I’ve been climbing going on 12 years now. With a few set backs here and there, I’ve been slowly but steadily getting better and better in all disciplines and aspects of climbing. There was one area that I was happy to not address, FEAR. My head game was terrible. No matter how hard I could pull, or how good my endurance and technique got, I would get above a bolt and within a few moves be scared, gripped, and out of control of my rationality. All skill, power, or endurance would drain away and I would climb no better than I did on my first ever lead climbing.
This comic I made previously explains perfectly what goes though my head!I write this post, not with the intent of gratifying myself for climbing to the top of a random piece of rock, nor because what I found is any kind of rocket science. Only in the hope that maybe a few others will identify themselves in my experiences and despairs, furthermore, I hope that they may take something away to help themselves in similar moments.
Over the years I had a lot of rubbish advice from well-meaning friends on how to deal with it. Trying and failing at the feet of their methods, I looked to Dave MacLeod suggestions in “9 Out of 10 Climbers Make the Same Mistakes” (NB: a really good books which helped in so many other areas). He had good manageable suggestions on getting over the fear of falling. He stated that you need to re-wire your brains reaction to falling. To do so, you will need to introduce failing into your climbing diet every session, if not every climb. Begin with tiny controlled falls, literally at the bolt, and building up to massive whippers where you deliberately fall with a handful of slack well above the last bolt. He stated this would not be a quick process, and could take years. I tried and tried, spent weeks and months with every session having lead falls as part of the training, several months went by and I found no evidence that any re-wiring had happened, and that I was just afraid of even the smallest falls as I was before I began. I would look up at the practise fall route and fear getting to the predetermined fall points, literally nervous tremors would build up to where my hand would shake.
Finally the holiday had arrived for which I was in training: 10 days on the Greek Island, Kaylmnos, bursting with caves full of tufas and stalactites. Walking out to these imposing caves on the first day, the same gut wrenching nerves built up, so bad in the end I had to go relieve myself at the crag squat pot. Long story short the 10 days ended and I was very fed up. I left feeling demoralised and wrote off sport climbing – let alone trad-climbing – I thought my head game was never going to improve so I would not ever really enjoy it.
Back at the wall I had begun to just boulder. Some time passed, and I decided that I wanted to train to be a climbing instructor, with that came the moment of realisation that I would have to rope climb again. So back on the ropes I went, the same lead fall training, the same results as before. At the same time I started to show a friend how to rope climb. He, after seeing the ‘Valley Uprising’, (all about big wall climbing in Yosemite, pretty epic watching) was super keen to give trad-climbing a go, and asked me to show him how, I said sure, but secretly took a massive gulp at the idea.
I realised how much of a big deal rope climbing had become, so decided I need to take drastic steps to deal with it. I needed to get down to the route cause and to finally step toward over coming it. I looked up therapists, found this guy Michael Carthy, who seemed eager to help and specialised in sport mentality, and anxiety. We met up, and for the first time i had to put into words my exact emotions while on a climb and above the bolt… it took me a moment to articulate… “Like every move a made, would move me one place closer to certain death” was what comes out. For me above the last bolt was like playing a game of chess against Death, who just so happened to have been a world-class chess champion. I would play the game, but the whole time have my brain tell me that any move I made would be futile, and death would inevitably win. I have a very vivid imagination, and would visualise all the potential dangers, and the outcome if each supposed danger, if it were to happen.
Going on Michael asks me to describe my process when approaching the crag or route, and during the climbing. I tell him I would think about how hard the routes look, spotting dangerous aspects of the rock, how the holds feel rubbish, small or damp, how I failed at a grade before and my endurance isn’t up to scratch so I should just do easier stuff, as well as noticing the mundane things like how I am tired from the three plus hour drive, or how i didn’t really sleep to well. All very negative… he notes.
He started to describe what I’m going through, how it’s a spiralling negative cycle and how by thinking so negatively I portray myself as a villain in a horror film…. Wait what? !!BS alert!! Horror story, what is he on about?
The more he described what I was going through the more it rung true, the emotions, feelings and the anxiety: without me telling him, he had only gone and drawn my brain activity out on a page.
“How is this ever going to get you achieving your goals?” he asked. “Do you think Andy Murray comes out on to the tennis court feeling so negative?”
He explained what Andy Murray would think… he described the exact opposite of me, he described Andy as the hero in his own thought process.
This is all well and good I thought but how can it relate to me: he’s the 1%, he’s a pro sports player, he’s just naturally alpha and is just one of those annoyingly good people who can perform when the moments count. Michael disagreed, he told me it is all the positive attitude, all the way from the moment I get up on the morning of a climbing day, all the way through each and every move on the climb. He starts to draw out an opposite cycle of events, a positive cycle of thoughts and actions to bring me into a confident and happy mindset. Looking a little something like this:
The interesting part started here: in either of these cycles your body it produces Dopamine otherwise know as Adrenaline, it raises your heart rate, gets your blood flowing, diverts blood to the extremities, and takes it away from your digestive system (hence the nervous pooping). What your subconscious tells your conscious at these moments is where the wheel starts to turn; depending if it’s positive or negative, it will determine whether you will feel scared or excited…
When you go to watch a horror film as a grown adult your will still scare as if it’s happening in real life, even though you are fully aware that you are in complete safety. You will still jump at the jumpy moments and still get sweaty palms when the tension builds. This is because your subconscious just believes the information that your senses are telling it. The same goes for when you are about to climb, you need to portray your self as the hero in your thoughts, see the dangers, admit the fair, but imagine ways to over come such moments, and how good that will feel. Imagine how great it will feel to get to the top of that route, or how awesome it will be to achieve a new grade for the first time, even go as far as how positively your mates will react when you do so. On the walk into the crag and the drive there, think and talk about how much fun it will be not how bad your feel. It was a kinda ‘OMG! MIND… …BLOWN!’ moment for me. I had never thought that my actions would affect my emotions so badly. Definitely time for change… at least to try… my BS radar hadn’t quite deactivated by this point.
Clearly something had clicked, I was excited by the prospect of actually getting over this issue at long last. Michael give me some physical techniques to feel more alpha to use along with the mental techniques just learnt. Again talking about Murray, he described how he would walk out on to the court, head held high, arms up and punching the air, he would be breathing deep and smiling broad. This all helped put him in that positive mindset! He described this as a short-circuit in the brain. You do these things normally because you are happy and gleeful, but, by forcing the actions out it will trick the brain to be happy and gleeful. So as part of my warm up, and before each route, I am to spend time looking big, looking happy, possibly looking silly but tricking the brain into feeling more alpha, which will then make me feel more positive about what is to come, and the better i feel about each climb, the easier it will be to feel good on the next climb, and so begin to build a positive cycle.
All well and good up to now, a lot of words however no actions: will any of this work? Can a couple of hours with this random fella really help? It’s time to get back on the ropes. Using the warm up techniques learnt in a therapists lounge only days earlier, I tie in, arrive at the first fall point, and with only the smallest moment of hesitation, I jump. Quickly the fall distances grow. Within the short session I have very little issue with jumping from a body’s height above the last bolt – a good start.
A few months pass and I had driven myself down to Chulillia. I still used the warm up techniques I learnt, and am surprised to find that I was happy to tie into what would have been out-of-bounds lines for me. I noticed my head was not perfect, but was definitely in a better place. The old thoughts did creep in as the route got hard, but unlike before I was able to identify them, identify why, but then was able relax and carry on. I felt in control of my emotions for the first time ever.
My endurance was probably the worst it’s ever been and flashing routes was near impossible thanks, only, to my stinking route reading skills. Each route I would go for a flash attempt and each route be super pumped two-thirds the way up, the rest of the way i would have to go bolt to bolt, sussing out the most efficient and smooth technique, so that my second go to be a sprint to the top. Below is the video my friend shot of me sending my first 7b. psych!
I had noticed a long right hand diagonal break, a line on the upper limit of my grade. Only a month or two earlier it would have been my complete nemesis. Previously every move would have waited to shut me down, the moves were are all undercuts and a smears, however I pushed through and within a handful of goes had clip the top anchors and it was sent! My head for the first time was more interested in the moves and the route than crippled by the – still presently but greatly reduced – fear. I had an awesome trip and came back feeling very successful, which is first for a sports climbing trip!
I’m about to go on a 6 month road trip of climbing, running and hiking. It’s going to be awesome, and even more so that now that I know I can climb without becoming crippled on the slightest sense of difficulty. I’ll keep you posted as to how it goes.