Strongman vs. Strongmanager
Updated: Dec 29, 2019
The makings of a great head routesetter
Before I dig in, let’s clear up the obvious eyebrow-raiser: by man, I don’t mean male. It was just a play on words. Besides, it’s going to be a while before the term womanager catches on.
Have you looked at job postings for commercial head routesetters? A quick browse of the interwebs will reveal that the general consensus, aside from a good relationship with impact drivers, comfort with behind-the-wall shenanigans, and outstanding rope systems, is that head routesetters should be regularly red-pointing a minimum of 5.13 and on-sighting V8 boulders. They should also have a few of their USAC certifications. I agree; they probably should. It’s definitely extremely helpful to be a strong climber to be a good head routesetter. Being a great head routesetter, on the other hand, doesn’t have that much to do with how hard you can climb. The bulk of it has to do with wearing the hats of Head Coach, Team Captain, and Business Manager.
I’ve never been a head routesetter in the commercial gym sense of the word. I probably never will unless I really start caring about pushing the grade, which (gasp!) I don’t. What I have been is a teacher, a coach, and a manager in a variety of capacities, as well as a director of the route setting program at a small collegiate climbing facility. I have also worked as a route setter in a couple larger commercial gyms. As a member of each setting team, I have been able to get a close look at different management strategies. Additionally, I bring the perspective of the clientele, having climbed in many gyms around the country. This conversation is not meant to be a critique of head routesetters; I have been lucky enough to work under some excellent leaders. It is intended as a collection of inspiring words to help those of you who want to become head setters, or who already are, be the absolute best you can – for your team, your gym, and the patrons who frequent your walls.
While I do think head routesetters should be able to climb or at least pull all (or most?) of the moves on the routes their teams set, I also think it is just as valuable to truly know the difference between V2 and V3. How do you do that if you’re a double digit boulderer? You climb a bunch of V2s and V3s. It doesn’t matter if they’re boring. I taught music lessons for years. Do you know how many times I have played Twinkle Twinkle or, heaven forbid, Let It Go? More times than anyone I know has ever climbed V2. BUT – I can now look at a piece of music and know what it is going to sound like without playing it. I am really good at picking out melodies and improvising on harder pieces of music because I’ve done so much rudimentary work with beginner and intermediate students. I know all the markers of what is going to cause a blossoming musician to stumble, just the way that a head routesetter should be able to look at a route on a 50-degree wall and know that those slopers are definitely not V4 without pulling on.
More important than being able to crank on hard routes, is knowing and being highly proficient at systems. Even more important than that, is knowing how to teach them. You don’t have to be an aid climber to know how to run up a rope and haul a heavy bag up a wall, but you do need to practice. Additionally, while there is more than one way to skin a cat, there are also tons of ways to haul efficiently and to get down from a route without leaving any setting lines behind. Knowing multiple systems, being able to teach them to your team, and having the right tools for the job are all key components.
There is, currently, no set pedagogy for teaching someone to set routes. Some gyms have training checklists, but how those techniques are communicated is up to the head routesetter. The systems you like and that are most efficient for you may not be the best for other setters. Know how to teach all the different systems, teach them well, and let your setters decide what they prefer so long as it keeps up with the demands of the team.
If you feel like you suck at teaching, which is not something to be ashamed about, it’s a skill set that needs practice just like mantling or inverted off-width climbing, here are some hacks to system training:
1. Write it out, step-by-step.
2. Teach a friend and then have them teach it back to you (without correcting them until the end) so you can see your communication efficacy.
3. Make a video of yourself demonstrating how to utilize a setting system (and never show it to anyone because it’s probably pretty boring) and watch it as if you were a blank slate of enthusiastic, prime, twenty-year-old, routesetter material. Take notes. Fix your weak spots.
The second half of teaching is giving effective feedback, and that part is extremely tricky. The most important facets aren’t what you say, but how you say it. Some people love the sandwich method (positive feedback, critical feedback, followed by positive). Some people, like me, would rather you just get to the damn point so I can go back to screwing holds on the wall, but I’m not everyone. Some people are more sensitive. Regardless of whether you are talking to a stone hearted person like me or someone with feelings, your tone should be gracious and focused on how you can guide your routesetters to owning the feedback you give them. Keep it clear, concise, and kind; no one needs a lecture on why certain color holds can’t be next to one another; that’s obvious. But they may need an explanation and/or demonstration on why or how to use redirects effectively on a steep lead wall if that is outside of their experience. Feedback also works best when it is rational and structural, as opposed to emotional and opinionated. If a setter misses the grade, or sets a route that isn’t achieving its purpose, it’s important to be able to explain why and how it could be improved. If you’re a head routesetter, you’re already a pro at setting routes. Go through your mental process aloud during forerunning and let your new setters make the tweaks. Share the experience. Most importantly, give lots of positive feedback. You’re doing a great job if you’re letting your employees know they’re doing a great job.
My final note on feedback is while your words may hold clout with your setters to a degree, the greatest feedback they can receive is having time after setting (on the clock) to watch patrons climb their routes and to chat directly with them about their thoughts on the setting. Commercial setting is about the people you serve, not about forcing a sick rose move every week. Encourage that service and make it a regular part of the week.
Being able to motivate your team is huge, especially during those long day/late night competition sets. But, it’s even bigger for you to be part of the regular day-to-day team when you can. Your setters understand when you have required administrative duties to attend to, but putting on a harness, helping with forerunning, working one-on-one with setters on their boulder problems so they can learn to create the movement they envision – it’s those things that really motivate a team.
This is just a guess, but chances are all of your employees love climbing, which makes for easy-to-organize hangs outside of work. All of my current and former coworkers within the field of climbing are some of the most fun people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working alongside. Take a day to go climbing outside as a team. Go play disc golf, pub trivia, or go paddle a river. Build the team; it’ll pay off in the long run.
Donuts also work.
Climbing gyms are expensive. It doesn’t matter how much you love the sport, your gym, your team, or route setting, there is a likely chance part of your job is going to be about keeping expenses to a minimum. Bits break, bolts get stripped, holds get old, and labor isn’t free.
If skills are taught carefully the first time around, things break less. Certainly, a lot of things are unavoidable – metal wears out and plastic warps. Your setters are your most valuable asset, teaching them how to work smarter, not harder, is going to save you from excessive labor time, injuries on the job, and burnout, resulting in lower turnover and less time spent training new employees.
Additionally, we are at a bit of a sea change in the route setting industry. Climbing is a newly christened Olympic sport, gyms are becoming more and more popular, and demand for and responsibilities of routesetters continues to increase. As a result, there have been rumblings in the community. While gym owners respond differently to advocacy, the voice of the head routesetter is louder than those of individual routesetters as head routesetters are often the main conduit between their employees and upper management.
The important message is: take care of your setters. They’re your family and your team. Advocate for them when necessary and appropriate. The industry is nowhere near recognizing the potential of promoting careers (and livable wages) for routesetters, but keeping that discussion on the table and those lines of communication open are, without a doubt, part of your job. Make sure your team feels supported and has the tools they need to complete their work to the best of their abilities, whether that is a hold selection that is up for the task, fresh masonry bits if you work in an older gym, enough drills and functioning haul buckets, or paid time during the work day for self-care. Someday, that may even mean employer-provided health insurance for routesetters, but you don’t go from 5.11 to 5.14 overnight.
In summation, if you can teach and build your team and advocate for them in addition to making beautiful 3D wall art, you have what it takes to be great. And when you occasionally fall short, donuts can't hurt.
Lindsey Isaacson is a routesetter at Climb Nashville and has set at gyms in North Carolina and South Dakota. She left her job as a school teacher and a life in the desert to focus on a career in the music industry and to hang out with the boys as a full-time routesetter. She loves fat cracks, big alpine routes, songwriting, muscles, and soft clothes.