This week Vivid Minds Vivid Futures interviews Chris Eather. Chris is the owner of the Freestyle Bouldering Gym, one of the first gyms of its type in Australia.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’ve been self-employed a large part of my working life, much of it in the construction and manufacturing industries. My wife and I moved to Tamworth around 15 years ago before developing Freestyle. We ended up making Tamworth home as my wife is a local Tamworth girl. We have two boys aged 13 and 11.
When did you discover bouldering and what led you to decide to focus on this sport?
In 2014, a shoulder injury to myself and a ruptured ACL to my wife found us questioning our sporting choices at the time, especially around longer-term implications and what we wanted for our kids.
We discovered the sport of bouldering after visiting a new Bouldering Gym in Sydney in 2016. The social chemistry was highly appealing and when we looked closely at the physiological aspects of the sport and the underpinning culture, we immediately understood that this is a sporting framework that can deliver enormous collective health benefits. The model would look different for us but the concept was born.
We built and opened Freestyle Bouldering Gym in March 2017. A blank canvas meant that we had an opportunity to shape culture from the start, so we now have a unique model delivering tremendous results. We probably underestimated how significant these results would be because to date they’ve exceeded even our high expectations.
Most people won’t have heard of bouldering – I certainly hadn’t. What exactly is it?
Bouldering is a formal discipline of rock-climbing and is now an Olympic sport in its own right. In cricketing terms, it’s like the T20 matches.
The sport of bouldering has different formats, much like golf. In golf, the basic premise is to put the ball in the hole. The format and rules of the sport are the structure in which this happens.
In our case, the simplest premise of bouldering is to physically get from point A to point B. With a defined start point and a defined finish point for each route, you must simply work out how you’re going to get there. There’s no right or wrong in between these fixed start and finish positions. Each route is defined by coloured ‘holds’ or ‘grips’ and called a ‘problem’, and they’re all different. There are many ‘problems’, scaled from easy to ridiculous, and most are not easy to read. Performed at low height (up to 4.5m) without ropes or belay devices, it involves a high degree of problem solving, social involvement and physical exertion.
As a ‘sport’, we’ve adopted a social team-based format and called it the Ten4 Boulder League and the gym simply hosts the sport. There are nine weekly rounds (1 hr per round) with a finals round at the end of each of the four seasons per year.
How does rock-climbing work in a gym environment – doesn’t it get boring climbing the same wall after a while?
This is not a typical gym environment.
In our case, the workload is simply built into the activity, just like going for an extreme hike or working as a carpenter does. It’s more calculated than that but the principle is the same. The framework of the sport keeps a focal point for progression. The chemistry is difficult to explain in words; however, the more you do it, the stronger you become and the better you get at reading problems.
Problems are installed on a grid system so everything gets totally changed up each Ten4 season. It’s our job to provide adequate cognitive engagement to ensure a high level of engagement – after all, it’s based on problem solving!
Bouldering delivers insane whole-body physical strength gains as it essentially follows the proven HIIT training principles by nature. It also follows the natural developmental sequence and key fundamental movement principles to ensure safe progression. It’s simply in-built into the activity.
What does Freestyle Bouldering Gym do?
Essentially, we’re providing an environment to build strength and confidence.
The gym hosts the sport (The Ten4 and other annual events). It also hosts the NFP Freestyle Bouldering Club Inc where many members treat the gym as a social space to maintain physical and social wellbeing. Adults form the foundation of the club and high school aged youth are channelled into the sport.
We’ve had well over 130 Ten4 players per season for some time now and collectively well in excess of 2000 people engaged in the sport.
We know that with regular time in this environment the health benefits take care of themselves.
Who is your typical client?
It tends to appeal to people of all ages who enjoy problem solving and like to challenge themselves.
What have been some of your challenges in starting a business?
My challenges now are very different to when I first started out around 20 years ago. It’s important to me to balance work and family, so time management and solid systems are key.
What do you like most about running your own business?
What I do like about my role is the ability to shape my own destiny through decisions at the coal face that have a much wider implication beyond myself.
What advice would you give a business just starting out?
Get a trusted mentor. Having a mentor from day one will really fast-track your progress and provide an insurance policy against inexperience. This mentor should ideally be of the same moral compass as yourself – and listen to your gut here.
Be kind to yourself. Celebrate the small victories along the way. Apply the 80/20 principle in all areas.
What inspires you?
I’m always inspired by nature. I’m also inspired by people from all walks of life who contribute beyond themselves. People with stories of overcoming fears and adversity.
What’s next for Freestyle Bouldering Gym?
We aim to take the Ten4 Boulder League nationally, so a lot of our focus goes into refining systems to make this happen. Locally, we aim to keep expanding the Ten4 and the club to share the benefits with our wider community.