Risk vs Reward vs Challenge

Last week while rock climbing, I noticed that there was a woman belaying who was not very comfortable belaying at all. Belaying is the person who spots the person climbing. The belayer pulls up the slack in the rope as the climber ascends the wall. The belayer is the only thing that keeps the climber from hitting the ground if he falls.person ready to belayAs I walked passed this woman and her climber, who was quite a good distance up the wall, I noticed she was doing a couple things that were definite don’t do’s. These were the kind of things that can get someone killed.

I walked over and gave her some quick advice to correct the problem so the climber would be safe and then hung out nearby until the climber was back on the ground. While lowering the climber back to the ground, it became immediately apparent that she wasn’t comfortable with this either.

I figure out what had happened pretty quickly. There are two kinds of devices you can use for belaying. A simple one or a complex one. She was using the complex one. Her climber was more experienced than her and let her use his equipment. She had only ever used the simple belay device. He gave her a quick crash course on his complex belay device and then headed up the wall. It was obvious she was very new to climbing and wasn’t ready for this device.

Her climber had made a critical risk vs reward mistake. I’m using this as an example because a miscalculation of this level could have gotten him killed. But risk/reward calculations don’t have to be this extreme. We do this kind of calculation every time we make an exercise or movement more challenging. The important thing to understand is whether or not the increase in risk is worth the reward.

We’ve all seen the YouTube videos of the CrossFitter dropping a bar on his head. The truth is, this is a relatively common occurrence in Olympic lifting. When you’re trying to throw 500 pounds over your head and things go wrong, they go wrong fast. If this happens at the Olympics while you’re trying to win gold, you’ve probably accepted that it could happen and you’re okay with it.

But when it happens in a training session, you probably need to take a good hard look at your motivation. Athletes at competition accept a certain level of risk inherent to the sport. But training sessions should be getting you ready for competition, not subjecting you to high levels of risk.

To use another example, if you balance on a 4×4 that’s 6 inches off the ground, what more training benefit would you get by putting that same 4×4 sixty feet off the ground? The truth is, you get no extra training benefit at all, unless you count the mental fear factor.

The 4×4 is exactly the same. It’s neither harder nor easier to balance on it. If you could do it no problem at 6 inches, you should be able to do it at 60 feet. The only thing you’ve actually increased is your risk. If you lose your balance at 6 inches, probably nothing will happen to you. But if you lose your balance at 60 feet, there’s a pretty high probably you’ll be killed, and it’s almost certain you’ll be injured.

The better way to scale this exercise would be to replace the 4×4 with something narrower. Or you could also make the 4×4 less stable. You could do both and replace the 4×4 with something like a slack line. Or you could change the nature of the 4×4 by replacing it with something round but the same size. All of these increase the challenge while minimally changing the risk.

The important thing to remember when training, or doing anything really, is to keep in mind what the benefit is relative to the risk involved. And the more challenging the activity, the more likely you are to experience the consequences of the risk.

I’m certainly not saying to not take risks, because simply being alive creates risk. Being alive is certain to kill you one day. But you definitely don’t want to add risk for no reason.

I’m just as guilty as any one of violating this concept, but as I’ve gotten older, now I can see better when I’m about to do something stupid. I didn’t used to think this way, but now I can perform at a high level while also keeping myself relatively safe. This allows me to train more often and make more progress!

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