by Carly Cain, Performance Climbing Coach, NASM, AMGA RGA
1. Your Climbing Doesn’t Matter
Well, it does matter, but not to anyone but you. All of you out there reading this while shaking your head saying, ‘But my partner cares,’ well, you’re wrong. They do not care like you care. No one does, and no one ever will. No one else’s guts are wrenching or palms are sweating like yours are on that climb. And no one else is about to lose their shit like you are if you don’t send this route NOW.
If you are going to be hard on yourself, make sure it’s not because you think anyone is watching or judging you. It can be tough when you realize that you are on your own island of benevolence and self-loathing, but I am positive that there are many other islands floating around your gym. This isn’t a slap of nihilism as much as it is a reality-check of who is actually creating and giving meaning to your climbing. And more importantly, who you allow to create and give meaning to your climbing experience.
Not caring what others think of my climbing, whether real or imagined, was something that took me a while to grasp. But once I did, I got a hell of a lot better at climbing. Caring about whether someone was or was not watching me climb, only stunted my own growth as a climber. Maybe I didn’t try the climb I most needed to because I was afraid I would fail. Maybe I didn’t want to try as hard as I could because that person who inevitably would flash it after me would make me look weak. Maybe I needed to make myself as small as possible, to not get noticed while I trained because my pull-ups were abysmal…
It’s easy to shrink away in a corner of the gym and avoid pushing ourselves. But then we take away so much of who we are, and how we grow, all based on mostly imagined consequences.
The real consequence: stunting your growth as a climber… for years… for any outside reason whatsoever. Don’t let that reason be because of your fear that people give a shit about something that they do not. Remember, no one cares about your climbing, except for you… not even your mother.
2. Don’t Compare Yourself to Others
On a similar note, allowing other climbers to have any impact on your performance or mental status, is a dangerous road to go down. This road is full of comparisons, and someone inevitably ends up at the bottom. Climbing is a visual sport, getting inspiration from others is important for us to keep pushing ourselves and to stay psyched for what is possible. But, remember that you are just getting the visual story. You don’t know what anyone is going through, or what they have sacrificed to be where they are. Comparing yourself to another climber in the gym or to someone’s ‘highlight reel’ on Instagram, is as meaningful as comparing your favorite chocolate to a piece of broccoli. This is not because one is better than the other (but I mean, c’mon), but rather because comparing two things of significantly different taste leads to a completely false comparison.
A better way to figure out how you are doing, rather than using faulty comparisons, is to track your training or climbing goals over time. Then you can ask yourself: where you were in the past, where you are now, and where you want to go. Using a climbing journal to write down your day-to-day training and climbing is EVERYTHING you need to create benchmarks of success. It also gives you insight when you need to troubleshoot a bad day or week of climbing performance. You might isolate potential obstacles (like a stressful work week that caused you not to get enough sleep), which allows you to pinpoint problems that could otherwise go unnoticed.
Collecting as much ‘data’ as possible is great, but make sure you are consistent with gathering this data over time. And DON’T forget to write down how you are feeling: before, during, and after the workout. How (and if) you recognize the emotions that come up during a session can be the most important data that you collect. If something comes up, take the time to practice recognizing what you are feeling, and write it down.
So remember, don’t compare chocolate to broccoli, and don’t tie up your self-worth to someone else’s performance. Be compassionate to yourself, and keep a damn journal.
3. You Need to Try Harder
At first glance, this may seem like lame advice coming from someone who clearly doesn’t care about your climbing, ‘come on guys, you just gotta try harder next time.’ BUT I am not giving this advice because it’s the obvious thing to say to someone looking for climbing improvement. Rather the opposite, and I am urging you to figure this out sooner than later: trying hard is a skill that you need to start practicing now.
We have already determined that you are emotionally invested in climbing (see #1). This is a good start, but how do you put that emotion into action on the wall? We have all heard people say ‘hard work and dedication… yadda yadda… you will succeed,’ but what does it really mean to try hard?
Let’s start here: have you seen a climber on the wall trying hard? If you haven’t, stop reading and go do so now. Adam Ondra is a good one to look up on YouTube. I love this footage of him on Disbelief, 9b.
Okay, great, now that Ondra’s screaming is echoing in your ears, let’s talk about what is actually happening between those ears when we learn new skills. In this case, the skill of trying hard.
New skills are hard at first. That is because when you learn a new skill, new connections are being made in your brain between neurons. These new connections are weak at first, sort of like a path to a brand new climbing wall. Over time, and with practice, the neural pathways associated with that skill become stronger and more automatic; the path to the brand new climbing area becomes more well-defined and worn as the area sees more traffic. A good example is learning the figure-8 knot; at first it may have tripped you up. Maybe your fingers fumbled. Now it is so automatic that your climbing partners have to remind you to check your knot before you plunge onto the wall and possibly to your death… if your autopilot fails you. Another example: why does a climb get easier the more you try it? Are you really getting stronger? Maybe, but more likely you are learning the movement and making your neural connections stronger.
Climbers who aren’t pushing themselves become autopilot climbers. Yes, even when every route is different; if you aren’t challenging yourself on harder climbs, your brain, and that body it controls, isn’t working that hard to make new connections. That path is not getting worn. You need new stimuli to challenge you, a new skill to learn, a new movement. What could be even worse than not trying at all, would be to teach your brain to stop trying at all when you reach a certain point of pump or uncertainty.
A Crucial Step in trying hard: are you actually on routes that are hard for you? Is this the grade you have been climbing all year? The same wall angle? The same-same? Does the thought of trying this climb make you nervous? If it doesn’t, then it’s probably not hard enough.
This is a fine line to toe. You don’t want to get yourself into a situation where a climb is so far above your ability that you become injured, or worse – completely and permanently demoralized. But, a healthy dose of failure never hurt anyone. This does not mean that you should always be trying at this level, but instead build it into your climbing routine regularly. Trying hard will do amazing things for your climbing.
*To truly ‘try hard’ and push your limits, you do need to be well-rested. So this is not a second-day-on sort of workout; keep yourself fresh by having at least one rest day ahead of your try-hard day. Make sure to keep your session short; as soon as you feel yourself powering down, call it quits or you could be digging yourself into a pretty big recovery hole. You don’t want to get so pumped or so tired from this session that you are feeling it for days; think about the quality of each effort, not the quantity of the session. You want to give very strong quality efforts between long recovery rests.
If you aren’t failing, there is no way you are trying hard. If you never fall, or if you always say, “TAKE!’ you aren’t trying hard. Trying hard comes right after that redline moment of, ‘I will just rest here’ or, ‘this is good enough for me’ or, ‘my arms are way too pumped.’ Trying hard is everything after that point. It may seem a little like reaching into a void for those for you wanting to know how to try hard, but a lot can happen between your perceived ending of effort and your actual, physical limit. Those who are the best in their sport, reach into the void, the uncertain, all of the time. This is yet another skill to practice with intention.
But How? Ask yourself this: How many times this week in the gym or at the crag did I fall trying a sequence or a move? How many times did I fall trying as hard as I could while trying a sequence or move? How hard did I have to try to get to the top of that route or boulder? How many times did I keep climbing even though I had no idea what the outcome of the next move would be?
Uncertainty is scary. It is against our nature to want to push through the unknown. It is against our culture to embrace failure. But when you think about it, climbing is already going against so many of our natural built-in alarm systems, so what is one more move?
Between the repudiation of your climbing ego, untangling from your self-created climbing hubris, and illuminating the art of really trying hard; I hope that this article helps you see the potential for more productive climbing years. No real or important change comes quickly or easily; everything that you want to transform in your ‘climbing-self’ has to be done thoughtfully and consistently, over time. Start simple: observe yourself; your patterns, your reactions, your emotions to this sport. Do you have any of the tendencies or aversions listed in this article?
Any small progress is a huge success. Even noticing your potential for improvement is progress, so keep an eye out for those little moments. If you can train yourself to notice the small successes, and to celebrate them, you are already well on your way into the heart of climbing, and encapsulating everything I wished I had been told years ago.