When I think about my current feelings towards climbing, I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes from the film “Into the Wild.” It says “I read somewhere…how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong…but to feel strong.” I apply this to climbing because we really don’t need to be the strongest or best climbers to feel good about our climbing, but we feel best when we feel strong.
You’ve no doubt heard professional climbers preach about the importance of confidence. At first listen, it doesn’t seem helpful. I mean really climbers, what about footwork, muscle, finger strength, technique, skills, etc? However, if you really think about it, confidence certainly does play its role. It plays a major one. I think about when I go to climb and feel really strong, confident, and capable. I usually am impressing myself with my footwork, technique, and strength. Then I go in on a day when I feel weaker, I start to doubt myself, and I worry that I won’t be able to do it. I could do that same climb I cruised and impressed myself on last time, but now it is like I know nothing about climbing. This is a bit of an exaggeration, sure, but my technique, footwork, and skills just don’t seem quite as impressive.
You may think, well if you are weaker that makes sense. To some degree that is accurate. We all have days that for one reason or another we just are weaker than others. Maybe we didn’t sleep right. Maybe we didn’t eat right or drink enough water. Maybe stress is blurring our concentration levels. Maybe we had to give up climbing for a little too long. Some days we certainly are off and that can account for some set backs in climbing progress and some weakness. However, there is something else at work here. When you feel strong and confident, you take more risks. You think to yourself I can cross step, back flag, stem, heel hook, etc because I have these holds and could hang for days. The last time I went climbing, I noticed myself thinking these thoughts. I would just cut feet where ever, pull out daring moves, and try anything that seemed plausible (within the limitations my fears of falling and re-injury allow). I felt like nothing would knock me from the holds because I was so strong and it allowed me to do a lot more.
The first couple of days I came back to climbing, after a decent sized break from being sick, things were very different. I was actually weaker due to the fact that I hadn’t been climbing. However, I also had no confidence because of this fact. I climbed easy things that seemed so much harder than they needed to be. I was making cautious movements rather than the right movements. Only doing things that felt secure instead of the normal risks we must take to progress with the sport. Confidence, or lack there of, was playing a large role.
The problem with this is that it starts a vicious cycle that spirals through your climbing session. You start to feel less confident, so you make a mistake or notice you feel weak, then you get frustrated that you are not thinking clearly, which in turn blurs your thinking further. Before you know it the day seems wasted, annoying, or you feel bad about yourself.
Okay, so now we sort of get this complex role that confidence and feeling strong or weak plays. What can be done about it? First we must remember the quote, in that it isn’t about how it truly is, but how it feels.
You don’t have to be your strongest today, but you should do the things that make you feel strong. If you are having a weak day, it is probably not time to jump right into that project you’ve been working. One time I was working really hard on a project. I went into the gym and noticed I was feeling weak. It wasn’t what I wanted because I was so close, but I knew trying to do it would just frustrate me and break my heart. Therefore, as hard as it was to resist, I did. I didn’t work projects that day. The next time I went back, I felt much better and actually managed to crush that project. It is hard, but sometimes we need to take a step back.
Sometimes we can also revisit and make adjustments to our goals for the day. If it is a weak day, maybe instead of working towards upping our grade, we need to work on just having fun and racking up some mileage. Do some really easy climbs and try to think calmly. Focus on your breathing, doing quiet feet drills, etc. These things will help you keep your head clear and feel a bit more confident. You could also go to the environment most conducive to relaxing. If you think outdoor climbing requires more strength and will upset you more to be weaker on, go to the gym for the day. If you, like I, feel instantly at peace and carefree in nature, try to spend a day outdoor climbing.
Let yourself know that this is not a big deal. You are not done for as a climber, you are just having an off day. These thoughts will help keep your confidence in your overall ability, which is helpful. Maybe you feel fuzzy climbing, but you can still do some training. This will help you feel like you are working towards rebuilding strength.
Also since feeling weak can make us scared to take risks for fear of failure or falling. Maybe it is good to have a top rope day. This eliminates some of the falling fears and makes a failure a little less noticeable.
Be sure to be kind to yourself and pay attention to what is building up confidence and what is breaking it. If you are messing up and getting frustrated, take a break. Tell yourself it is okay, and let it go. If you are someone who worries what others think of you as you climb, make sure to climb alone or be a little less social. Avoid comparing yourself to other climbers. Remember you are having an off day and it is not the peak of your ability, but also even on your best days comparisons are not fair. We all progress, change, grow, and learn at different rates and levels. They might be doing better at a particular thing now, but you might do better at something else later.
Pushing yourself too hard on a weak day could be dangerous as mistakes open up room for injury. You definitely want to keep yourself feeling as good as possible, but also taking a step back to play it safe. You got this, but maybe just not today.
Do what you need to to feel strong, confident and ready to go!