Have you ever clipped a bolt from a hard or awkward position, only to find a great stance after making the clip? Nearly all lead climbers have experienced this at least once. It is a powerful example of how the fear of falling affects our thinking and our judgment while climbing.
Whether you like to admit it or not, if you want to climb at a level above 5.10 or 5.11, you will fall. In fact, you should fall—a lot. Most climbers progress more quickly if they push their limits to falling. And at advanced or elite levels, falling is part of climbing. If you want to climb at this level, you must learn to manage your fear of falling. In order to improve performance, you must first recognize your bad habits and fear-based tendencies preventing you from falling—and therefore preventing you from progressing. The first step to changing these counterproductive habits is to raise problems to awareness.
Here are three common tendencies we climbers exhibit that indicate we are afraid to fail and/or afraid to fall. If these situations sound familiar, then you may have something to work on.
Is it better to fall from here, down climb, or go for it? A climber may have to make this decision numerous times over just a single pitch. But, when the result of that decision-making process is … nothing. That’s obviously bad.
Freezing is usually the result of indecision, or being overly cautious. Numerous factors may be at play: having a history with a bad fall, being a new or inexperienced climber, or even having an extensive background in trad climbing (where one typically does not fall).
Being old(er), I started climbing before sport climbing existed. When I made the transition to sport, my biggest weakness was freezing when I was on the verge of falling. It was a tradeoff because it pretty much guaranteed that I would fall, but by not trying I wouldn’t fall as far. As my biggest weakness, tackling this tendency held the potential for the greatest gains. Supportive partners really helped. I’m not close to perfect. I still freeze on occasion, but I’ve tipped the balance a long way toward going for it.
Becoming more skilled at evaluating your safety and risk of falling reduces freezing. As Lynn Hill advised in an interview with Russ Raffa in Climbing Magazine in 1987, you can tip the balance toward the positive, toward going for it. But you can’t tip the balance without actually going for it sometimes. A drill or tactic here is to enlist the help of partners. If you trust them, they can help you make the decision by encouraging you to go for it when it is safe.
Instead of freezing, some of us procrastinate by pretending to do something. In spite of seeing what we need to do, we fiddle about, fondling anything that might be a hold, trying every ridiculous body position, fiddling with gear—instead of getting on with the obvious.
One of my partners recently returned to climbing after a short layoff due to injury. He hadn’t lost much in the way of strength, but when he tried to on-sight a route at his limit at Rifle, he was faced with the fact that he had lost more mentally.
I watched as he hit the second set of hard moves, not yet the crux. He looked at the next obvious hold—this was Rifle so it was the one covered in chalk with three neon tick marks and GPS coordinates marking its location. He briefly faked a reach toward it and then settled back into his strength-sapping “rest” and proceeded to test 23 chalk-less holds (OK, I exaggerate). Mentally, he just wasn’t ready to make that moderately hard move, which was well within his physically abilities. It was easier mentally to search for that hidden miracle hold no one else had found until he was too tired and could justify yelling “take.” I’ve been there; I’m not being judgmental. Moreover he knew it. He lowered to the ground and his first words were: “That was all mental.”
Indeed, that’s why we wrote Vertical Mind—climbing is over 90 percent mental.
The third most common indication that you’re afraid to fall or fail is what I call “half-stepping.” By this, I mean trying half-heartedly. You know what I’m talking about; you’ve been there. You’re pumped, you know the next move, you’ve convinced yourself you won’t stick it, so you pretend to try. You go through the motions and fall.
Grabbing quickdraws is another manifestation of half-stepping. Rather than commit to making the clip or taking the fall, it is easier to grab the draw. This is a potentially dangerous practice that is often followed by a desperate attempt to clip while one’s hand slowly slips down the draw.
The opposite of half-stepping is actually committing to an attempt to stick the move—and that is what you want to start focusing on if half-stepping is a problematic tendency for you.
Success is the reward that allows us to change this habit. It still amazes me how many times “one more hold” is all it takes. You thrutch for the next hold because you don’t have the strength to reach it with control, your body sags as gravity pulls you down, your fingers may even slip … and then it all stops and you are still on. Suddenly you can adjust your hand, move your feet, stem, or grab the next hold and make the clip. So often “one more hold” is the only thing between you and the on-sight or send.
This is an excerpt from Vertical Mind, a new book co-authored by Don McGrath and Jeff Elison. They wrote this book because they believe that mental training can (and should) be approached with as much time and energy as climbers spend training their bodies. They believe that all climbers can benefit from specific mental training methods. Vertical Mind is a review of the science behind how mind-body training works. You can order the book here. And please follow Don on his training blog Master Rock Climber.
About the Authors
Don McGrath started climbing in the Gunks and Daks of New York over 20 years ago. He and his wife moved to Colorado in 2001, and now they live in Colorado Springs. An engineering director by day, Don is also a 5.13b climber, and an aspiring author, speaker and teacher whose first book, 50 Athletes Over 50, discusses what it means to be an athlete in their golden years. Check out his training blog Master Rock Climber, and check out this link for a list of speaking events for Vertical Mind.
Jeff Elison is a father, author, speaker, rock climber, and professor of psychology. Jeff loves rock climbing of all sorts (bouldering, sport, traditional) and continues to use the tips presented here to improve his mental game—a never ending task. He completed his doctorate in 2003 at the University of Northern Colorado and a NIMH postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Denver in 2005. Since then, he has been teaching and doing research. His research focuses on motivation and emotion, in particular, self-conscious emotions, such as embarrassment, shame, guilt, and humiliation. Jeff lives in the San Luis Valley of Colorado, where he teaches psychology at Adams State University.