The mental game – Part 2. Facing Fear

My palms are sweating, my breathing erratic, my pulse is racing.  I’m gripped from the moment my feet leave the ground.  I’m lunging for holds.  I’m over-gripping.  This is ridiculous.  I trust my belayer.  This isn’t a difficult grade for me.

The falls are safe. Yet why am I panicking so much?!  I have no idea.  But it’s making me climb like a drunken 4-legged spider and I’m fighting to not yell “TAKE!”  I wear my fear like a leaden suit and there’s no way I can improve my climbing if I don’t find a way to deal with it.

Fear during an ascent is a very complex beast.  Everyone has fear.  Some people have just learned to control it better than others.  Some even use their fear to force themselves to push harder instead of letting it debilitate them.  But for those of us who have an issue with fear, we need to face it head on.

climbing fall

Firstly, you need to locate the source of the fear. Perhaps it is as simple as not trusting your belayer.  This is easy to solve – either find a belayer you trust or don’t leave the ground before you’ve gone over some belaying techniques with that person, perhaps even taking a controlled fall on the first bolt to make sure they are competent.

Fear of falling is a big one. One technique for dealing with this is reminding yourself that falling isn’t so bad by taking a controlled fall, i.e. unclipping from a bolt and jumping off the wall.  Just let your belayer know what is happening before you go leaping off all over the place.  It will help if your belayer is skilled in the art of dynamic belaying so that your fall is less jarring.

Fear of failure – this is my pet beast. I am far more afraid of not being able to do a move and appearing weak/unskilled than I am of falling.  The irony is that this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy 99% of the time until I either get over myself or I train myself to believe in another self-fulfilling prophecy – that I am actually capable.  Following my previous article I began to practice the art of positive thinking and the rewards were immediately apparent.  The biggest eye-opener for me was realising how often I look up at a route and already decide that I am not able to do it even when it is well within my capabilities.  I accepted my friends’ compliments and encouragement instead of replacing them with “ya right!” or “no I can’t”.  (Yikes!  Didn’t even realise I did that.)

When an activity becomes such a huge part of your life it is inevitable that your ego and self-image will become tied into it.  If you are nonchalantly making excuses before you tie in perhaps you are still too emotionally attached to the outcome of the climb and worried how you will look in front of your friends.  Many of us are naturally competitive and often I have been on climbing trips and been pushing so hard to achieve a tick list that I lose sight of why I climb.  The anxiety and stress levels reach a maximum before I realise (or my loving partner helps me realise) that I need to step back, play around on some easy/fun climbs and remember that I am out here to enjoy myself.

Eric Horst counsels that we should detach our self-image from our climbing performance and focus on the task at hand.  Be present in this moment, whether it is selecting gear or focusing on the move.  Let go of past failures and strengthen your resolve with previous successes.  The only time you should focus on past failures is when you are trying to problem solve what went wrong.  Beyond that you should simply let it go.

Eric Horst (who seems to be the only person to deal with this issue) suggests a couple of techniques to get our mental chaos under control.  The first is centering.  This can be performed either before a climb or during a rest or shake-out on the climb.  To become centered simply direct your thoughts inwards and regain a calm and focused state of mind.  Take a moment to take a deep breath, feel that heart rate slow down and the breathing become more rhythmic once again.  Relax your vice like grip on the hold you’re currently on.

A more advanced form of this practice is called the Instant Centering Sequence (ICS).  This is a five step procedure that should be practiced regularly in order for it to become as common place as chalking up.  But before it becomes mastered at that level perhaps ask your belayer to remind you to “become centered” when you start to panic.

1.) Uninterrupted Breathing – you want your breathing to be smooth and even.  Concentrate on taking calm, regular breaths.

2.)  Positive face – Research shows that a positive face causes your nervous system to be less reactive to negative stress.  So go on, trick yourself into believing you’re okay and your body will believe it.  Flash that winning smile, no matter how you really feel and it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

3.)  Balanced posture – it’s all about the body language.  If you are slouched and in a tense position you will have slower reaction time, restricted breathing and blood flow and your negative feelings will be magnified.  Conversely, when you stand upright with your head lifted, shoulders and abdomen relaxed you will breathe easier, your blood will flow easier and you will feel more confident.

4.)  Wave of Relaxation – relax any tense muscles.

5.)  Mental Control – Be focused and uninhibited.  Think positive thoughts.  (If I am calming myself while in a rest I like to quickly go over the next few moves in my mind, visualising performing them successfully.)

Once again, I urge everyone to make mental training a part of your routine at the climbing gym.  Don’t just spring these techniques upon your unsuspecting mind when you need them most.  Like physical training, these are techniques that need to be practiced and honed till they become second nature.

“I laugh in the face of danger, and put ice cubes down the back of the shirt of fear !”    — E.B. III.

About the Author:  Illona is the organiser of the Renegade Rock Tour and also runs training sessions at Westville Girls High.

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2 Responses to The mental game – Part 2. Facing Fear

  1. Adele McCann Aug 12, 2010 at 12:52 pm #

    Other authors who have dealt with this issue include Dale Goddard and Udo Newman who wrote ‘Performance Rock Climbing’ see chapters 6 & 7 : Perceptual and Behavioral Approaches to Psychological Control

  2. Goo Aug 14, 2010 at 11:22 am #

    Thanks for the 5 steps, I use 3 of these already but reading them again encourages me to use them. I will add not slouching and ensuring that my muscles are relaxed to my repetoire.

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