Have you ever had the feeling that only sheer will power has kept you on the rock? Perhaps you weren’t even on great form, you’d been stressed or a nagging injury was affecting your climbing, but you sent a route at your limit—not because you floated up it, or got into flow state, but because you tried really hard. It can feel like you tap into a new level of determination—or your body takes over and you let everything else go—and somehow find yourself on the finishing holds.
So what happened? And how do we replicate this experience—and cultivate this skill?
As a coach, the hardest thing for me to do is help people to ‘try harder’ whilst climbing. Some climbers will more naturally try harder, but for most of us it’s a practised skill—one we often neglect but that we can improve. Every time you try hard, you push the limits of mind and body; you become more familiar with that space and can therefore access it more readily. Throughout my climbing career, my physical fitness has fluctuated, but I’ve become progressively more skilled at pushing my limits by always taking the opportunity to try hard.
The paradox: Wanting to send doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll try hard
Ironically, really wanting to do a route doesn’t mean you’ll be able to try hard when the time comes. In fact, the opposite can happen. This is because really wanting to do something often translates into a fear of not doing it. We then begin to over-think the result of our efforts and climb poorly. Consider that every individual move of a climb comprises the process of getting from the ground to the top. So if we are thinking about the top of the route when we’re only half way up, then we can’t remain focused on the task at hand.
Carrying fear of failure up a route is like carrying a rucksack full of rocks: if you’re afraid to fail, then you’ll be distracted in the moment and you’ll climb like crap. Then fear of failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Addressing your relationship with failure can help mitigate this. Equally, employing focusing tools can shift your attention back to the task at hand.
In order to practise trying hard, you need to be able to try hard on routes that ‘don’t matter’ (i.e, climbs on which you’re not invested in the outcome) or on routes you’re unlikely to get to the top of. Those big sends only come around so often, so if you are only trying hard on the last move of your one big project a year then it’s really not much practice. Some people laugh at me when I start up an 8b+ like I am in it for the onsight, but the first few clips on the climb might be an 8a or a 7c+ (grades I am capable of onsighting), so why not practice that try-hard and simply see how high I can climb?
Take a route I onsighted recently, Donkey Kong Extension in Leonidio, Greece. I scraped up Donkey Kong Junior (8a+), struggled to rest without a knee pad and I felt super tired for the extension, which is given 8b/+ (a grade I certainly hadn’t onsighted before), but I thought I’d try it anyway. Since I have cultivated the habit of trying hard, I fully committed to it. I had no idea how to do the moves, and although I tried really hard (power screaming, fingers opening, you name it), there was also a sense that I was ‘giving in’ to the moves; I was allowing my body to intuitively read the rock without overthinking and being too attached to the outcome. I did the route, and it turns out the guidebook is wrong and it would be better graded at 8a+—that’s about the hardest grade I’ve onsighted, but if I had been too attached to the grade I never would have tried it to begin with.
Of course it often makes sense to save your energy, but if you can’t try hard when it doesn’t matter, what makes you think you can when it does?
Presence is necessary for trying hard, but it’s not sufficient on its own—we can be perfectly present with our own laziness. Supreme effort means that all our resources—mental and physical—are directed towards the task at hand. You can’t do this if you’re distracted with other thoughts or worried about the past or future.
Try to cultivate an intrinsic motivation for effort
Intrinsic motivation refers to behaviour driven by internal rewards. This is in contrast to extrinsic motivation, which refers to behaviours driven by external rewards. Thus an intrinsically driven climber would climb just because they love it, whereas an extrinsically driven climber might climb for social validation. You’ll find it much easier to try hard if you enjoy the effort for what it is, without any outcomes attached.
You might be asking, ‘How can I enjoy it? That effort is hard and painful’, but neuroscience tells us that we receive a dopamine hit after intense physical challenge. I find that the first few moves of a route can feel uncomfortable, but as soon as I get invested in the challenge I become comfortable with the physical discomfort of trying hard. If you’re struggling to get to that place, try to create a situation where you find it easiest to try hard. It could be on a boulder, a route you’ve already done, or on toprope (if you’re scared to fall). Another fun exercise is to try to climb continuously, without stopping (preferably on a toprope so you don’t need to clip); adding this challenge to a relatively easy route can help you access that state of ‘try hard.’
The best climbers are also the best exemplars of try-hard
All the best climbers I know can try hard. If you need any further evidence, search for videos of the best climbers in the world (I’m thinking Adam Ondra and Chris Sharma on La Dura Dura) and you’ll notice that they all try hard. As a 5’2” (1.57m), not very light or strong person; I feel like I probably wouldn’t be a pro climber if it wasn’t for this try-hard. In fact, most of my hardest sends have involved a lot of try-hard, if not on the actual send then on many of the previous attempts, which laid the groundwork for succeeding.
How do you know you’ve tried hard?
This is a difficult question. Not all try-hard moments involve power screams or grunts. It’s irritating when someone tells you to try harder when you know you were already trying really hard. So I’ll just say this: If you fell off with every part of your being trying to stay on the wall, then you were probably trying hard. Usually if I fall off having tried my hardest, then I will be happy with myself and not concerned about sending. In addition, I think surprising yourself is a good indication that you’re trying hard: If you can barely believe you’re still on the wall, this indicates a strong effort.
It’s extremely difficult to try hard if you’re scared to fall. Similar to fear of failure, fear of falling is also a distraction that makes it impossible to fully commit to climbing higher. When we’re scared to fall, we don’t want to move above the bolt and we have an urge to say ‘Take’, neither of which are conducive to trying hard or focusing on the moves. I believe that this fear of falling holds so many of us back from learning how to try hard: We hesitate to operate at our limits, where the risk of falling increases.
Moreover, while we can practice trying hard in a training environment such as on a board, outdoor climbing, or even just being on a rope, is very different to trying hard above a big mat. Therefore we need to do fall practice specific to our discipline—and the environment we want to try hard in—to mitigate this mental barrier.
Trying hard as a form of ‘letting go’
We think of trying hard as pure determination and not giving up no matter what, but we don’t want to force our efforts either. If your body knows how to climb and it knows how to try hard, then sometimes it’s almost like we need to ‘let go’ into the effort. For example, say you’re battling on an onsight, going up and down trying to find the best holds and the best sequences. In this instance, trying hard could mean surrendering into the moves and letting your body climb rather than forcing your body to make upward progress. It’s about never giving up but also about climbing intuitively rather than forcing the outcome and over-thinking the moves.
Those try-hard moments are the most memorable
Last but not least, moments of pure effort, especially when coupled with pure focus, are the most memorable in climbing. In a lifetime of climbing, we’ll do thousands of climbs, not all of which stay with us. However, I can remember random routes—from years ago, even—if they’re routes I had an all-out fight on. A true effort on a route can leave me psyched (and tired) for days. It’s these moments of being intensely connected to what we’re doing that make climbing what it is to the passionate climber. Thanks for reading, and happy try-hard climbing!
Hazel Findlay – professional climber and mental training coach at Strong Mind