Knowing how to set a good route is just the beginning when it comes to being a head setter. In addition to having to needing a good grasp on the fundamentals of setting, you need to be an effective manager, enforce quality control, and be on top of logistics. It's a rewarding step up from setting, but it is challenging and fundamentally different from putting up a single route or problem in isolation. There are a few things that are essential for you to do in order to do this job justice.
1. Have a clear vision
The vision for your gym’s climbing is important for the same reason that the menu at a restaurant is important. It defines the experience of the venue. It sets expectations about your product, and lays out clear criteria by which all other setting can ultimately refer.
Forming this vision should not occur in a vacuum. It is relative to the overall market that your gym is seeking to serve. Is your gym catering heavily to kids parties? Is it bouldering only, and catering to outdoor climbers? Is it a big gym, or maybe a small training club? All of these markets are best served in different ways. For the kids parties, this might mean creating many sections of easy, fun, feature routes - even if it means sacrificig overall wall space. In a big gym, you might want to focus on reducing overall density, and creating visually stunning king lines to differentiate yourself from your competitors. Or perhaps you want to offer a high number of funky, beta intensive routes instead of the typical, flowy and straightforward style training route.
Whatever it is, be aware that there is no single right answer as to what route setting should look like. Different styles of movement, methods of grading, and densities will be appropriate in different environments. Instead, what is important, is simply that you understand and define your own vision. This central focus can then be used to inform decision making about the gym's route setting for everyday purposes.
2. Understand your customer base
Designing at a high level requires a user centred focus. Your decisions about what you create need to be informed by the abilities and goals of the climbers at your gym. Regularly take the time to observe people climbing in your gym, and encourage setters on your team to do the same. And not just the strong climbers - everybody. Take note of styles of movement that people struggle with, what they enjoy and what they don’t. Over time, you should be able to create a mental catalogue of climbers - understanding what climbers at each level are capable of and how they are likely to try to climb your routes. You can then draw on that knowledge when you’re evaluating your setters work and assessing the suitable of a movement for a particular grade range.
Direct feedback in the form of conversations or customer rating systems are important for getting a general feel of customer satisfaction, but they’re not nearly as valuable as observing from afar. The reason for this is that while a climber might be able to tell you if they enjoyed something or if they didn’t, they generally won’t be able to give you effective, specific suggestions to improve. Simply because very few climbers actually understand the process of route setting. Relying on suggestions from climbers to improve a route is like a chef taking suggestions on ingredient changes from patron who didn’t enjoy their main course. You are the expert, and it is up to you to identify why a route or problem isn’t meeting its purpose.
3. Take ownership
If you are the head setter at your facility, then the buck stops with you. Ultimately, any issues related to the quality or the safety of the route setting falls on your shoulders. As long as you are going to be held accountable for this, you need to claim ownership of any decisions and tasks that relate to the setting where you work. From hold washing to route setting advertising videos - own the process and influence decisions for the better. You will not always make the right call, and you’re going to have to wear it when there’s a stuff up, but if you don’t have a clear plan and communicate that plan effectively to your team and to your employer, then you are not doing your job.
I learned early in my working life, that if you are in a position of authority and you are not getting the respect you deserve, you need to find a way to earn it. Not because it massages your ego, but because without that respect you will be ineffective in your role. Don’t be afraid to make hard decisions. This often means stripping a route that is of low quality, or making a harsh critique of another setter’s work, but this is an essential step toward the overall aim of improving your gym’s climbing product. It never needs to be personal, but that doesn’t mean it’s not going to difficult. Keep in mind - failing to be honest in your assessment of someone else’s work does everybody a disservice. The other setter is failing to learn, and your employer’s business is suffering from a lower quality product, simply because you are unable to find a way to communicate effectively and truthfully.
4. Grade distributions
The biggest difference between being just a setter at your gym, and being the head setter, is the fact that you need to look at the gyms climbing product as a whole - not simply evaluating each route or problem - but being able to assess the overall climbing experience you’re offering. Perhaps the most important thing to keep track of is the distribution of grades in your facility. That just means how many of each difficulty of route is up at any one time.
Whether you use a spreadsheet, or simply periodically walk around the gym and make a visual assessment, ensure that you maintain a good balance of difficulties throughout the gym. This doesn’t mean that you have an equal number of every difficulty. Generally, it is best to have a higher frequency of routes of a certain difficulty scale with the amount of climbers who climb that difficulty. For example: If the majority of your customer base climb 5.9-5.10, and almost no-one climbs 5.13+ then you ought to provide many more 5.9s than 5.13s.
It’s not only the spread that you need to track, but also maintain sufficient overlap between difficulty bands. If you create a situation where there are a large number of easy routes, and a large number of harder routes (for example), but nothing in between, you will seriously compromise the experience of climbers in the gym. You are offering no means for customers to gradually improve and take on incremental challenges. For many climbers, the journey to improve is the foundational component to their hobby, and what keeps them coming back for more. Without this, inevitably, climbers will become disengaged and frustrated. We all know that grades are a spurious beast, but they create the parameters for the game we all play as climbers. It’s a reality that you need to understand and accept to be an effective head setter.
5. Lead by example
Setting is highly physically demanding, and even among the most dedicated employees, the long days and tiring nature of the job can tempt us to cut corners. If you’re the head setter, you can’t allow yourself to do this. If you don’t wear your PPE, if you aren’t willing to made that last minute tweak to a route, or you refuse to go the extra mile and lug the equipment up stairs, then you simply can’t expect members of your team to do so. Always be aware that the standard you set through your effort and your work is what will ultimately drive the quality in your gym higher.