The Importance of the Unfamiliar: 4 tips to keep growing as a setter

For most of us, setting is done in a familiar environment. We get paid by a gym to set a commercial product. We create routes and problems with holds we've used many times before, on walls that we know like the back of our hand. We may even fall into patterns, where we find ourselves resetting a similar line than we did the year before, because we know it was a hit, and we know it works. And hey, our customers won't complain - they loved it the first time so they'll love it again. Unfortunately, in routesetting as in life, the comfort of the familiar limits our growth.

We only learn when we fail, and we only fail when we're challenged. By limiting yourself to routesetting in a familiar environment, or with holds you know, or creating movements you understand, you will limit your improvement as a setter. Does this mean that you have to try to re-invent the wheel every time you pick up an impact driver? No - this is too much of a creative burden to put on yourself. There are, however, some simple ways to keep your setting perspective fresh, and to ensure you continue to grow in your craft. Here are some tips.

In routesetting as in life, the comfort of the familiar limits our growth.

1. On every setting day, set a movement or style that you're genuinely unfamiliar with.

For practical reasons, it isn't feasible to try to make every route a foray into the unknown. Sometimes we need to stick to our tried and tested methods, but force yourself to experiment with at least one movement or style every time you set. Maybe you generally like to set with lots of foot holds, so force yourself to limit your use of footholds on a particular route. Perhaps you always set a heel hook when pulling a lip - see if you can create a sequence that doesn't. In all cases, utilise forerunning to refine what you've created. Sometimes you'll have to scrap it and try again, but you will always learn.

2. Seek out opportunities to guest set.

Quite simply, go elsewhere and set in a different facility. Whether it's for a competition, or tagging along as part of a different gyms setting team, try to engage other setters and work with them. Not only will you be faced with unfamiliar terrain and unfamiliar holds, your perspective of setting will be enhanced by working with others.


3. When you visit new crags or gyms, climb 'actively'.

It's no co-incidence that good setters tend to be very technical climbers. To recreate something, we need to understand how it works. A lot of setters will encourage you to climb a variety of styles and in different places to gain inspiration. It's good advice, but only really benefits your setting when coupled with an active mindset. 

You need to consciously engage with the product you're sampling. Why did that route stay with you? Perhaps the setter had a theme of terrible feet throughout the entire climb, leading to a feeling of insecurity. Why did that problem feel like an adventure? The setter might have utilised wall space effectively by forcing sideways movement as well as several distinct cruxes. Try to understand why a move works. Is the right hand better than the left, and that's why it felt naturally to cross? If you simply climb and not reflect on how the movements set, you will always be able to explain whether you enjoyed something, but not necessarily be able to recreate it.


4. Limit your resources.

This may seem somewhat paradoxical. After all, new holds and volumes can be an important and refreshing source of inspiration for our setting, but it's not always the correct path to improvement. 

If you're not feeling challenged by your setting assignments, make things harder for yourself by limiting your hold selection, by forbidding yourself the use of footholds, or by volunteering to set on difficult terrain. Take away what makes you feel comfortable, and see if you can succeed in spite of that. You are guaranteed to learn more about setting than if you stick to the familiar.