, the women enjoyed presentations and workshops that were designed to provoke critical and reflective thought, as well as provide hard skills that women could take away with them and utilise in their climbing.

Starting the day off, Vicki Cassell, British Bouldering Team Sport Psychologist, presented on negative habits and behaviours that effect climbing performance and perspectives on our climbing. The presentation was supported by fresh research, conducted in house, on the day, which involved Emma Twyford unwittingly falling off very easy moves in the middle of a boulder problem. The experiment was testing to see how many of the other climbers who attempted it (having seen Emma fall off) would get passed where Emma had climbed up to. Less than 4% of those that tried the problem exceeded Emma’s ‘highpoint’, demonstrating the negative impact of comparing ones talent against another.

Following this, Lucy Creamer, Katherine Schirmacher, Emma Twyford, Audrey Seguy, Kitty Wallace, held workshops in what they perceive to be 5 key factors obstructing most climbers development. These were: climbing on insecure footholds and handholds, straight arms and twisting on steep ground, arm strengths and dynamic movement. They coached in mixed ability groups with individual problems that were set with numerous variations to allow for different abilities and body types to be accommodated for by one problem. Shauna explains the rationale;

“Getting different abilities together was dual purpose; one was to allow newer/less able climbers to climb with more experienced climbers as often they are too intimidated to approach them at walls or crags – this way they get to realise they too are human, they just put in a lot of effort. But also it was to take middle and upper ability climbers who often have just as poor self image and give them the chance to realise that they are good and have skills to share.”

After lunch, the audience were given the opportunity to ask questions to the elite women. Whilst the audience sat eagerly on the mats, the elite women sat in front on a crescent of chairs ready to speak. The questions were diverse and reflected the interests of the women on the day, such as: When should you stop climbing if you’re pregnant?; How do you keep your trad head?; What’s the best training programme? Is there any such thing? Interpolating such questions were discussions on inequitable climbing relationships and how to resolve this? As well as a debate surrounding whether there is a case for more female setters?

The panel answered with experience and helpful tips were abundant. Salient in their responses was the reminder of a lot of hard work as opposed to the unhelpful trope of natural talent. Also revealing, comforting and motivational was the knowledge that our elite climbers share similar concerns: they also get pumped, scared sometimes and have had to navigate tricky climbing relationships. The normalcy and the openness of the panel facilitated discussion and promoted an open spirit; these are the things that are strongly reflected in the feedback forms.

Following the panel, Alex Puccio gave a mini lecture, interrogating the idea of natural talent. ‘How do you distil’ Alex asked, ‘the talent from ten years of dedicated training?’. Alex was initially rejected from her local wall team as the coach felt she didn’t have any natural talent! Her message on that day was that to over simplify someone’s achievements, as natural talent, was to take away the dedication and sacrifice. Next Alex turned to body image. Famous for her muscular arms, Alex hinted at how this doesn’t conform to feminine ideals of being generally slim, thus facing the challenge of negotiating her identity as a women as well as a world class climber. Ultimately Alex’s love is to climb and therefore to ‘be the best climber I could be, and my body is the result of that’. This is not to say that Alex neglects those aspects of being female, that are personal to her, in favour of climbing: ‘I chose to wear earrings, make up and nail varnish on and off the rock and this is also apart of my personality and who I am’.

Finally, and supporting the themes that arose on the day, a pilot of a documentary video called The Gender Project was screened (now aired on youtube). This video explored the experiences of men and women and how they climbed together and apart. Tellingly from the laughs and nods from the audience, many people identified with the content. Director Mike South intends to continue with the project, saying there are many stories still aching to be told. Such documentaries help expose what we all feel and have experienced at some point or another climbing or otherwise, as such the aim is to further our understanding of the sport from a social perspective thereby raising the overall standard.

The day, being the first of it’s kind, did not go without some organisational hiccups, timings could have been better for example. Fortunately, these are things are minor and easily remedied for next year's event helping to raise the standard each time. Despite such things everyone was very understanding and supportive and the vibe in the day was buzzing, with many women experiencing climbing in all female groups for the first time and even more receiving coaching for the first time.

Donna Dunkley, who came alone and who had only ever climbed once before, “I was so intimidated when I came in, I was convinced it was a mistake and everyone would be better, but they pitched everything perfectly and I left inspired and decided to buy some climbing shoes!”.

Most impressively, the coaches involved gave their time for free. This alone made the day possible and demonstrates the importance that such events hold in the mind of Britain’s elite climbers. While cleaning up after the event, an exhausted looking Shauna was asked if she would do it again next year. ‘Yes.’ She said after no pause. What would be different? ‘It depends on the feedback forms! It’s not my symposium anymore, it belongs to the people who want it to continue. We will be setting up a forum to develop the ideas for next year to give it greater depth and explore more topics for a wider audience, we need the audience to guide that.’

Film clip of the event by Posing Productions

Shauna would like to thank the sponsors who helped make the day possible:

The Climbing Hangar
The BMC
UKC
Cotswolds
5.10
Mule Bar
Sore Paws 



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