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    Notes and advice from Sean McColl.

Competition Formats

One of the biggest debates in competition climbing in North American is competition formatting. I’ll be talking strictly about bouldering competitions. There are two different ways to score a bouldering competition; the first is scoring by point per hold and the other is the zone format. I’m also only talking about isolation type competitions, there’s definately another debate on how you should score scramble competitions. When I started competing at the age of 10, all of the isolation competitions I went to were zone format. It wasn’t until a few years ago that before our Canadian Boulder Regionals, Andrew Wilson told me we’d be scoring by “zone” format. The first time competing in this format, I was a little bit skeptical but after a few more, I was hooked. In Europe, the IFSC has been using this scoring format for many years and it seems to work. At our competitions in Canada, we strive to hold competitions like in Europe because they know how to put on a great competition. Since a few years ago, we put it into our rules that Canadian Boulder Nationals had to be zone format. The local competitions were supposed to be point per hold because they’re easier to put on.

In my opinion, zone scoring is a much better scoring system than point per hold. One of the biggest reasons for this is because it’s the International format. Any sanctioned competition in Europe must be zone format in qualifications, semis and finals. Another reason why I like the zone is because it rewards smarter climbers rathan than always the strongest. I’ve seen very strong competitors make mistakes during qualifyers and semis and as a result, they did not make finals. To me, thats the life of a competition. Everytime I enter a competition, I try as hard as I can to do as well as I can. I plan my warm up before hand, I try to have enough food and water in isolation and I also try to have a good time. I find that in competitions where it’s point per hold, I can usually guess who is going to win, where as in zone format, there’s a handful of strong climbers who have the skills to perform really well on that particular day.

With point per hold, usually the problem gets 1000 points and they divide that by the number of moves including matches to figure out how many points each move is worth. Usually there’s also a 100 point flashing bonus. So for example, if there’s 10 moves on the problem, every move you do will get you another 100 points. During most finals, there’s 4 problems. The point per hold system is a good system but I find it works better when there’s not a handful of climbers that could possibly win. In a world cup, there’s only 6 climbers that advance to finals and most of the competitors believe that any one of those competitors could win. At ABS Nationals for example, there was only about 3-4 competitors that could possibly beat Daniel Woods on a good day. In a few where almost 20 advanced to finals, it’s hard to make the problems hard enough to satisfy the strongest climbers but also allow all the other climbers to get up the wall. I also prefer the zone format because it encourages climbers to think before they try a problem because attempts play such a big factor.

Another thing that is very important in a competition is the quality of the boulders. I want to say right now that I loved the problems at ABS Nationals 2009 at The Spot. They were challenging, some were cryptic and some were just out right fun. When you set boulders with a zone format, there are a couple things you have to keep in mind. You can’t place the zone hold where you can easily reach it before doing a move. You’re supposed to place the zone hold, somewhere near the middle of the problem but more importantly after a cruxy move. You’re then supposed to have another cruxy move just before the finish of the boulder. So overall, you make a boulder with a crux just before the zone, and a crux somewhere after. If the climber is strong enough to do the first hard section, they get bonus, if he’s even stronger and struggles through the next hard section, he ges top. Thats how the zone format is supposed to work. Also the route setters are supposed to set sequences that are hard to read. Everytime I look at a boulder in a World Cup in Europe, I can barely even see the logical sequence. I stare at it for 30 seconds and I usually have 3-4 different ways to climb it. The only way to actually do it, is to adapt while you’re on the wall. I find that boulder problems in North American are painfully easy to read. I look at the problem and from the ground, I already know I’m going left, right, left, right, jump, match and then mantle. I love the challenge of not knowing excatly what I’m going to do and just feeling it out. Also, when you set zone format boulders, they can’t be too long. If I had to choose a negative thing about ABS Nationals this year, I’d say that I thought the problems were too long. It’s written in the IFSC competition rulebook that the combined moves of all the boulder problems may not exceed an average of 8 moves. I think this is the main fact that a lot of people were grumbling about the format at this year ABS Nationals. In Europe, they sometimes have boulders that are 3 moves long, sometimes they have a cryptic mantle and thats the whole boulder. Irregardless of the type of climb, they are usually not more than 8 moves. I know it’s very easy to get stuck on the fact that if you make a boulder problem longer, it’ll be harder. I route set boulder problems every 2 weeks at my local gym and it takes a lot of effort to make a top notch 3 or 4 move boulder problem, no matter what the grade.

In conclusion, I’m a fan of the zone format because it’s the IFSC standard and I love competing in Europe. I’ve also been in competitions where the point per hold format did work. If I had to choose between the two, I’d go for zone format. I’m sure there are a lot of people that disagree with me but that’s ok. Competition climbing is evolving and the sport grows bigger every year. Maybe this year, someone will throw zone format and point per hold and come up with something utterly amazing. Another thing is, if climbing ever got into the Olympics, it wouldn’t matter what format they were using, I’d still love to represent my country.

I hope this post was useful to answer some of your questions. I’m currently in the process of trying to make a “question and answer” part for my site.

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Comments (5)

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    Sean – kudos for possibly the most lucid description that I’ve seen on the different approaches to scoring and setting between Europe and the US. Most people fail to make the link between the two. I hope to see you back in Europe later in the year…


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    Mark Mercer


    I was also at ABS nationals, and heard opinions from both sides of this debate.

    I my opinion, zone format does a better job of scoring the top 10 to 20 competitors, which is what is most important at such a high level competition. Like you said, it rewards the smarter climber.

    Let me give you an example of one flaw I noticed in Boulder-
    I tied for 20th with a few others in qualifiers. We all flashed #1, but didn’t get a single bonus hold on any of the other problems. There were many others, such as Mike Feinberg, who I believe climbed way better than me, but placed lower than me just because he made a mistake on #1 and got it 2nd try. He got to the bonus hold of #2 and #3. I placed above him because it took me one try to top out and it took him 2. They don’t even look at bonus holds after that. I think it would be nice if maybe getting to 2 bonus holds was weighted higher than the difference between 1 and 2 attempts.

    Also, since it is relatively easy to qualify for nationals, you get competitors at your ability, and competitors that may only climb V6. So, while setting to break ties for those V13+ climbers, you end up with huge groups of ties in the lower ability climbers. I think those climbers are where you here the most opposition.


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    pete woods


    “irregardless” is not a word. 🙂

    well said. i always liked zone because either you send the problem or you don’t, getting to the last move and falling off isn’t the goal…

    nice work at the ABS.



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