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!

The one about Why we do what we do?


Well, this being a site called Confessions, perhaps i should sort of confess. When i first started on this journey to try and bring together the climbing instructor community, I was, and still am, terrified at the thought of attempting something so big. I have always bounced off the idea of doing a workshop or doing a talk or just gathering instructors to climb and talk, but all these ideas didn’t bear fruit coz of the fear of rejection. I shared with some that i was afraid, afraid of the response, afraid of the unknown. I confided in some friends, what if others say,

“Who does he think he is to conduct a workshop on climbing?”

“He’s only a Cat 1 instructor teaching Lvl 1…”

“What’s his agenda? Who is he representing?”

To the credit of a friend of mine – KS (I believe in giving credit when credit is due!), he reminded me that “people will always talk. And people will always be suspicious. But you should still do it if you believe that it is good for the community.”

So here is my confession.

I am afraid. I am afraid nobody will respond, that this idea of community that i have always believed in my head, is all but a fantasy of mine after reading one too many outdoor or team building books. I am afraid of the rejection if others will find me not worthy. I have never given a talk or conducted a workshop and i sure as hell have never facilitated a session as big, as open as the one i am attempting to do on 1 Oct for the instructor community. But i know that i must still try.

I must confess that i run on passion. By now those who know me will know that i bear no allegiance to any gym or any organisation. I freelance at all the gyms to get a feel and an understanding of how each one operates. I believe that i have a good feel of what goes on in the climbing community. And once in awhile i see gaps, i see problems, i see potential, i see opportunities. I am completely neutral in this big project that i am undertaking. For those who doubt me, i guess only time will tell. I would like to see the entire instructor community grow and progress together. From the shambles that we are now into a professional entity that we will be proud of, that newbies to the sport will feel safe and secured to learn with. I want climbers to aspire to be instructors one day if they so choose to. And i want them to receive the best training they can get, to have a fair unbiased playing field to learn and test themselves. I want the instructors to not stagnate but to keep growing and keep dreaming. To build a true community of practice where we will share and learn together. I want an entity that will evolve when the need arises, to not be afraid to challenge itself, to keep renewing and keep on growing.

I am putting myself upfront to take the lead and get things up. But i cannot do it alone. We can let it be or we can try to do something about it,  regardless of our fears. I’m taking that step. Will anyone join me?

Peaceful Vibes

The one about the Top 5 Things I have been repeating to Trainee Instructors…

So here i am to do my part, it took awhile to get off my butt, but here i am. Perhaps let me start the inaugural post here by sharing the “Top 5 Things I have been repeating to Trainee Instructors (TI)”

#1 Always have a plan.
It’s amazing how often TI’s show up for a class without planning out their lessons. For most it’s not a matter of laziness when i hear from them but they thought with all their experience climbing they could easily talk about the topic at hand. When that happens, a very interesting phenomenon happens. You will see the TIs talking confidently about the few points they have and then comes the abrupt stop. A stop so abrupt that the silence is almost deafening. Because at this point, the TIs will realise that whatever they knew was only enough for 1min at most. They will then try to add in bits and pieces of information they remembered which only serves to confuse the participants more. In a matter of minutes, they will be looking at me with pleading eyes asking for help to salvage the silence. More often than not, when you sit them down at the end of the day they will share that their greatest regret was not planning for the session beforehand although most if not all will say that they thought they knew enough about the topic.

It’s simple. Plan your portion of the lesson before hand. And as you get more experienced, you might even have different lesson plans for the different learner profiles you might encounter. When you plan out the lesson, you start to see the linkages between the knowledge you are imparting. You start to see gaps forming and you might think of ideas or activities to cover these gaps. Spend the time to plan. Even after teaching for so many years, i still sit down the night before a class to review my lesson plans for the next day.

A cautionary note here : I am not bothered about the content here, you can easily pick up content from a book or a website. In fact, most participants nowadays come even more knowledgable than me from their online subscriptions of Rock & Ice… What you do with the content is the important part as an Instructor. How you organise the information? How you deconstruct it to easily digestable pieces? How you make an otherwise dry topic (think Fall Factor) into a interactive hands on activity? Content is never the issue. If I give you ten years of experience you will definitely know more, but it still doesn’t automatically mean you can teach. Enuf said…

#2 Put yourself in their shoes.

Some TI’s whom I have met are just trying to impress the participants with the depth and breadth of knowledge that they have, conveniently forgetting that the sole reason why the participants are here is exactly because they do not have that much knowledge in the first place. Thankfully i have yet to meet one with a condescending tone yet but most of the time the TI’s get frustrated when the participants are not able to understand what they are trying to teach.

Sometimes all we need to do is to take a step back and put ourselves in their shoes when we first started climbing. What do we want to learn? I’m quite sure it wasn’t about the difference between a keylock carabiner or an autolock carabiner…. rather, i just wanted to climb climb climb! Why then do we expect our participants to want to listen to us when we teach? I believe an instructor must know how to find a balance between what must be taught and what is “good to know”. No one can tell you where the line is drawn, i think everyone has to sit down and decide for themselves where that line is to be drawn, at least until the Instructor Community gets around to standardising what we teach. (Some would hope that day never come…)

But yeah, put yourselves in their shoes. Give the participants a chance to learn and grow.

#3 Direct their attention.

I remember attending a coaching class once where the lecturer showed us a video of this discus thrower in action. The guy held the discus in his hand, leaned back a bit and then took two big turns, arms extended and at the right point, he released the discus flinging it a great distance.

Then the lecturer looked up and asked the class, “So, which leg did he use to take his first step on that throw?”

The class was silent. The lecturer made a very impactful point that day at least to me. A good instructor must know how to direct the participants’ attention to what he is teaching.

Many a times i have observed TI’s and instructors alike who do this in their 5-step belaying class:
“Ok class, this is how we do the 5 steps belay. One-two-three-four-five. Ok? I repeat again watch huh, One-two-three-four-five. Ok? Get it? Now all of you try and follow me.”

I do mine a bit differently…

“Ok class, watch whilst i demonstrate the 5 steps belay. One-two-three-four-five.”
“Now i want you to watch my right hand as i do the five steps again, and then tell me what do you notice about it? Here we go…. Watch my hands…One-Two-Three-Four-Five.”

When you overload the participants with so many things to look at, they become like the class i described above, they do not know what to look at and they are constantly trying to remember every detail….including every unimportant detail. They are not sure what to focus on what to pay attention to, so they end up absorbing nothing. With some clear direction from the instructor, the participants will be able to pick up the important point that the instructor is trying to  make.

Give it a try next time. Direct their attention to what you are trying to show.

#4 Make a list at critical checkpoints.

When teaching hard skills, try to list down what you have just taught so that it is easier for the participants to internalise what they just learnt into bite sized chunks. From their point of view, they have just learned a new skill and they are struggling to master the skill, when we make checklists, it chunks down the information for them and it aids in their memory retention. You can constantly take out this checklist again throughout the day to remind them of the important points and the repetition makes it into a habit eventually.

Case in point. When i teach how to tie a Fig. 8 Follow Through Knot (yes…that’s its full name…not Figure 8…), after they have mastered it, i will usually get them to list down what are the safety checks i have just verbally explained to them. So the participants will repeat throughout the day when they check their knots that the knots have to be :

  1. Knot is tightened.
  2. The loop through their harness should be smaller than a fist.
  3. Tail must be longer than 15cm
  4. Check for 5 parallel lines.

Throughout the day, i will repeat to them, “So what are the 4 things we look out for when checking our knots?” and count them off on my fingers as they share with me what they remember.

#5 Use the same equipment as your participants when you teach.

As simple as this sounds, many TI’s often miss out on this and again come to an abrupt halt when they are teaching their participants how to tie in to the rope, only to realise that their belay loops are different from what the participants have. This makes for a very confusing, disjointed lesson on tying in, when the TI has to digress to explain about the different types of harness and why we need to tie in through both loops but when using a carabiner we use one…. Do you see where this is heading? The further you detour, the harder it is to bring the participants mentally back to the lesson at hand.

So the short answer will be to always do your preparation and planning. Get an extra set of gym gear for yourself to teach in throughout the day and leave behind your fancy belay devices or safety slings that mark you out as an experienced climber in the gym. I usually spend half the day teaching with the gym gear so that the participants can emulate me when they practice and they have a visual reference in me when they are confused. Only when they practice do i switch to my personal gear which frankly speaking is much more comfortable for me. An added side effect is the conversations and curiosity it generates when your pax comes up to you and ask why is your harness so different from theirs and what is that “thin flat strap” attached to your harness for? This is self-directed learning and that is where they really learn. Yup, back to basics helps.

Alrighty, so there you go, my “Top 5 Things I have been repeating to Trainee Instructors”. I mean no disrespect to any of the TI’s who have OJT-ed under me. It was a pleasure to share with each and everyone of you and many of you have given me very valuable feedback on my teaching style as well as my mentoring style as well. I sincerely hope new TI’s can take the time to plan and come prepared for their OJT’s so that the session can be beneficial for both the participants and the TI. After all you are already not getting paid so you might as well learn something for the day and not just clock another OJT for the sake of it. Just my thoughts.

Peaceful Vibes!