September 5, 2022

Why does climbing feel harder when we are scared? And what are affordances?

Author
Seb Costa

In climbing, we constantly interpret the wall or the rock to find holds, features and shapes we can use to make upward progress. This interaction between what is present in our environment (a rock face or holds on a climbing wall) and how we interpret it for use can be described by the concept of ‘affordances’.

This concept revolves around the idea that we perceive our surroundings in terms of action. In everyday life, the design of objects provides us with affordances, for example, the design of a mug tells you where and how to hold it and what you can do with it. The same applies to a door handle, an armchair or a jug on a climb.

To put affordances in perspective within climbing, let’s take footholds as an example. Depending on our level of experience, we’ll notice different features of the rock as either useful or not. As we gain more experience on rock, our affordances grow alongside our movement skills and we’re able to perceive smaller, subtler features as something useful. The important word here is ‘perceive’, as the affordances provided by the same square foot of rock change from person to person, and more interestingly, they can change alongside our stress level.

As our stress levels go up, our sense of affordance goes down. This means that we become more conservative with how we use our environment when we’re stressed. You might have experienced that when you’re more stressed, you avoid using the smaller or stranger footholds, and instead, you opt for the larger holds that aren't quite in the right place for your current body position. As a result, you often end up unnecessarily unbalanced and you compensate with strength, which as we feel more and more tired can in turn make us feel more stressed!

Visiting a new area with a new rock type or trying out a new style (outdoor climbing, cracks, corners, slabs, tufas) are common experiences where the interplay between affordances and stress is noticeable. We are often required to recalibrate our bodies and minds to this new medium. Ever tried to layback a crack that could be easily jammed? Pulling up on a slab using the crimps rather than pushing on rounded footholds? In these cases, it would be worth learning the new skills in low-stress situations and then with time reinforcing them by gradually increasing the challenge of the route, or with a higher stress situation.

Here are some other examples of common situations in climbing where our affordances are affected by stress:

  • Going to more run-out sports crags: This is a classic example of when we can easily experience our affordances changing. If we are not used to climbing in run-out situations we often experience either an inability to read and climb well or a resistance (often negative thoughts) to our own intuition in regards to movement. In my own practice, this is something I have become quite aware of every time I climb at Céüse – the bolting is generally more spaced compared to my local crags and the rock demands quite precise footwork and body positions. I always try to spend the first day taking some falls to allow my body and mind to fully engage with the climbing.
  • Lots of people watching: the feeling that we mustn’t fall always affects our affordances, but social fears are often overlooked. You may find that when there are more people at the crag or the gym, you’re more scared to fall (or rather fail) and your sense of affordance goes down. As you might have observed, this is not true of everyone, in fact some people seem to thrive in these situations. Most of us however do get affected one way or another by social fears, and it can feel as debilitating as a long run-out or a poorly protected route.
  • Climbing shoes: This has little to do with a stress-inducing situation – it’s more of a personal experiment. The climbing shoe you use (soft or stiff) affects how you perceive the rock, and therefore your affordances, as the same foothold will give different feedback depending on the shoe. If you can, try a range of different shoes in a climbing shop, or try your friend’s on if they fit. Which one feels more useful on a small rounded hold? What about on an edge? This can be an interesting experience as it will directly affect your affordances.

What kind of situations affect your affordances? Perhaps you’ve fallen on a stressful lead, only to find the footholds looking much bigger when you’re hanging on the rope. Or perhaps you’ve seconded/top-roped a route that you led before, and found that the climbing feels a lot smoother. Have you ever found a tricky move in the gym to feel much easier when no-one is watching you?

Man on the mountain
Tzigane (7a+) - Terranova - Ailefroide, France -

Given that stress affects our affordances, it’s important that we understand how to manage and train our minds for climbing – for our performance if not for our enjoyment and wellbeing too! This is what mental training is all about. Fall practice is an effective training method as it trains us not only to recognise and manage our stress levels but also to grow our comfort zones – and hence learn and realise affordances – in climbing. Other psychological factors that can increase our stress levels are things like social fears and fear of failure; working on these is a little more complex than fear of falling, but can have remarkable effects on how much stress we experience when climbing.

If this article has resonated with you, take a look at our Free Taster Course or keep an eye out for more tips on mental training. Happy Climbing!

Sebastian Costa

Seb is a climber and a coach with Strong Mind

References:

Fajen, B. R., Riley, M. A., & Turvey, M. T. (2009). Information, affordances, and the control of action in sport. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 40(1), 79–107.

Pijpers, J.R., Oudejans, R.R., Bakker, F.C., & Beek, P.J. (2006). The Role of Anxiety in Perceiving and Realizing Affordances. Ecological Psychology, 18, 131 - 161.

Graydon, M.M., Linkenauger, S.A., Teachman, B.A., & Proffitt, D.R. (2012). Scared stiff: The influence of anxiety on the perception of action capabilities. Cognition and Emotion, 26, 1301 - 1315.

DISCLAIMER: Strong Mind content may not be appropriate for someone suffering from a mental health disorder. If you are unsure whether you should try some of the techniques or advice referred to on this site or in this text, please consult your doctor or therapist first.

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