Climbing is a sport that causes us to face failure numerous times. No matter how strong or technical our movements become, there is always a harder route, a challenging problem to solve, a injury to nurse back to health, or different environmental elements to face. The saying seems to hold true that if you are not falling and failing, you are not trying hard enough. It can cause great frustration, but it is also one of the elements that draws people so closely to the sport.
We love the feeling of being able to push past our limits, solve puzzles, learn something new about ourselves and the world around us, and challenge ourselves physically and mentally. Our greatest feelings of accomplishment often come from the things that push us the hardest and cause us the most struggle at the time. You feel good when you flash a route, you feel amazing when you work on a route for days piecing it together one move at a time and finally send.
Many of us can see this in retrospect, but the feeling of failing can be really hard at the time. It is important to learn the right ways to handle these situations.
First of all, take the time to let out whatever you are feeling. If you are starting to get frustrated and really struggling, take a walk and find some time alone to let any negativity pour out. Then use it to fuel your strength. If you try to send your project overly frustrated and telling yourself you suck at everything, you probably are not going to make it. When we start to get angry, frustrated, or upset, our minds stop thinking clearly. They go into a fight or flight response where the focus is getting the body back to balanced. They see things in a tunnel vision and we tend to make small mistakes we otherwise wouldn’t. This causes our frustration to grow and seemingly reaffirms that we are not good enough. It is not true, but in that moment it seems true. Taking the time to calm down can help us keep our clarity.
When I tried my first V5 I experienced this. I had never even thought of doing a V5 before but the first move looked interesting and I tried it. It was one of the funnest moves I had been able to accomplish. The fun of the climb and the ability to get started sucked me in. For a while each time I got on it, I would get a little further. This fueled my obsession with the climb and kept me on it. Then I got to my crux. I tend to believe more in personal cruxes than climb cruxes because I’ve seen so many times where people get through the so called crux but struggle elsewhere. We are all unique and each have our own areas of struggle. I had reached my crux and the progression had stopped.
It was just a few moves from the top and the rest of the climb seemed very doable. I was close to breaking through to the next grade and really wanted it. After days of trying the frustration was really setting in with the feelings of failure. The climb was becoming harder. I decided to take a break. I climbed other things that were just fun and really got my mind back into the idea that climbing is enjoyable and the purpose is to have fun. I would try the project only once or twice and then do some easier but fun climbing. Finally I got on the V5 and sent it. I was able to see clearer because I had removed myself a little and got a fresh outlook. Instead of trying the same old things or looking at it as this impossible obstacle, I was able to see what I needed to. I sent the climb and it was one of the greatest feelings I have felt. Of course, it was quickly followed by the slight sadness of what can I work on now? That is the great thing about climbing. It is a constant game of succeeding and starting over at new points.
It is also important to learn that we all learn at different levels, succeed in different areas, and discover things in different ways. There was one time I was climbing weekly with another climber who was at my same level. We thought it would be fun to challenge each other by picking routes at our limit or higher and seeing who could do better. It was a little competition but done out of fun. There was nothing to gain or lose. The problem is that this didn’t work well. There were climbs were I clearly performed better and climbs where he clearly performed better because we each had different strengths, different advantages, and different techniques. Even though we were around the same level, we both climbed so differently and succeeded in such different ways.
A lot of times I hear climbers getting frustrated when they climb with someone at the same level but then that person pushes way past them into higher levels. This often happens when they learned to climb together. On the other side, people get really happy when they can push past all their friends. I’ve also seen people start to form climbing groups based on people they can do the same climbs with. Everyone believes that they are self competitive with their climbing, and for the most part they are. However, there is a social aspect to it and that can cause feelings of failure for some. Some people stop climbing with others because they don’t feel like they can keep up or fit in. I’ve struggled with some of these left out feelings myself. Those feelings of not belonging and being able to keep up, take away from the joy of climbing. Since climbing is rooted in ourselves, those people normally do not give up climbing. They climb alone or find new partners and enjoy it again because those feelings of failure are gone. Some people do give up because they let the fear of failure take over them.
Again this is not a problem everyone has, but it is a problem that some have and that people may have a varying levels. For instance, I’ve seen people leave groups and find new partners who are at their level or leave climbing. I have also seen people who would never go to that extreme but who show signs of jealousy when a friend does really well. Then there are climbers who climb with anyone and really don’t notice at all.
It is important for those who fear failure in this way to embrace it. It may be hard. As mentioned above using a coping skill like taking a break to climb alone or walk could be helpful. It is important to recognize what I mentioned above. As much as it may seem people are clearly better because of grades, people have successes in different ways. Someone might pass you onto another level, but then plateau there and when you catch up you find that level easy to pass. People might be stronger than you but still impressed by your technical moves, balance, or other ability. For instance, there is someone I climb with at the gym who for the most part does better on boulders than me, but every now and then a climb is made of moves that I can just see and put into place where that climber struggles. That climber will wonder how I possible did it and try to replicate unsuccessfully, and I just laugh because I know most of the time it is the other way around.
We also need to work to keep focus on what is important to us. Creating your own climbing goals can help a lot to beat this fear of failure. Make sure these goals are not based on other climbers. Decide, I want to work on climbing a great higher, I want to work on building my finger strength, etc. Make sure they are small, realistic steps. This will help you stay focused on your climbing. By setting small reachable steps, you will be able to keep fueling yourself with the pride of your own accomplishments. You will be doing the things you want to. Chances are other climbers will be supportive no matter where they are. They will see you did something amazing for you and cheer you on. Try to do the same for them. People who fear failure tend to worry too much what others think because we live in such a competitive society. However, climbing is about you. There will always be someone better and always someone worse. You can only be the best you can be and bring your own unique style, attitude, and view to things. You are great at what you do!
Also be sure to listen to your body. Sometimes it can be motivating to try something out of your limits to climb with someone else. You might think, if they can do it, I can. It is great to push yourself. However, you don’t want to get injured. Always be careful of the difference between challenging yourself and straining yourself.
Another big fear of failure is actually a fear of falling. I was lucky enough to take the Rock Warriors Way clinic with Jon Richard. He is amazing! One thing he said that I already knew was to get over a fear of falling, you need to practice falling a lot! When I first started climbing, it was top roping at a gym with some girls from my college. They had climbed before and only I was new. When I started climbing, they told me to fall after a handful of moves. I was like really, I’m only a foot off the ground and haven’t done anything yet. They said fall. So I did. I wasn’t scared because I could have jumped down from that high, but I had never fallen before so it was interesting to feel. Every move I made they told me to fall again it seemed. At first, I thought it was a little annoying, but then I got it. The further up I got, I had no fear, despite my fear of heights, because I trusted the gear. I kept feeling it catch me and I felt more and more secure. When I started bouldering, I did the same thing. I would climb a little ways and fall, then climb a little more and fall. By the time I fell off the top, I knew what the falls at all heights felt like.
A new thing he taught us, was that there are safer ways to fall. Practicing falling will not only build confidence but it will train you to fall the right way. Just jumping down isn’t the only fall to practice. You will still get scared in weird positions. You must learn to fall from every position, angle, height, etc. You want to make sure you will be relaxed when you fall. Here is why. When we are scared we tense up. When we make impact tense, we get hurt because our body doesn’t fold into it. Think about punching something with your arm straight out and tensed up, verses punching something with a bend in your elbow and bit of relaxation to your muscles. When you are tense it hurts. To do practice falls we took deep breaths to calm down. Then we looked to where we were falling as we let go. Just like you look to your hands and feet to see where you will move, you want to look to where you will fall to prepare for how to take it. You also want to keep your legs and arms slightly bent and relaxed.
It is important to keep in mind that a fear of falling is in some ways logical. Some falls are dangerous. Having absolutely no fear is just as dangerous as too much fear. You want to learn how to make reasonable fall factor decisions. Think about the different falls and what makes them scary. Is there something your head could hit? That might be a reasonable fear that you need to learn the safe approach to. Maybe you down climb and out of dangers way if you struggle instead of going for it. Maybe you make sure to have a helmet. Maybe you put in extra protection if trad climbing. Are you just scared because you’ve never fallen like that? Start from a place you have and slowly work up to falling each step of the way and accessing your risk level. Ultimately you will have to make a decision to try or not to try. Either one is okay but you must be sure. Doubt and fear cause tunnel vision and room for small mistakes. So you must go confidently forward or confidently give up. Your confidence is important.
There will be lots of times you fail in climbing, but keep in check what is rational and irrational about your feelings. Let things out, build up your confidence, and strongly go forward. You have a lot to learn and these failures are beneficial. They often teach you the most about yourself and help you to become a stronger enriched version of yourself in all aspects of life. People are impressed by someone who can fail and carry themselves in a positive way, and you’ll be impressed by yourself.