The one about less and more…

So i was conducting yet another Level 1 course over the wkend. Nothing spectacular, just the usual. Except this time i tried consciously to keep the theory session short, trying to convince myself that “less is more”. This was something a kayaking instructor – C, was sharing with us on  my kayak coaching course, “Less is more, More is less”. It didn’t make any sense to me previously but i put it in the corner of my mind, to be retrieved when i needed it. I think i finally understood it.

A normal Adrian Level 1 Class goes like that:

1000hrs Admin/Intro, Sports vs Rock, Types of Climbing
1100hrs Equipment – Ropes, Carabiners, Belay Devices, Shoes, Chalkbag
1200hrs Break
1215hrs Equipment (condt) – Harness, How to wear.
1230hrs Knots
1300hrs Belay Sch, Practice
1345hrs Lunch
1445hrs Climbing Practice
1700hrs End

It was a chore teaching the first part because it was always difficult holding their attention, but yet every bone, every fibre, every cell in my body was reluctant to let go of the information to be passed down.

“What if they need it in Level 2?”
“It’s a fact they might need…”
“Nevermind lah it won’t take long to explain it…”

Today i forced myself to change. “Less is more” i told myself. I have to believe it. So i tried. I spoke only about the essentials, i let questions come from the class. And this was how it turned out.

1000hrs Ppl Late….
1015hrs Admin/Intro, Sports vs Rock, Types of Climbing
1045hrs Equipment – Ropes, Carabiners, Belay Devices, Shoes, Chalkbag
1115hrs Break
1125hrs Equipment (condt) – Harness, How to wear.
1135hrs Knots
1200hrs Belay Sch, Practice
1245hrs Lunch
1345hrs Climbing Practice
1500hrs Auto Belay
1600hrs Last Climb, Summary Activity, Closing
1630hrs End

OMG! I actually ended early! This seldom happens! And the participants were so much more relaxed. They were not rushed, they were able to practice and to ask questions all afternoon. At one point i could just get out of the way and sit back and watch over them as they climbed. I learnt an important point to day. C was right… “Less is More, More is Less”.

The less you teach, the more they can absorb and learn.The more you try to teach, the less they will absorb. It also goes to how you teach. When you demonstrate a skill, you simplify  the action (Less) but you exaggerate the action (more). Something for us to learn from our kayaking counterparts i guess. I learned something new today, i guess you CAN teach an old dog new tricks.


The one about virtual reality…

Saw this video on FB today and i was pretty blown away by what Oculus and VR can do. Apart from catching Pokemons (which technically is AR…), just imagine the possibilities it can do in the classroom. I know, i know we are very far away from that now but i was just imagining the possibilities of VR or AR when it becomes mainstream.

Just imagine i might not even need a climbing wall in front of me as I explain. I can just call up an image of a climbing wall or even a natural wall. Need a video on how to place nuts? Just call it up and all the students can see and maybe even interact with it. My most common complain as an instructor is when that we can never show students the consequences of our actions like what happens if you let go of your brake hand for just one second or if your hair really gets stuck in the ATC as you are belaying. Now we can show them and even let them experience it with a virtual victim. Imagine i can draw out items in the virtual world and let them interact with the items. The part where he draws a sword and uses it was pretty cool. Imagine just drawing a carabiner and asking the pax to show where he would attach it in the anchor system? That would be cool!

Looks like VR will be the next technological evolution. Rather than using it to catch make virtual pocket monsters, can we think of ways to harness it for more purposeful education?

The one about the unprepared lecture…

One idea that i have been toying around with for awhile but i never had the courage to try yet.

'I got a good buy on it from army surplus, and it should solve my traffic problems.'

I had a very interesting lecture once given by a Battallion Commander during one of my army courses. The Colonel was supposed to come in and give us a 2hr lecture on a particular armour topic.

We were expecting yet another boring, stuffy, “sage on the stage” kind of lecture by a stuffy old Colonel again. But the first sign that things were different was that a young, energetic “scholar” Colonel stood at the front of the room introducing himself as the guest speaker for the day. He then proceeded to ask us point blank,

“So i have been asked to share with you guys about Armour Advance tactics. So what do you want to know about Advance tactics?”

We were dumbfounded. I was preparing to snooze…. Nobody responded.

“Come on gentlemen. We are here to learn about Advance, so i rather we talk about something that YOU want to know then me talk about something that does not interest you at all. You want the textbook syllabus, ownself go home and read the manual. I want to make sure this 2hrs is well spent this afternoon for you to pick my brain.”

The young Colonel proceeded to pick up a marker and scribbled on the flipchart board all the topics thrown up by us.

“Sir, how do we ensure communication is maintained between our sister units on our flanks?”
“Sir, do you have any examples to share about real Ops where the advance failed and what did the unit do?”
“Sir, how do we marry speed with maximum firepower during an advance?”

The Colonel listed all our questions down on a flipchart. One final call around the room for any last questions and he spent the next 2 hrs going through point by point checking off each question that he answered.

That was one of the most engaging lectures i had in the army although i half suspect he didn’t prepare for the lecture actually. But it showed me how a learner-centric lesson can capture the learner’s attention and keep him interested when you make something relevant for him. It was a very key lesson that would affect how i do my teaching until today. To try and get buy in from my learners.

Nope this isn’t some radio station but it stands for “What’s In It For Me?”. What’s in it for every individual learner? How can we make our lessons more relevant to them to create more buy in for them and make them want to remember, want to internalise, want to learn? Think about our boring “theory” lessons in Level 1 classes? Some instructors have gone to the extent of removing or shortening their theory sessions because they are often struggling to keep the participants engaged. Some simply doze off… But when we remove something, are we short-changing the participants? Do we create a problem downstream when the participants come for Level 2 or 3 and do not know what’s the difference between a dynamic and a static rope for example? Can we, make the theory more engaging for the participants?

Anyone wants to give this a try or have any suggestions how to make this work?

The one about the crappy knot…

When we teach how to tie into a harness, we usually introduce some key points to make sure the Figure 8 Follow Through / Rewoven Fig. 8 knot tied is safe. Some variations i have heard include making sure that the knot is :

  1. Knot is Tight
  2. Excess tail not more than 15cm long
  3. 5 Parallel Lines
  4. Knot is well dressed
  5. Loop must be smaller than 1 fist

I like to do this little activity with the class once they have mastered tying into the knot but before i give them this list of knowledge. I would tie the sloppiest knot ever like below into my harness.


I would then set up a story, and for dramatic effect, i would role play it so that the class gets a good laugh.

“Ok guys, now just imagine all of you have gotten your Level 1 cert already and i am the only person here who does not have a level 1 cert. Now i saw what you have been doing and monkey see monkey do, i just followed along. This is the knot that i get (points to my knot). Can i start climbing?”

This will usually be met with a chorus of laughter or some incredulous looks. Most will say “No way dude”. And i would follow up with a “Why not? I did exactly what you just did what?”

Then the real learning begins. They will start to point out everything that is wrong with it. Conversations usually go as such.

“Errr the tail is too short…” (He/She has just stated the point)

“So? So what?” (Trying to draw out the understanding)

“Coz if the climber moves too vigorously the short tail will just slip out and the knot will come undone.”

I will then demonstrate what the participant has just said to drive home the point.

Gradually more answers will come in to point out all the faults in the knot. I find this a more visual and interactive way to drive home the key points about tying a safe Fig. 8 Follow Through Knot. Rather than just listing it and expecting the participants to memorise them. Now they have an image, some movement, to anchor their memory and help relate to the safety pointer they are suppose to remember.

Give it a try. Do you teach it in any other way? Pray do share.


The one about the non-mechanical belaying devices…

109808653_medium_6130ae(Photo Source : )

So over the long wkend, i received a note that one of the climbing gyms has decided to move ahead to introduce non-mechanical assisted braking devices eg. Mammut SMART belay, Climbing Technology Click Up, Edelrid Mega Jul, in their Level 1 courses at the gym. I had a chat with the gym owner once and he did share with me the rationale why the gym is pushing for it. We had a good discussion over their pros and cons (ok mostly pros) and why it will be good to introduce them not just in the courses but to see them being used more often in the gyms. I was really glad to hear about such innovations because such devices can really up the safety factor in belaying. Say what we want, but there is always the potential for human error to creep in no matter how experienced we are. These devices help to keep the risk to a bare minimum. My opinion was that there was no harm introducing them to new climbers at an early stage so that they get familiar with them and build up good habits using them. I am more than happy to include them in my courses especially with the gym’s support not just to supply us with the gear but to help us get familiar with it. If you are not familiar with non-mechanical assisted belay devices, here’s a good simple article that i found : They cover both mechanical and non-mechanical devices. 

As we spoke i also began to voice my concerns over whether will climbers eventually start to see these assisted belay devices as a norm in the gym. My greatest worry was that there will come a day when i will be belaying in the gym with my good old ATC and some young punk will come up to me and call me out for doing something unsafe. All because he has never seen an ATC before. I can just imagine the conversation (in the future),

Young Punk (YP) : “Hey Uncle, do you know that that device that  you are using is not safe?

Me : *resisting all my natural instincts to stab him in his jugular vein for calling me Uncle* “Why is it not safe?

YP : “Because it does not have any braking assistance. What if you let go of your brake hand accidentally?”

Me: “Well in my time (yes i know this is not helping to bring my age down…), we were all trained to use this ATC and the belayer simply had to learn NEVER to let go of the brake hand no matter what happens. It’s a sacred trust between the climber and the belayer and no matter what happens, my brake hand will always remain on the brake line. So as much as i appreciate your concern, this device is safe to use in the gym with a trained belayer thank you.

YP : “Yes, you are trained but what if the unexpected happens? You lose concentration for a moment and the climber falls. The climber dislodges a tile that hits you on your brake hand. So many things can go wrong. Why not just use an assisted belay device so that you will be 100% safe? I disagree that we should leave it to “trust”, as if “trust” will take care of us all. Gravity will still happen with or without trust. So i think it is still best to belay using an assisted belay device. Here, you can use mine.

Me, “Really dude, i’m good with my ATC. I’m more familiar with it anyway. And besides, no device is 100% safe. Btw you really shouldn’t talk to a belayer when he is belaying…

I can just imagine how the conversation will continue when we go into ethics, moral dilemma, rules & regulations, star wars vs star trek, pikachu vs ratata…. I guess that’s what makes this conversation important. On one hand i am happy to see a step taken in the right direction to reduce the risk in climbing, but the traditional aspects in me still wants to keep the old skool, romantic notions of climbing. Where to rope up with your buddy was way more than just a 5 min climb. Where by belaying, you promise to always hang on to that line even if he fell a thousand times and not leave it to a mere device to catch him. Will we even need a belayer in future? (Check out this blog : )These thoughts swivelled through my mind as i talked with BT that evening. Until he said something that made some sense to my undecided mind,

“Do you remember in the old days we made use of stitch plates and Fig. 8’s to belay? Why did we stop? Because a whole new generation of devices came along – the tubular devices like your ATC’s. Are we now seeing another new generation of devices being introduced? Maybe this will be the new norm?”

So this is progress. The price of progress. I was swayed a little but the conundrum still existed in my mind. As a climber, i was all in for the safety. But as an instructor, i still felt that it was my duty to teach. Perhaps until the day that BT described really arrives where the tubular becomes obsolete then perhaps i will feel more comfortable to leave out the good ole non-assisted belay devices. Till the day comes where the market is flooded with these devices, i hope we can all have the good sense not to make so drastic a distinction between safe and dangerous. Let’s not forget that these assisted braking devices are safe, but you can never remove the human capacity for stupidity. You solve the belaying problem but all it takes is for the same idiot to rig up the device wrongly or attach his carabiner wrongly or the knot is tied wrongly or harness never double and that’s it. At the end of the day, perhaps it is the belayer’s mentality, the approach to belaying, the regard for the importance of belaying that we should be concerned about? Always check regardless of what expensive device you have there. We are humans…and that makes us vulnerable.

These are the conversations that we should be having as a climbing instructor community. Thank you for engaging the community to move a step forward in the face of inactivity.

Peaceful Vibes!

The one about that decorative knot…

Ok i must confess, sometimes for the fun of it, i like to point at the little overhand knots some climbers like to tie at the end of their Fig. 8 Follow Through knot on their harness and ask, “What’s that for? Decoration ahh?”

Figure 8 Follow Through Knot with an Overhand knot back up (Photo Source :


Trainee Instructors attached to me for that day will be grilled on the significance of that overhand knot especially if they teach it to the participants for the day. And the most common answer i get from climbers alike for the overhand knot is,

“I was told that it serves as a back-up knot”

Followed closely by, a sheepish grin and…

“I have too much excess rope in the tail…”

The devil in me will then start to probe the reasoning. Everything we do has to have a reason, a logic else why are we wasting time doing it? If there is excess rope at the tail end of the rope, it probably means you didn’t measure it properly right? So should we go back and retie the knot if we are trying to inculcate good habits in the climbers?

If that knot is meant to be a back up for the main Fig. 8 knot, then do you really think it will hold a climber’s weight if you get the Fig. 8 wrong? That tiny little knot with a miserable 1-2cm excess of tail just so that it looks tidy on your rope? Really? Some would point out to me that most adventure centres’ SOP’s are to have the knot and some books advocate it, even to the extend that some would say the knot is totally unsafe for climbing until the overhand knot is present. I do not reject any of those explanations, as long as you yourself are convinced by it. And that you are able to convince your participants about your reasoning. Because people will ask and if your answer does not hold water, then your standing as an instructor in front of them will decrease gradually.

This brings me to the question, was tying that overhand knot a standard or a preference? Standards are things that we need to teach because they are mandated in the syllabus. Preferences are what we prefer doing because of some reason or some past experience. Preferences usually do not have any safety implications. If it is so important, it would usually be a standard rather than a preference. So should an instructor be teaching standards or preferences? This is a fine line to draw and many of us will be grappling especially if the guidelines or syllabus or passing standards are not clear and definite. Are  you able to differentiate between your preferences and the standards you are suppose to be teaching as an instructor?

The one about that black belt…

How do you end off a climbing course? I use a variety of methods to close off the day. No… doing the admin brief like “your cert no need to renew” or “it is valid in all of SEA nowadays…” is not a proper closing. It’s always good to end off the day since you probably had a good strong start at the start of the day. Beyond the admin brief and summarising the skills they learnt throughout the day, i usually like to end off with something thoughtful so that they might reflect on it on the way home. I have lots of stories but here’s one that i particularly like.  I heard this from a teambuilding facilitator once, didn’t know his name but he was using it for a certification programme so it’s quite apt here. Enjoy!

The Black Belt

A Karate student was on his way to collect his Black Belt from his master. When he came upon his master, he bowed and asked respectfully,“Master, I have trained hard all these years, I have defeated the best in the land, I have won every single fight, I am ready for my black belt, will you pls confer it onto me?”

The wise old master looked at him and replied, “Before presenting you with your black belt, I have a question for you. What does this belt mean to you?”

 The student immediately replied, “It means that I have attained perfection in the art of Karate and that I have reached the highest level in the martial art, master.”

The Karate Master shook his head in disappointment, “You are not worthy of the black belt yet. Go away and come back in another year.”

The student was very disappointed. But he went away and trained even harder for the entire year. He defeated better fighters and won every difficult fight. Eventually it was time to return to his master for his belt. He was confident that this time the black belt would be his.

 Upon arriving before his master, the master asked him the same question, “What does this belt mean to you?”

 The young student was confident and replied, “I understand why you turned me away a year ago, master. Now I feel stronger after I have defeated even more exponents and attained a higher level of proficiency in Karate. The belt will show that I have reached that level.”

 Again, the master was disappointed and replied, “You are still not ready for the black belt, go away for another year and come back again.”

 The student was shocked! He never expected this reply. He was already the best in the land. However he still went away and practiced hard for the next year. His skills were even better than the year before when he finally returned to the master again for his black belt.

 Again, the master asked him, “What does the black belt mean to you?”

The student pondered over the question this time and it occurred to him that the master was not looking for the usual answer. And then it dawned upon him.

 “Master, I finally understand. Achieving the black belt is only the beginning of my route to perfection. I have not attained perfection. Instead the belt is a reminder to me that I have continue to work hard and practice hard to achieve perfection.”

With that, the master was finally smiling and he promptly conferred the black belt to his former student. He had finally understood the significance behind the belt.

So that’s that. I will usually end it off by saying this to my pax.
In a way, the certificate you are holding now is like a black belt. We can go away with this cert thinking that we have mastered a skill but if we fail to continue practicing it, and perfecting it, our skills will dull and eventually disappear. Getting this cert is only the beginning and we should start to practice perfecting it rather than just rest on our laurels. Something for you to think about today as you go home. What does this cert mean to you? With that, i end my day. 
Do you use any other stories to end the day in a climbing course? I would love to hear more. I have other tricks up my sleeves for the ending but i will leave it to another post for now.
Peaceful Vibes!