Improve Your Sport Climbing (14): Mental Training, Part 2 (HARD)

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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)

This multipart series of blogs and articles starts here, in case you have to catch up – you’ll also find a full table of contents, complete with links, in that entry. My designation of each area as “easy,” “medium” or “hard” is purely subjective. I’ve arrived at the designations from my personal experience garnered from 20+ years of climbing along with observations I’ve made as a climbing coach/certified personal trainer. You may find some of the areas harder or easier to change. You also might not agree with me or my take on things. That’s fine – feel free to take it or leave it as you wish! Also, remember that the information I provide here is purely offered as advice and that no exercises or training program should be undertaken without receiving medical clearance from a healthcare professional.

One other caveat: As will be true for all of the entries and articles in this series, if you’ve already mastered or maxed out the topic at hand to the best of your ability level, you’ll reap far fewer benefits or none at all from my suggestions – good for you that you figured it out, but sorry I couldn’t help you out more. Happy climbing and training!

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