Fear of falling, fear of failure, fear of hitting the ground? One of the prominent ways that I see climbers hold themselves back is not knowing how to properly manage fear. And this is because there is an inherent element of primal, unfounded fear in climbing.
Your mental state has a profound impact on your performance in all sports and climbing is no exception. I would venture to say that your intellect, judgment, and psychological state affect your climbing performance as much as (if not more than!) your physical state. As a personal trainer and climbing instructor, I consistently try to stress this to my clients. There is no faster way to improve your performance than to positively engage the most powerful human organ: the brain.
Unfounded Fear of Falling
Go ahead and try to break down all of the mental aspects of climbing. Confidence, problem-solving, focus, risk mitigation, frustration, fear; the list goes on and on and all of these can be broken down into even smaller sub-categories. Let’s talk about one of these mental aspects that we can learn to control: unfounded fear. I mention “unfounded” fear because a fear of decking or having a very inexperienced belayer make a mistake, or any other number of fears for legitimate safety reasons are different.
Everyone processes and reacts to this unfounded fear in different ways, but if one thing is for certain, it is that once the fear hits a certain threshold, it has a negative impact on your performance. We have all experienced this type of fear and the results that follow: technique goes down the drain, your confidence is shattered, your focus becomes misdirected and then the wind starts howling. Of course it does, and the rock feels like it might break, your shoes are slippery, there might be a spider in that pocket, the next hold might be bad, the bolt 10 feet away does not look like it has a good clipping stance…and now your hands are sweaty, your body is stiff, knuckles are white from over gripping, arms are bent, and everything “good” feels out of reach–paralyzed by fear.
Are There Steps to Conquering Fear?
Fear can creep in while top roping, bouldering, sport climbing, trad climbing, and mountaineering–indoors or outdoors. Trying to reason yourself out of the fear can work to a certain degree, but if you wait until you become consciously aware of your fear to address it, you have missed your opportunity. I’m sure there is some controversy on the best way to handle this fear, but from personal experience and teaching, here are my thoughts.
Many praise an all-or-nothing approach to climbing and dive right into that terrifying climb, but I disagree and believe this approach is actually harmful. Once the anxiety sets in, your subconscious brain starts associating climbing with anxiety. Creating more positive experiences with climbing will help build a better foundation and that is where you should start your training. From here you can advance in small increments and find the edge of your comfort zone, and then step marginally beyond it. Then practice at that level until you feel comfortable and then do it again.
What should you do if the fear has set in while you are climbing and you are in that “reasoning yourself out of the fear” state and there is no turning back? Here are a few tips of mine. Close your eyes for a moment, take a few deep breaths and focus on the exhale out of your nose. Open your eyes, fully intent on finding your next hand hold and without hesitation, go for it. Maintain positive thoughts by concentrating and focusing on specific things; such as, listening to your breath, analyzing the rock, and moving. Even making a mantra up to repeat out loud or to yourself may help. If you are someone who has fear or lack of confidence holding you back from getting to the top of climbing the next grade, consider yourself lucky. Building the necessary strength to complete a grade may take years, but you can do something about your fear tomorrow and get immediate results!
Share your tactics for overcoming fear in the comments!