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Alli Rainey: Improve Your Climbing – Mental Training (Part 14)

Wednesday, November 26th, 2014


Part 1:

The power of the mind…we’ve all heard about it and we all know that our minds can affect how our bodies perform, but how many of us have really tapped into our brainpower’s fullest potential? My guess is that it would be 0 percent of us. Like climbing technique, mental training and tactics – your mental game – has the potential for lifelong growth and refinement.

This means you should never step back and muse (with a self-satisfied grin), “Well, I think I’ve mastered all there is to know about this brain-body connection. I understand entirely how I can harness every aspect of my mind to improve my body’s performance, and I’ve done this to my fullest capability.”

Even though we all “know” that our minds have a powerful impact on our bodies and our beings and our outcomes, we all too often don’t put this knowledge into practice very effectively or consistently. How common is it to hear climbers spewing negative comments about the whys and wherefores of their future lack of success even as they’re tying into the rope to go for a redpoint attempt or in isolation before a competition? How often do you catch yourself doubting your abilities before you even step off the ground, whether you voice this externally or internally? Can you turn those voices off or at the very least, down? And why are they there at all?

In this series, I’ll cover a wide range of factors that play into the mental game of sport climbing, starting in the next entry with a discussion of that No. 1 fear that will keep you from ever performing at your true peak – the fear of falling/fear of heights. From there we’ll travel to other fears that can impact performance, namely fear of failure and fear of success. Methods of cultivating positive thinking before, during and after climbing experiences come next, followed by visualizing and memorization.

We’ll wrap back around at this point to bringing all this together in the moment on the climb with a discussion about how to handle the mind from moment to moment and how to stay in the present moment, too. Next, we’ll travel into the areas of goal setting, learning to embrace what you “hate” and the mentality of training, cultivating discipline and toughness as well as knowing when to stop. After this, I’ll sum it all up and we’ll move naturally into the next series of Improve Your Climbing entries – (15) Injuries (HARD).

Part 2:

Handling a Fear of Falling/Fear of Heights

“You’re afraid of heights,” I say. “How do you survive in the Dauntless compound?”

“I ignore my fear,” he says. “When I make decisions, I pretend it doesn’t exist.” (From Divergent, by Veronica Roth)

This simple conversation between two main characters in a popular young-adult fantasy novel sums up how I’ve come to deal with my fear of heights in rock climbing – a fear that paralyzed me when I first started climbing, as I related in a prAna Life entry.

The unfortunate fact of the matter here is that, whether it’s the exposure that scares you or the actual act of falling (a subtle distinction but one that I make nonetheless), you simply have to confront the fear in order to overcome it. For me, it’s the exposure, the sense of air underneath me, that weirds me out and makes me uncomfortable. It restricts my movement and stimulates some instinctive impulse to freeze in place and refuse to climb or move. I feel paralyzed and my focus gets pulled away from the climbing and into the void. The ONLY way I’ve found to get rid of this feeling is to simply jump off when it happens, on purpose – of course with a trusted belayer on the other end of the rope, and of course, only if the fall is safe.

At this point, I’ve been dealing with this annoying fear for so long that it’s rote; if I feel that hesitation and pull of attention on a route I’m trying, I just take the fall. Once I take it once or a few times (sometimes it takes more than once), it gradually simmers my brain down to stop focusing on the air below me and to instead remain focused on the climbing at hand. I don’t really understand why it’s never gone completely, this sense of paralysis, and it’s always worse if I’m moving sideways rather than straight up, for whatever reason – my brain doesn’t like that feeling. I had to laugh at myself recently though, noting that it was even worse in an exposed sit-down rest in a little pod, where you sit on a slope facing down into the void. It’s better for me to just close my eyes, rather than let my frightened little brain look at that before I turn around and continue climbing with my back to the ground. (What I can’t see can’t scare me as much, I suppose.)

Enough about me, though – the point of the above is to share that you can manage and somewhat master/conquer a fear of heights/falling, enough that you can direct your focus on the climbing and enjoy it without that unwanted stuff creeping in at every turn, but that also, you will never likely be at the same comfort level as someone who doesn’t have that fear as strongly built in. It’s no big deal, though. You just have to decide to take it on yourself at your own, controlled pace, and to work on it and through it for however long it takes. You start small, making sure you know how lead climb safely, how to use all the safety equipment correctly, and that your belayer knows how to give a soft catch, so they’re not slamming you into the wall when you fall. If you don’t know how to do this or what I’m talking about, and your partner doesn’t either, sign up for a lesson and learn this essential tactic immediately. Nothing will make you MORE scared of falling than getting injured from falling.

So again, start small, on safe sport routes with solid bolts. Fall below the bolt. Then at the bolt, then a move above the bolt, and so forth. One fall will not solve your problem. This process will take tons of repetition, just like any difficult challenge. And don’t just go big, either – 20-foot falls right out of the gate may make you even more scared to fall the next time. Take controlled falls, at your own pace, in safe places, and do this over and over and over again until you truly can climb without worrying about the fall or focusing on it (unless, as is always the case, the fall is dangerous and you risk injury or life – then you should definitely not take it and avoid such situations at all costs, of course!).

This process may sound really simple, just like the quotes at the start and the finish of this entry do. But I will be the first to promise you that if you’re afraid of heights, falling or both, this will be a long-term process that will require nerves of steel and tons of self-discipline and a deep desire to climb hard without this monkey on your back. Be gentle with yourself; understand that you may go through ups and downs with this, or good lead-head/bad lead-head time periods. It’s okay; you just have to maintain the determination that you want it, and that you will continue to work toward it, no matter how difficult it is or how long it takes for you, personally, to face those fears and control them.

When your desire to climb a route outweighs your fear and you can be immersed in the moment-to-moment experience of climbing at your limit without focusing on the falling…when you can decide to skip a bolt because it’s too hard to clip and it’s safe to skip and that’s okay with you…those will be moments of huge success for you, very empowering moments – the moments when you know you’re momentarily free from your fear.

“But becoming fearless isn’t the point. That’s impossible. It’s learning how to control your fear, and how to be free from it, that’s the point.” (From Divergent, by Veronica Roth)

Part 3:

Fear of Failure and Fear of Success (I)

Fear of failure obviously can inhibit your climbing performance outcomes and enjoyment of the process, both. And its less-common cousin, fear of success, can do the same as well.

Two common fear of failure manifestations in climbing include the following:

  1. Underachieving and never pushing yourself or truly testing your limits, instead allowing yourself to stay well within your comfort zone. If you don’t want to improve at climbing (or anything, for that matter), staying well within your limits when onsighting or projecting is a great way to guarantee this and to avoid the potential “failure” that you might experience if you select onsight efforts or a long-term project(s) that is more of a reach than something that takes you 2 or 5 or even 10 or 20 tries. Not that every project should be a huge undertaking, but if you never test your limits and experiment with the apparently unattainable, you will never likely truly reach, much less glimpse, your potential as a climber.

    Hard routes can push us to new heights, if we let them, helping us to learn unfamiliar techniques and to assess what we may need to train more effectively to reach a new level. Stepping out of your comfort zone and developing a high tolerance for “failure” can be a great way to enhance your success – and I have to put failure in quotes because we only truly fail on hard climbs if we refuse to be open or to stay open to learning what they have to teach us about what we need to improve on in our overall climbing game. If we start to view them as measures of our worth or frustrating judgments on our inability to “succeed” (i.e. send), this can be a surefire way to rob us of the pleasure of learning and growing through our own personal processes. If we instead let them inform our decisions in training and on other routes we climb, they can be integral components of our growth as climbers.

  2. Overachieving and never getting on routes even close to your current ability level can actually indicate a fear of failure, too. If all you ever do is get on routes that you know are way too hard for you – that you have zero hope of sending because after 10 or 15 tries, you can’t even do the individual movements, for example – this can also indicate a refusal to be present with who you are now, with the climber you are currently, and a fear of failure of what getting on routes more realistic for you might indicate to yourself and to others as well. Not that it’s bad to get on routes that stretch and push you and your limits; of course I don’t think that. But there’s a limit to this – and it can indicate a subtle fear of failure, to refuse to ever drop the challenge down into the realm of actual feasibility for you.

    As a rule, and especially if you’re at your home area where you get to climb a lot, it’s best to embrace at least some of the “easy” routes that kick your butt (as long as they don’t kick your butt because of a clear disadvantage do to your body size, like some reachy nightmare that’s 5.9 for a guy who’s 6’4” but 5.14 for a lady who’s 4’11” – but most routes aren’t that extreme). Why? Because usually, if our butts get beat on an “easy” route, it usually indicates an area of weakness that needs work, and the route provides a great training ground to address that weakness. Not that you want to spend all your time failing on an “easy” route – but this gets deeper into the whole idea that climbing is about personal challenge and that really, the grade is just a guideline and will feel different depending on who you are, what size you are, and your own strengths and weaknesses.

    In other words, if you’ve redpointed 5.12a on a certain style, let’s say steep and thuggy, and you find yourself scared to get on a 5.11a vertical, technical route – but then you do, and you work it out, and you send it – you should be thrilled with your accomplishment. You should first be thrilled that you stepped out of your comfort zone, and then psyched to work out the beta, and then excited to put it together. It doesn’t need to be only 12a’s and up that have any sort of meaning or merit in your climbing world anymore – it should be any route that challenges you out of your comfort zone that makes you feel pleased with your accomplishment.

    The point of this is that it’s best (in terms of making climbing gains) to not spend all your time on routes that are way too hard for you OR way too easy for you – to have a nice and balanced set of ongoing challenges that push you in many directions. Sending everything you try every day or never sending anything at all means you may have an underlying fear of failure guiding your choices. Of course, if you believe you can send the too-hard route(s) and you’re trying your darnedest to put it together instead of flailing and making no progress…well, that’s a little different, and more effective than the opposite tact of sending every day. Still, though, only trying one hard route and never getting on anything else isn’t the best way to improve your overall climbing game.

Part 4:

Fear of Failure and Fear of Success (II)

As discussed in the previous entry, fear of failure obviously can inhibit your climbing performance outcomes and enjoyment of the process, both. And its less-common cousin, fear of success, can do the same as well. In addition to the two fear of failure situations covered last time, fear of failure can also freeze you in the moment, making you uncertain and unwilling to “go for it” on a route when you’re in danger of failing/falling, refusing to leave rests on routes even long after they’ve ceased to be restful, and actually sabotaging your send if you allow the fear to permeate and take over your body as you climb. This happens when people blow it on the easy ground going to the anchors due to total mental breakdown, for example. I’ll talk more about ways to work through this on-route fear-of-failure mentality in part six in this series: On The Climb.

Of course, whatever choices you make in climbing, it’s personal and up to you, meaning that nobody else has the right to judge your own decisions – so if you enjoy sending everything all the time and don’t want to push into the zone of discomfort or possible not sending, that’s your choice. If it makes you happy and satisfied, do it. Ditto for choosing routes that you have no hope of ever sending – if that makes you happy, do that. But if you’re being motivated to do either because of a deeply held fear of failure, and that makes you unhappy and impairs you from making the performance/ability progress that you want to make, then it might be worth examining your choices and either pushing yourself a little harder, or giving yourself something a little easier to try to put together now and again. A big part of enjoying this process is adjusting your mentality to not equating sending with succeeding (i.e. as the only worthy goal in your climbing experience), and all else as failure…or alternately, as viewing only climbs of a certain grade as worthy of your attention and happiness should you send. If you try your hardest on any given day of climbing, you’ve succeeded. Period.

Fear of success is less common, but it’s worth checking in with yourself to make sure that you’re not subconsciously holding yourself back from succeeding on climbs, too. Why would someone do this? Fear of expectations of future performances from both self and others is a big cause of fear of success; if you set the bar at a certain standard, then if you’re unable to achieve that standard again, you will suffer future disappointment, so perhaps you instead sabotage your own performance now. If you climb a 13a, will 12c ever mean anything again? It should, if it’s hard for you, and you’re challenged by the route…but if you’re scared that sending a 13a will render it not an accomplishment, you might fear success. (Though, for top enjoyment, you should really never think that sending a certain grade makes other “lesser” grades not worth your time/attention, even if those lower grades are attached to routes that challenge you more). People can also fear succeeding on a long-term project because it means they have to embark on a whole new journey with another climb once they’re done, and starting anew can be daunting. And of course, a positive competition outcome can put more pressure on future performances in competitions, which can lead to underperforming to avoid such pressure in the future.

Fear of success is best combatted by staying in the present moment with yourself and not allowing your mind to wander forward into, “What if?” scenarios. And, of course, the more you let go of grades/outcomes as a measure of your success and instead self-assess honestly how difficult particular routes are for you and how hard you tried, the less you will care about the number/letter attached to any particular route you attempt, whether as an onsight effort or a long-term project, and the less you’ll need to send to feel satisfied with your climbing, too. This mentality and approach requires practice and discipline, of course. In the next entry, I’ll talk about positive thinking and visualization, both of which
can help you avoid getting bogged down by fears while you climb.

Alli Rainey, prAna Ambassador

Learn more about Alli

Alli Rainey ( discovered rock climbing more than 20 years ago, and it has been a driving passion in her life ever since. After incurring an injury that prompted her to explore training for climbing beyond just climbing itself, the results amazed her so much that she started studying the science of athletic training in earnest. This led her to become an ACTION Certified Personal Trainer (CPT) and a climbing coach. Rainey is also a Yoga Alliance certified yoga instructor (RYT-200) and a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard University. Facebook: /alliraineyclimbing; Twitter/Instagram/LinkedIn: allirainey