Many years ago I wrote a book entitled, Climbing Your Best. It was a guide to assess your strengths and discover your weaknesses. The book then gives you tools to develop a training plan to improve your performance. As soon as that book was being published, I knew there were pieces missing. What piece? The book talks about strength and flexibility, technique, but what it doesn’t go into great detail about is goal setting, mental training and uncovering mental weaknesses. It doesn’t go into a great depth of how to work with these elements.
Over the number of years since the publication of that book, the area of mental training has been primary for me. Yes, I still work with a lot of folks no the strength and technique side of the equation, but in my own experience have noticed how essential ongoing growth in my mental emotional landscape is to actually finding fulfillment with climbing.
The industry promotes a particular idea of what being a “great” climber means. What being a “good” climber means. Then there are all the average climbers. And if I asked you what you thought a great climber is or who a great climber is, you would probably start naming the names of people who have completed amazing feats… you would consider the Tommy Caldwell and perhaps Alex Honnold even though you personally are quite happy sticking to the short boulder problems you do and you do not necessarily ever want to go and free solo anything longer than fifteen feet.
Here’s the problem… what these climbers love doing, what the industry finds attractive, may not be what you find amazing about climbing. If you chase the industry dreams, you may end up less happy. Let me tell you my story.
It’s a number of years ago and my partner and I were sponsored by a couple of climbing companies. We were sponsored to influence clients and gyms to buy products from the company by being good ambassadors in the industry. The sponsorship consisted of product we could use personally. In our most recent contract negotiation, my partner was offered money to climb a particular route. Success on this route would mean our car insurance would be paid for the year. Not substantial money, but more than we were getting from that company.
My partner was frustrated. The sequence seemed more than challenging. It seemed confounding. The wind was whipping around him and the stick clip he had left on the bolt below would whip up and hit his foot occasionally. Hours ticked by for him and his efforts seemed more and more reckless.
Finally he came down, we lowered to the dogs and made our way back to the car. He hadn’t enjoyed anything about the route, the experience. Still, we rested and went back another day. This second experience was no better. More wind, more discomfort. I fortunately did not have to belay, I managed to take the dogs and have a better experience for both of us. Climbing this route would be work, and not the kind of enjoyable inspired route we as climbers seek. It was going to be something he did because he had to do it.
As we discussed this, I said, we have never climbed for money. In fact, we have had little to no foreseeable money and still chosen our commitment to climbing because we love it. If you don’t love climbing this route, then we should just move onto something you do want to climb. That’s what we did. You see we didn’t sleep in a van because it was comfortable and fun. We slept in a van because it meant we could go climbing. It reduced the need to work, to make money. To climb to make money was not congruent with our WHY for climbing. The intention in this situation was not the pursuit of an experience, it was for money. And that intention was only creating dis-ease with the experience.
Understanding your WHY is important when goal setting because it is very easy to take on the industry why or your climbing partners’ why. So how do you figure out your why? Answer the following questions and you may begin to see what you value.
Consider the following words and when a word resonates, provokes a positive response, circle it. If another word comes into your mind, then write it down.
There are many more possible words, so if you did think of something that is not here write it down. If you have more than five words, see if they fit together. For example, nature and outside are similar, or adventure and exploration may be considered alike. List the like words together and then select the one that resonates the most for you. Continue until you have no more than three key words. These three words can be considered you key values. These are the words that must be aligned with your choices and actions.
This exercise is one piece of many pieces you may find helpful in discovering the motivations in your choices. And remember, so many things you do each day are a choice, aligned or misaligned.
Looking for more… connect and we can discuss.
The kids huddled around me. I had just called them in from doing the climbing activity I had given them. You see, they come to me for coaching, some once a week and some twice. They want to get better. They want to climb harder routes. I get it. I like climbing harder routes too. So I create these activities to challenge them to become better climbers. Some activities are designed to make them stronger, some to increase their recovery. Some activities are designed to increase their aerobic capacity (the ability to prevent getting pumped). Some activities are designed to challenge their climbing style making them work with technique they don't often use. And of course, every exercise should make them become mentally stronger, more aware and inspired.
So why did I call them in? First, to make them rest. They are kids and they tend not to rest very well. Second, to change up the activity. But most importantly, third, I called them in to bring awareness to the choice some were making to not actually do the activity I had asked them to do. Yes, they were climbing. But when I would ask why they didn't do some aspect of the exercise, the answer I would get, "I know, but....:"
THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT!
But, take responsibility for the choice not to do the activity. Understand the consequence of that choice and see it as the choice you (or in my case, I) are making.
What I really want is to go home, sit on my sofa and not be responsible to anyone. Not even my friend. Sure I still want to climb better than I currently do too, but my desire for the pleasure of a quiet space without the need to think or hold a conversation is MORE desirable and therefore often wins out. You see, the day we have chosen for climbing is my busiest day. I move from one job to a second job. I sit in a very busy noisy room full of climbers, then I am supposed to go to a third place that day, that is also noisy and lots of people and try to enjoy myself trying to squeeze some climbing time in around the other folks there for the same purpose. My happy climbing time is first thing in the morning. My happy climbing place is outside in nature, definitely not in a gym with music blasting and a line up for routes. So when my energy gets low, it is the last place I want to go, even if it is with a good friend. So I own it. I understand my conflicting desires and I take responsibility for it.
So here is your challenge... own your desires.
What is the goal you want to achieve that you struggle to make happen? It doesn't have to be climbing or even exercise related. It could be a writing goal or a music production goal. Write it down. Write about the desire... what is inspiring you?
When is it best for you to be inspired? What conditions do you need to be creative, strong, motivated? Who do you need with you to support you? Where do you need to be to make it happen? What else do you need?
NOW... answer these questions....
What will make it hard for you to be motivated? What environment/conditions challenge your inspiration? Who challenges your ability to focus on the task? What supports are you missing?
Now that you understand... ACT. Create the space in your life to ACT with the best conditions and without the obstacles.
It doesn't need to be perfect, it needs to be good enough for you to be able to focus, to be motivated and to work.
Find the supports, the right time, the right environment. And then ACT with intention, focus and do all the failure required to lead you to the success.
Don't make excuses! Own your choice. Then remember, you fall down nine times and get back up ten.
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On a chilly day in October I decided to make a little more space around my shed. This involved cutting down some trees and moving some dirt. In the course of this little home improvement project, I lost control of one end of the shovel while my foot pressed firmly on the shovel blade. This propelled the handle into the side of my chin.
In the moment after, I wondered if I had given myself a concussion. I seemed okay so I just kept working for a little longer. Later that night, my tooth broke. Damn it! The next morning, I moved through my day... the busiest and longest day for me. Setting and coaching. The next morning when I tried moving around, it seemed like the room was moving. I hadn't slept very well either. Hmmmm.... maybe I do have a concussion.
In the days that followed, I did all the things I shouldn't do. I tried exercising. That was nauseating. I drove for twelve hours. I spent the day chatting with people. I climbed with my son. I drove another nine hours. That's when the pressure headaches started. I then drove for another four hours. When I awoke the next day with the plan to go and teach, my head was saying "oh no."
STEP ONE: 48 hours of no screens; no reading; no alcohol. No noise. Early to bed. Limit exercise to easy walking.
STEP TWO: Accept that you are not the same. Let go of thinking you SHOULD be doing anything. Or you will go crazy.
STEP THREE: When there are no symptoms, SLOWLY reintegrate things. Do not go back to thinking everything is normal.
After the 48 hours, I felt better. I limited screen time. I went to physiotherapy. I was pretty good. But I notices when I climbed, my heart rate would still go up pretty quick on things that I thought I should be able to do and then I would feel nauseous.
This continued for months. I had no other symptoms, just this feeling of being really fatigued and like I had exercised too hard when I first started climbing. A day of exercise and a night without sleep. And the wobbly feeling returned. Agh!!!
STEP FOUR: Back to STEP ONE, TWO, and THREE.
STEP FIVE: When you get back to play, to screens, back to noise, to all the things you could easily do before without fear of headaches or wobbliness, BE CAREFUL.
Be aware of how you are feeling in every moment moving forward. If you have a party and drink some alcohol, plan to be low key the next day. Plan for self care. Plan to make space for the healing to continue. Healing from a concussion can take YEARS. Play it safe.
Lastly, be kind to yourself. Last night when I went to the gym to climb, I was starting slow. Letting my heart rate come down before trying the next route. I didn't do the last move if I thought it would mean I may fall and land on the ground. Jarring my head like that would not be worth it. I was afraid of what people would think of me. BUT I had to keep going back to ACCEPTING THAT I AM INJURED. Accepting that I need to let go of the idea that I SHOULD be able to climb harder. And when the pressure headaches were returning, I had to leave and go Back to STEP ONE.
Twenty years later...
My body is not the same. Less endurance. Less strength. Less determination. The place is not the same. More climbers. More routes. Harder grades. Line ups.
Some things are still the same. Rock is the same. The goal is the same. Trying to send no falls. Working sections on projects. Sore tips. Trying to stay warm when not climbing. Even a lot of the gear is pretty much the same.
It feels hard. That is the same. It's just that feeling hard comes quicker and with more unease. The head game is definitely familiar but now my determination to make things happen is lower.
With years between then and now, there is the reflection of time, space and mortality. Why do we choose these goals, work so hard for them and in the end we will all not really make a big difference. We will all just be candles in the wind.
Why is not the question. Why questions can be hard to answer and just create a position of for or against. The better question is what are the positives that one gets from the experience? For me the answer to that question is simple... climbing gets me in my body. I pay attention to how I feel physically. I pay attention to solving a puzzle. It takes me out of just watching things happen and puts me in the moment. When it is going well, it is definitely present moment. When it is not going so well, it is in the moment of chaos.
The real reason for this self punishment? The process. Even in the negative chaos of fear and loathing, there is a sense that one must overcome. Even in defeat and failure, one is broken and crushed, there is the ray of light that things may be better tomorrow. One chases the hope of victory over ones own physical and mental weakness.
The prize... to feel empowered. To feel strong. To feel that moment of success. Perhaps even to experience that freedom from all the other things of the world that entrap our mind.
Recently I messed up. No one was hurt. I could have been hurt. But my actions drew unwanted attention to myself and my mistake. That night, I couldn't fall asleep. I woke up early and could not get back to sleep. My mind playing over and over the event. What would this mean to those who had witnessed it? How I may be being perceived was stressful.
This is anxiety. These worries are things I cannot control. Sure I can do a number of other things in the presence of these witnesses to attempt to change what they may be thinking... but they will always think what they choose to think regardless of my desire. I cannot go back in time and change the event. This then creates a loop that can build on intensity or even just continue to spin in unease.
Sometimes we are not even aware of what our thoughts are. We just have the physical symptoms of anxiety. Our heart is racing a bit. We feel a sense of agitation or anger. Or we may just become lethargic and not want to get out of bed and see people. Elevated heart rate, a desire to move quickly, or a desire to drink, eat, move away. Chest breathing. Twitches of the body. These can be signs of anxiety. Interventions here can include making ourselves breath differently. Sounds easy, but in case of high anxiety can be difficult. Box breathing is one recommended method. In for four counts. Hold for four counts. Exhale four counts and hold the breath out for four counts. Or extending exhale. In for four counts and out for up to eight counts. These breathing choices activate the parasympathetic nervous system and increase relaxation in the body.
You could argue that alcohol and/or eating will activate the parasympathetic nervous system, since this is the system that supports digestion. However, alcohol and food can cause a disruption in our ability to sleep properly. Alcohol has a tendency to cause wakefulness through the night. Too much food in the belly denies us REM cycles of sleep. Without sleep, the body cannot manage all that cortisol in the body and return to homeostasis. Thus you are now more prone to experience the stress response, elevated sympathetic nervous system response. This keeps you in the spin cycle in the diagram above.
"Humor is the result of looking at your humanity from a distance. We are all a bit crazy ad funny. And laughter is the balm for healing." ~ Debra Silverman
Everything we do makes up our experience of the world. Experience is shaped by our perception of the circumstances. I am trying to climb a 5.13 or a V9 and for me, the climbing is hard. My body may not be strong enough. I may need better technique or more flexibility. I am falling off, unable to unlock the magic to doing all the moves on the route. My perception becomes, climbing is hard. Or at least, it seems hard.
We are all pretty reactionary as human beings. We want things, we work for them. We feel disappointed when we don't get them. We work to keep things away. We find ways to protect ourselves from being seen in a "bad" way. Define bad how you like. In Yoga, these are described as the kleshas. We have perceptions about the world formed from experiences and people in our lives and we carry these beliefs into perceiving everything... especially how we approach climbing and our lives. Where one climbing partner would be excited to fall off a route because s/he, "gets to climb it again." Yet I perceive falling on a redpoint a devastating blow of failure, it is our perception that differentiates our experiences. We both fell off a route we wanted to send. One of us is happy and the other miserable.
Here is an excerpt from a wonderful book by Og Mandino entitled, The World's Greatest Salesman; "I laugh at the world. And most of all, I will laugh at myself for man is most comical when he takes himself too seriously. Never will I fall into this trap of the mind. For though I be nature’s greatest miracle, am I not still a mere grain tossed about by the winds of time? Do I truly know whence I came or whither I am bound? Will my concern for this day not seem foolish ten years hence? Why should I permit the petty happenings of today to disturb me? What can take place before this sun sets which will not seem insignificant in the river of centuries? I will laugh at the world."
Between 1994 and 2001 I collected information on climbers that included grip strength, back and shoulder strength, hip and groin flexibility, endurance, core strength and performance level. It started as a master's thesis project. It continued out of my curiosity AND because people I coach like very tangible numbers. The tests are outlined in the book I wrote in 2001, published by Stackpole Books, Climbing Your Best. I was married then so the author's name is Heather Reynolds Sagar... you can still find it on Amazon. Below is a link to scores. I have added some new tests because whether you boulder or rope climb, scores can be different. I do not yet have enough numbers to actually run an analysis, but if you want me to test you, I can and we can increase the data.
Each member of the group stated their goal... "get stronger," "climb better," "better mental game..."
Each person expressed a desire to improve with varying degrees of depth in the explanation. Makes sense... we humans are wired to continually improve. If it was not innate within us to improve, to go from being fed and carried by our parents, we would have died off as a species thousands of years ago. An infant wants to explore its surroundings. A toddler wants to walk, then run. And a climber on the easier routes will naturally want to get on the harder routes, unless the will and determination have been squashed in other arenas of life and walking away from potential failure has become the new normal.
There is now scientific research that is showing that this desire to continue to "grow" or "improve" is to blame for our midlife slump... (yes, it's a real thing). Humans spend much of their 20's and 30's creating prosperity in life... prosperity that can be in the form of professional development, personal bests in various activities, having children, buying houses. No surprise then when a group of people in their 20-30's would tell me they want to be stronger, or have better technique or mental game. It is natural at that age to want to build on ones ability.... to produce results.
A number of factors go into one's ability to perform or let's use the example of climbing the next level route. The variables are going to include your strength and flexibility, your sequence, the techniques you use, focus, attitude, and your belief in the ability to do it.
Onsighting roped routes, warming up, even multiple failures on a roped redpoint project are all things that will bring down my psych. But find me a project with a move I need to figure out. Make it short so I can keep my focus and make it not super reachy and I am in heaven. I love the problem solving nature of climbing. Then make it outside instead of inside, give me a supportive strong climbing partner and we are talking a great day for me.
Knowing what gives me joy in the experience informs the goal I set. Yes, I still want to improve performance, but more importantly, I want to find a hard project with a move I need to unlock. I need to learn a new way to move. That may include needing to be stronger or more flexible. It will definitely involve setting up my training with just one or two partners who are willing to work on what I am on. And it will mean something outside. All I need to add is the actual timeline for accomplishment.
So before you train...
Understand your strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, your attitude, your ability to perform.
Then understand what motivates you, inspires you.
Create a goal that is clearly defined - this route or problem, in this period of time. This means shopping for the right experience. If you love the thrill of competition, name the one you want to attend, name the level of difficulty you want to complete either onsight or within a specified number of tries.
If it is adventure that fills you with inspiration, decide on the destination and the routes you want to send. And pick the dates.
The next step is two fold: train or practice in preparation and let go of whether it actually happens. This step repeats every time you train or try to have it happen. You have to let go of the outcome and be in the moment. Practice just being in the moment.
Unfortunately, this is also a time of year with a lot of change... not just the leaves, but often schedules. Even if you happen to be single, young and work a job that has a consistent schedule, you are perhaps being influenced by the influx of thousands of University students. Line ups are longer, sidewalks more filled, traffic moving more slowly. There is usually a faster pace in the store line-ups and more noise in the coffee shop, climbing gym or you can't get your regular spot at your favourite Yoga class. MOVEMENT is all around us. And the stillness to focus and remain focus is more elusive.
FOCUS is essential to hard ascents.
Let me say it again... as a coach... FOCUS IS ESSENTIAL TO SENDING HARD.
If you have sent routes and you were not focused, I would argue it is not the hardest thing you can do.
So How to Cultivate focus... try this meditation to create more steadiness and focus.
The above link (Steadiness meditation) will take you to a meditation practice in soundcloud. This practice can be done in a seated position or lying down on your back in a comfortable position. The key is to be comfortable so you will not have to move through the practice.
If you do not have access to Soundcloud in this moment, you can simply follow these steps:
- Watch the flow of the breath. Count backwards from 12 with each exhale until you reach zero. At zero, continue to watch the flow of the breath.
With each inhale move your awareness with the movement of the breath, in through the nostrils, down into the abdomen and continuing the movement down to the base of the body, the pelvic floor.
Take your time, repeating this awareness and gradually focusing your attention solely on the movement of the breath.
This awareness may gradually become more vibrant with effortless awareness on the inhale flow of the breath.
As you exhale, feel or sense the energy of the breath, the vitality and nurturance being seated at the pelvic floor, in the region at the base of the spine.
As this awareness begins to collect the energy of the breath, the light that rides on the breath collects and is seated at the base of the spine. Feel or sense this creating a sense of steadiness, stillness. A deep abiding sense of comfort, ease.
Rest in this awareness of ease, steadiness and stillness.
Rest for a few minutes in this sense of ease and restful awareness.
When you are ready to return, take a deeper breath in, gradually becoming more aware of the body. The hands and feet may make some subtle movements, gradually drawing you back to the present.
Opening the eyes as you are ready.