Second in the series of interview excerpts is this segment of The Circuit’s interview with German Coach Udo Neumann. Here at The Circuit we are flat chat getting the first issue lay out completed and all the content balanced out. This is just a short excerpt from the full length interview appearing in the magazine.
In any sport there are figures who stand out from the crowd. They are the people who, knowingly or not, molded the sport into what it is today. Often the most recognized of these are the athletes, the Tony Hawk’s, the Matt Hoffman’s, the Kelly Slater’s of the sporting world. Innovators and shapers they are recognized for the progression they bring to their respective sports.
Those who follow sport (like anyone reading this book) will know that behind the scenes there are also figures who stand out from the crowd, their legacies decided not but their own victories or accomplishments but by those of the sports people they work with. In running there was the legendary coach Arthur Lydiard whose philosophy on middle distance running revolutionized training for the sport. In Formula 1 it was the designer and team owner Colin Chapman who’s mid-engined car designs, using the engine as a structural element changed the sport forever, signaling the end to the front engined roadsters of the 50’s and early 60’s.
Climbing has its own visionaries who have pushed the sport over the years, from Wolfgang Gullich and Jerry Moffat in sport climbing to Lynn Hill with her visionary free ascent of the Nose in Yosemite. But behind the scenes there had been visionaries as well. One of the true visionaries of climbing for over 20 years now is the German Udo Neumann. Now the German team manager, Udo has been climbing since the early 80’s and has always been a passionate advocate of the sports progression. 20 years ago this year Udo and Dale Goddard published Performance Rock Climbing, considered the bible of climbing training manuals. Copies of it will be found on the shelves of the vast majority of today’s top climbers.
Sitting down to discuss the evolution of competition climbing with Udo the first thing you notice is his enthusiasm and energy. Under a shaggy mop of greying hair his eyes dart to and fro, following the antics of the German Bouldering team who are in the playground behind us, traversing trees and pulling stunts off the swings. He is very much the mad scientist of the climbing world, fast talking and full of ideas and opinions. It is clear that he is an observational genius, taking in what is happening around him and analyzing the performance of his athletes even on a playground swing. Indeed at one point he interrupts the flow of the interview to point out to me the difference between the swinging skills of the German athletes versus that of the support staff. Truly a unique talent.
Udo and I were discussing the ideal body type for climbing and quickly the conversation evolved into a discussion on the evolution of movement and the changes in the application of force that have occurred over the last 20 years. As well as a discussion about the crossover of talents from other sports and what coaches need to be looking for.
As Udo talks as much with his hands as his words I have included bracketed sections on his body language as often the descriptiveness of this completed his sentences.
So Udo, how important is body type in climbing today? I mean if you look at Jonas Baumann and Jan Hojer theres a huge difference in physique.
If Jonas would be 90kg like myself, he would still be the better climber. And the main reason is now days, especially in bouldering, flexibility is so important, and Jonas mind just goes into any position and this is important for all. This is a fairly new development that we didn’t see coming 10 years ago. For example it is not at all in Performance Rock Climbing as flexibility only legs, as it used to be. The frog position, Patrick Edlinger and so on.
Now days, especially since the volumes, you know you have to be able to apply force to the wall in super weird body positions. So you’ve got this (Udo starts mimicking moves), and over cross compression moves and so on, but those guys like Jonas, they can bring their body into positions that I can’t, and I can’t apply force like they do.
So you think it’s not just the strength then, it’s the flexibility that allows them to apply the strength.
Yeah yeah, absolutely, absolutely. I mean it’s obvious if you pull over roofs that we always knew this. If you see how their spine makes an S and so on and you know we couldn’t go into those positions to save our lives!
So you manage the German team, when you are looking at young climbers, do you look for the same things that you did 10 years ago? If you meet a young climber…
No, no no no. We still, even in the alpine club that pays my bills, we still have a controversy on how to look for talent. And it is still, as we are talking, an ongoing process because I was very unhappy how the youth, we have separate youth coaches, and they really know a lot about climber and climbing, but how they did the selection for the team I was pretty unhappy with.
You know we really have to do things a different way because they really cared a lot about force and physical factors where I would place much more emphasis the coordination and also flexibility… And also of injuries, a history of injuries is very important. You know and in the future we want to deal much more with recognising talent for climbing and what is a talent you know? What should be there with 8 years, what should be there with 10 years you know?
So like what they are looking for in Gymnasts from a young age?
Yeah, (Talking about gymnasts) I would’ve thought that gymnasts would do much better in climbing but now days I think they are missing a certain… You see that they’re too rigid and that is their understanding of body tension… If you look at the very good climbers you don’t see the body tension because the body tension just switches on very briefly and only for the muscles that are absolutely needed. For example look at a gymnast playing basketball you know, they’d look so ridiculous. Just the way they bounce the ball…
It’s always there, body tension is their second nature and I think you can not afford this in climbing, so I’m very interested how well it really goes for them. At the beginning we all had this idea, he’s a ballet dancer, or she’s a ballet dancer, look at what positions she can go she must be such a good climber but then she also has this thing of beauty and looking weightless so deeply ingrained in all her moves that she can not do moves that are ugly, you know and things like this (mimics compression move).
This is what makes performance sport such an interesting field, the transfer is not the way you would expect it. It’s much more subtle.
And you’ve got junior coaches that are still touting the power, the force and things like that?
Yeah they did that for this time but also we need to establish some qualities, what do you call it? We don’t need to look only at quantity. Of course the things that you can count are easily measured but there are things that you have to perceive or that you just see…
So it’s very easy to have a tick list but you need to look beyond the tick list.
Exactly. And for that you need to have a really good eye for the activity and then in every country there are not so many people that can really do the job… Without sounding (shrugs) … But if you really look at all the people that hang out at all the World Cups they know lots about climbing, obviously enough. But if you talk to people that think they know shitloads about climbing but don’t have this experience (Udo shakes his head dismissively)… You need to look at World class climbers on a daily basis basically to know what they’re capable of, and these people are hard to find.