Climb what you can today, not what you think you ‘should’ be able to
We all lose our balance sometimes during climbing – physically, mentally and emotionally. The aim of this article isn’t to show you how to avoid lapses in physical poise and mental composure, but to provide practical suggestions on how you can use mindfulness and compassion techniques to restore your equilibrium, regardless of your level of climbing experience or the type of climbing you do.
Sometimes it is mental pressure, either situational (e.g. fear of falling), social (e.g. performance anxiety), or personal (e.g. self-criticism), that holds us back in our climbing rather than the technical difficulty of the climb. One fundamental reason for loss of composure in climbing, and in life in general, is when our reality does not match our expectations. For example, we make a mistake on a climb: our confidence drops, our body tenses, our technique deteriorates, and we start berating ourselves internally, thinking something like: ‘I should be able to do this! I climbed something harder last week.’
‘Should’ statements are a common source of self-criticism. Indeed, in her recent book Climb Smarter, Rebecca Williams lists it as one of ten common thinking errors (2022: 152-153) that warp how we view ourselves as climbers and hold us back from optimising our performance and enjoyment.
Mindfulness is about non-judgmental awareness of the present – a mindset which helps us see and accept what is happening now – the reality – rather than what you think ‘should’ be happening – your expectation – when you climb. Compassion is about taking action to minimise suffering. Self-compassion is a vital part of coping with the inevitable internal narrative of self-generated criticism that we all experience from time to time. We can use mindfulness and compassion techniques to create a sense of equanimity when we climb – an ability to accept difficult thoughts and feelings, such as fear or frustration, and get underneath these to access a state of calm clarity (Kabat-Zinn, 2013:442). Equanimity helps maintain or restore our emotional balance, enabling us to optimise our performance.
Let’s examine some examples of how a disjuncture between our mental expectations and lived reality affects our climbing.
When your expectations and reality don’t match
The above examples will ring true with the majority of climbers. We all have expectations and beliefs about how our climbing sessions / days are going to go. It’s how we respond when things don’t go as expected that determine our enjoyment of the day. Learning to see your expectations for what they are, ideas inside your head not facts, can help you deal with the times that reality doesn’t meet them.
Mindfulness and compassion techniques you can use to restore your composure
It is neither possible nor desirable to remove all potential stressors from climbing, it involves an inherent (normally acceptable) degree of risk. Neither is the aim to eradicate fear or other difficult thoughts or feelings. Some fear is helpful, making us exercise caution; where it becomes unhelpful is when we become overwhelmed – we lose focus, our muscles tense, our technique deteriorates, and negative internal chatter causes us to question our ability. Mindfulness and compassion don’t remove environmental stressors or negative thoughts and feelings, what they do is help us be aware of how we are feeling in the moment. They give us tools to regain composure by acknowledging, rather than buying into or resisting, how we feel.
Here are some practical techniques you can use to help bring you back to balance before, during, and after you climb:
1. Defusing difficult thoughts and feelings
Sometimes we experience ‘cognitive fusion’, a term from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which means we overidentify with a specific thought or emotional response (Hegarty and Huelsmann, 2020: 59), for example, a fear or worry. You can ‘defuse’ yourself from unhelpful thoughts by acknowledging them, but also distancing yourself from the immediacy of their impact on your behaviour by seeing them just as thoughts, rather than your reality (ibid.: 22; Williams, 2022: 68). When you feel overwhelmed – remember just because you think it doesn’t make it true! You can also use a mindful focus on your sensory experience in the present moment to defuse difficult thoughts and feelings – how does the ground feel under your feet, or the texture of the rock under your hands?
2. Deal with self-criticism by removing ‘shoulds’
Notice when you have self-critical ‘should’ thoughts. Acknowledge the frustration you are feeling in that moment and accept the thought. Try focussing less on the outcome, what you think you ‘should’ be able to do, and more on the process, what you are doing now. Ask yourself what can I do now to get the most of my session now? Reframe your expectations as questions to deal with issue your ‘should’ thought raises: for example, adapt ‘I should be able to climb this route’ to ‘what’s the best way to climb this route?’ (Williams, 2022: 171).
Stop, Take a Breath, Observe, Proceed. Clients tell us that this is one of the most effective mindfulness techniques we teach. It is adaptable to different circumstances, whenever and wherever you feel distress. First, stop and notice how you feel in that moment. Take a breath – a long exhale activates the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of the brain that helps calm us when we are overwhelmed. Observe where in your body you feel the difficult emotion, acknowledging your distress and repeat to yourself the phrase ‘soften, soothe, allow’. This reminds you to accept the feeling as it is, rather than buy into it or resist it (Neff, 2011: 115). Finally, proceed with compassion, in other words by giving yourself what you need in that moment to be okay. That will help you calm down, climb better, and enjoy your climbing more.
There are physical things we can do to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Try the following activities which you can do without anyone necessarily noticing. They all help stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, calming you down (Hanson, 2009: 80-83).
- Relax your body. Scan your body for areas of tension and consciously relax them. I often tense my jaw under pressure, for example – notice things like that and release the tension.
- Take a deep breath. Put your hand on your stomach and focus on breathing with your diaphragm for a minute or two. Balancing your heartbeat through steady breathing helps.
- Small actions like stroking your hand provide calming physical contact.
- Bring to mind a sense of gratitude by recalling a happy memory or just looking around and appreciating where you are, especially if you’re outside.
5. The Friend Test
This is a simple compassion technique that reminds you not to be so harsh on yourself. Just think: ‘Would I say to a good friend what I am saying to myself?’ If not, acknowledge the self-critical thought, then try to reframe it with self-compassion to be constructive, helpful, and kinder to yourself. Appraise your performance but remove emotional judgement from your appraisal: a bad climb doesn’t make you a bad climber.
When to apply these techniques in your climbing
We can split our climbs into different sections and the different techniques can be used in these different places. Firstly, before you leave the ground you can do things to help you avoid losing your composure, notice how you are feeling right then without judging yourself. For example, are you nervous about a redpoint attempt? That’s perfectly normal, try to diffuse your thoughts, notice the colour of the rock, the sounds of the birds, then climb without being sucked into your thoughts and worries.
During the climb you will find sections where you can rest or shake out. Use these areas to practice STOP, refocus and calm your mind. You can use STOP to prepare yourself before a crux or long run out. These sections can also be where you try to remove ‘shoulds’ or frequently ‘shouldn’ts’ from your thoughts: things like ‘I shouldn’t be this pumped’ or ‘I shouldn’t have done the crux that way.’ Take a moment to accept the thought, then focus on what you are going to do now. At the top out of a boulder or trad climb is a good moment to use STOP, pausing to collect yourself and help you avoid doing the worm over the top. Remember that 'proceed’ can be climb back down or say take, it doesn’t have to mean push on if you don’t want to.
Lastly, after a climb or after a mistake you may find applying the friend test helpful. Did you complete the climb ‘because it was easy for the grade’? Be aware of putting yourself down and minimising your successes. When you fall off on a climb consider how you talk to yourself can you appraise rather than judge your performance and come up with a new method? Before you jump straight back on the route try and self-soothe, take a minute to slow your breathing and heart rate. Throwing yourself back on angry is unlikely to lead to success. If you watch the competition climbers, you’ll see them taking a break between attempts, using the time to compose themselves before they try again.
It’s not about removing emotion from you climbing but these techniques will hopefully help you manage your emotions when they become too much.
Summary: accept how you feel, bring yourself to the present, and be kind to yourself
The key learning points that we want to get across in this article are that one of the best ways to deal with feeling overwhelmed in climbing, and in life, is to accept how you feel and think and then bring yourself back to the present, focusing on the process rather than outcome of your climbing. Also being self-compassionate is a more effective way or maintaining or regaining composure than self-criticism. We all get out of balance sometimes; we hope that the practices described here are accessible techniques you can go away and actually use, rather than just read about.
About the Authors
Dr Kris Chapman is a mindfulness instructor specialising in mindfulness for sport. Kris’ PhD is in the anthropology of martial arts and included training in Japan. His background is in karate and kyudo, Japanese archery. He has black belts in Shukokai and Shotokan karate, and a first dan in Heki-ryu Insai-ha kyudo. See www.mindfulkindfulness.co.uk or contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Becca Lounds is a climbing coach, outdoor instructor and co-owner of Climb Move Run (Development Coach, RCDI, MLs). She has climbed for over 25 years and has been a full-time coach for 10 years. She has bouldered F7C, sport climbed f8a, and trad climbed E5. See www.climbmoverun.com or contact her at email@example.com. Becca and Kris run courses together on Mindfulness Techniques for Better Climbing Performance.
Hanson, Rick with Richard Mendius (2009) Buddha’s Brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love and wisdom, New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Hegarty, James and Christoph Huelsmann (2020) ACT in Sport: improve performance through mindfulness, acceptance, and commitment, Dark River.
Kabat-Zinn, Jon (2013) Full Catastrophe Living: how to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation, revised edition, Piatkus.
Neff, Kristin (30.9.2015) ‘The five myths of self-compassion’ available at: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_five_myths_of_self_compassion, accessed on 16.11.2022.
Williams, Rebecca (2022) Climb Smarter: mental skills and techniques for climbing, Sequoia books.