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Determination & Patience: Lessons Learned from Climbing, CrossFit, and the Air Force

It's tough not to feel inspired after reading our latest interview with FrictionLabs Athlete James Sadler.

He's an airman in United States Air Force, climber, CrossFitter, father, and student pursuing a degree in physical therapy. We chat with him about the connections between the climbing and military communities, the two words that keep him going during a tough workout, and a run through his training routine and stretching tips. 

You started climbing last November. What motivated you to start? Why do you love it?

My start in climbing was really just a happy accident. My daughter lives in Texas and had come up to Nebraska to visit for Thanksgiving. I had passed an indoor climbing gym a few days earlier and thought that we could go as a fun and different way to spend an afternoon. I had never been on a wall before that, but I’m pretty sure that I ended up having just as much fun, if not more, than my daughter. 

I had taken a hiatus from CrossFit just because of feeling burned out. I figured I could give climbing a try to shake things up before I went back to CrossFit full time. Before I knew it, I was on the wall just about every day. Climbing struck a chord with me that I hadn’t felt before. I love CrossFit, and still stand by the methodology, but I am also a competitive person. After four years of training with CrossFit, I had hit a point where I just couldn’t keep up with the guys picking up huge weight. I’ve always been the skinny guy and took pride in the amount of power and strength I could generate, but I lost the ability to stay in the mix at competitions. Climbing offered a new outlet for me. 

Success doesn’t depend on strength alone. I realized that I could look at a problem and usually find a line that suited my body type and strengths. After my first competition, I knew that I wanted to pursue it as my primary focus. Even when I knew I was in a position to win, it became an internal competitive drive. I could work problems that I thought were outside of my abilities and force myself out of my comfort zone. And you know what? I reached a couple of milestones for myself that day. The feeling of matching on a finish, forearms pumped beyond belief, breathing heavy...I just love it.

How often do you climb and what type of climbing do you prefer?

When I started back in November, I was a typical excited newbie. I was on the wall just about every day. When I realized that it was something I could be halfway decent at, I hit pause to look at how I could train. I knew I had to take a more responsible approach to how often I climbed. I programmed in some rest days, as well as time to address the unique fitness demands climbing requires. For some reason bouldering was the discipline that I felt connected to. I had a good baseline of fitness for it, but had to develop a new kind of hand and finger strength. Now, I’ll usually climb 4 or 5 days a week, with at least 3 days of climbing-specific strength training.

Can you tell us about your training? At the very beginning, what training did you incorporate? What did you add over time? What is your climbing specific strength training?

In the beginning, my training consisted only of climbing. I knew that I needed to develop some awareness of how my body moved when I climbed. Once I understood that, I needed to develop a kind of strength I didn’t have, so I started to incorporate some hangboard training into my regimen. I also saw how crucial shoulder stability is. Even now, I’ll spend some time doingTurkish get-ups to dial in that stability.

I am a firm believer that no matter what sport you specialize in, you still need to have a balanced training program. You make yourself more prone to injury if you neglect opposing muscle groups. I’ll spend equal amounts of time on pushing exercises, as well as pulling. Finally, I’ll find time to improve my stamina. Sometimes that means putting the running shoes on and hitting the trail, but it could also be finding a few easier routes on the wall to use in a continuous circuit.

Where is your go-to place to climb?

We have some limitations to climbing here in Nebraska. Namely, the complete and utter flatness of the land. I haven’t had the opportunity to travel for outdoor climbing yet, so we rely on our indoor facilities. Fortunately, we have an absolutely incredible local gym here: Approach Climbing Gym is where you can find me almost any day. Its owner, Sarahjoy Allen, her husband Brian, the setters, and staff are fantastic people. The atmosphere is completely non-threatening, which made it nice for a newcomer. The community in the gym has become just as important to my progress as anything else.

James Sadler
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What are the similarities and differences between climbing and CrossFit communities? What do you like/dislike about each? 

The biggest similarity between the climbing and CrossFit communities is the camaraderie in both. Each fosters an atmosphere of support and encouragement. The differences start when you look at the competitive side of each. In CrossFit, local competitions can still feel a little bit more intense than they really are. The competitive spirit is exciting, but can be also be intimidating to a novice. On the other hand, the climbing competitions I’ve been to have felt more like a community party. Don’t get me wrong, the drive to climb hard and compete is alive and well. It’s just that the energy is much more inclusive.  

There seems to be a large climbing community in the military. Why do you think servicemen and women are drawn to climbing?

First and foremost, I believe that the kind of people that feel a calling to join the military are the same kind that look for challenges in other areas of their lives. Those of us in uniform understand that nothing that’s worth achieving is easy. Climbing is just one of those endeavors that offers constantly changing tests of your physical and mental grit. At our gym, I’m always amazed when I look around and see the level of skill and dedication of our climbers. Included in that group are my fellow service members. I love seeing the younger guys and gals come in to try it, fresh out of their military training, and start crushing problems.

James Sadler

You grew up in Florida and were active in water sports. How have those skills, combined with what you've learned from CrossFit, influenced the way you approach climbing?

Two words: determination and patience. With CrossFit, I excelled at the bodyweight and gymnastic skills. Like I said, I’ve always been the skinny guy. When it came to lifting really heavy weights, I knew I wasn’t going to be the strongest or the quickest, so I would just put my head down and keep moving, not getting discouraged as I watched the bigger guys finish before me. I was determined to finish it, no matter if I was the last one done.

I’ve carried that on with my climbing. If I’m working on a problem that keeps spitting me off, I can’t give up. I may take a break to look for a different line, or I may step away for a day to clear my head, but I can guarantee that I’ll be back working on it until I get to the top.

Patience is something I learned surfing as a kid. I was never great at it, but still loved being on the water and the feeling of gliding down the wave. My younger brother was the surfing prodigy. Even now as adults, I can catch myself watching his approach to surfing and just be awed by his skill. He would always tell me to slow down, relax, and be patient for the right wave. Not only would that lead to a better chance of catching a good wave, but it allowed me to actually enjoy and appreciate the experience. I was the typical newbie on the wall; muscling through holds and flailing through to the next one. I watched the stronger climbers make their moves look almost effortless and I wanted to reach that level. I remembered that patience is such an easy quality to apply, and—go figure—when I started paying attention to my breathing and tuned in to how my body was moving, I was able to climb more fluidly. 

James Sadler
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It’s so easy to lose sight of patience, breathing, and mindfulness. Do you have any tricks or cues to get yourself back in the zone?

In all honesty, I keep a cadence going in my mind. Each time I get ready to make a move, I’ll say to myself, “And breathe.” It sounds so basic and silly, but it’s what I’ve found works for me.  I know some people that will vocalize something or make a sound. I tried that but found it to be distracting. Now that I’ve established my habit, it almost comes second nature. I’m able to stay focused on the next move or next hold, and before I move hand I know I’m taking a breath. 

How do you push through tough moments while training, climbing, or CrossFitting?

This may seem cliche, but the trick for me is to remind myself that what I’m going through is only temporary. The mind is much quicker to give up than the body, and I know that we’re so much more capable than we give ourselves credit for. Once you push through a few obstacles and realize a little more of your potential it becomes easier the next time. And that next time you hit your threshold you remember that no matter how much it sucks, you still have a little left in the tank. If you still fail, you can get back up confident in the fact that you truly did give it your all.

You recently went back to school to pursue a career as a physical therapist. What drew you to that line of work?

A few years ago I realized just how limited my mobility was. I have always been active and in pretty good shape but I never took stretching, flexibility, or mobility seriously. My shoulders were tight, my ankles were caved in, and my hips were beyond limited. I started looking for answers and techniques to address these issues. It was right around that time that I slightly tore my rotator cuff and was put on a physical therapy regimen. I found the basic approach to therapy to be a little lacking. My progress was a lot slower than what I had expected for that kind of injury, so I started working in some extra techniques that I had learned about. Don’t get me wrong, the PTs that worked with me were great. I just had this feeling I couldn’t shake that there were more options out there that could help with recovery. I became a sponge for all things physiology and therapy. Some things turned out to be a bust, but others were amazing. A gentleman by the name of Dr. Kelly Starrett made me realize that we can unlock and unglue areas of our body that could help us avoid injury in the first place. As a society, we’ve acclimated our bodies to a sedentary lifestyle. Quite literally, we have forgotten how to move properly. When I retire from the Air Force, I want to have the opportunity to help people address those movement deficiencies.

Do you have any mobility tips that offer readers getting started a good bang for the buck? Like maybe a particular movement, stretch, or exercise you find really helps your shoulders or your hips or something like that that a total newbie could incorporate?

Without question, our hips and shoulders are the most important areas to focus on for mobility. They are the two muscle groups that generate the majority of our energy. If we have limited range of motion in either, then we are also limiting the amount of strength we can generate. Not to mention the increased risk of injury. For anyone looking to start testing and improving their mobility, a great all-purpose hip stretch is called the couch stretch. In the beginning it will clue you into any tightness you may have in your quads. By doing the same exact stretch over time you will feel your quads loosen and you can start to target your hips. I like to use resistance bands for my shoulders. A great stretch is looping a band somewhere overhead, holding the other end in one hand and dropping to a knee with your arm outstretched. The resistance from the band will pull your arm up past your ear. To create the best stretch, try to rotate your arm away from your body. That is called external rotation, and is the strongest, safest position to develop for your shoulders.  

How do you balance your life as a dad, serving in the military, finding time to climb and do CrossFit, and go to school?

I wish I could say that I’m some super multitasker, but that’s not really it. My daughter lives 14 hours away with her mom, who puts in the really hard day-to-day parenting. We have to find time to work out visits, and those are the real moments I’m thankful for. When she is up here, she’s usually the first one to ask when we can go climbing. Balancing everything else is just being aware of time management. In the military we understand the phrase, “mission comes first.” I can work on my other goals with whatever time I have left over. Sometimes that means writing a paper for school when I’d rather be climbing because I went climbing earlier when I should’ve been working on schoolwork. And sometimes it means finding a ledge somewhere because the hotel I’m staying at didn’t take my advice to install a campus board. As with all things, what’s important is being aware of what’s required of you and prioritizing.  

James Sadler

What was your “aha moment” with FrictionLabs?

When I started climbing I decided I wasn’t going to buy any of my own gear until I knew it was something I wanted to stick with. It didn’t take very long at all before I found myself buying my own shoes, chalk bag, and chalk. At the time, I thought chalk was chalk so I just bought what was right in front me. I started climbing regularly and noticed that my hands still felt a little slick a couple moves into a problem, even though I chalked up first. I also noticed how dried out and beat up my hands looked. No matter what I put on them after a climbing session, I couldn’t keep my skin from showing some cracks. When I finally ran out of that first chalk, I bought the only chalk that was available at the gym: FrictionLabs. It was like night and day. For starters, I didn’t have to cake the chalk on my hands to keep them dry. I also noticed that it was easier on my skin. I haven’t used another chalk since then.

The number one way FrictionLabs chalk has impacted my performance is confidence. When I’m reaching for that tiny crimp or nasty sloper, I’m not worried about my chalk letting me down. If I come off that hold it won’t be because my hands are slick. FrictionLabs allows me the knowledge that if I can get my hand on something I can trust my grip.

What outdoor climbing spots are on your bucket list?

Number one on my list is Yosemite, because well, come on, it's Yosemite. Not only would the climbing be out of this world, but as a huge history nerd I’d appreciate how important the valley is to modern climbing. Fontainebleau is right up there on the list, too. As someone who leans heavily towards bouldering, it would be like a grownup playground for me. Even if I walked away from that trip without a single top I’d still have a giant smile on my face on the plane ride home.

You’ve traveled the world as part of the Air Force. Where would you most like to return and why?

That is such a hard question. I am so thankful for the opportunities I’ve had to travel and see the world. I spent 4 years in Japan and fell in love with the country so, if I had to choose, I’d probably say that. It had just about everything I could’ve asked for in a place to live. I was in Okinawa and had access to gorgeous, world-class scuba diving, surf spots that were just a blast, and incredible food. Looking back now, Okinawa and mainland Japan had some amazing rock. I didn’t appreciate it while I was there but I can still remember some of the places that would be so much fun to climb.

Who—or what—do you find inspirational?

I am blessed to be surrounded by inspirational people. My parents are a huge source of inspiration. Despite living a healthy life, my dad was diagnosed with cancer within weeks of me leaving for basic training. Fourteen years later, I’m happy to say that he is healthier than ever and has even taken up stand up paddle boarding. I look to him as the example of the kind of man and father I want to be. My daughter is my biggest source of inspiration. As she grows older, I want her to be proud of me. I strive to be the father she deserves because she is honestly my everything.  

James Sadler

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James will launch his Instagram account chronicling his travels and climbing ventures soon—stay tuned!

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