Improve Your Sport Climbing (14): Mental Training, Part 3 (HARD)


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.

(To be continued…)

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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