Mind games: overcoming irrational fear in climbing – part 1

Image by technex, used under a Creative Commons Licence.

I aim to work on overcoming my irrational fears and internal pressures that are getting in the way of me being able to climb and have fun. I’ve been climbing for nearly a year and for about three weeks I’ve been frightened of climbing up whilst bouldering¹. During this time I’ve been traversing only, and even then it hasn’t been fun: I’ve felt vulnerable and overwhelmed by the amount of people around me, which makes me not want to climb. Whilst top roping with friends, the fear comes and goes. Sometimes I’m able to surpass what I thought I was capable of. Other times I feel unable to get to the top of climbs I’ve easily completed before. This fluctuation in ability lets me know it is my mental activity that is affecting my ability. I’m going to use theories/techniques from The Rock Warrior’s Way² and Vertical Mind³ to see whether I can train my mind to recognise irrational and rational fears and overcome the former, alongside recognising and releasing excessive pressures I put myself under. I’m documenting this so that it I can share what I learn.

In The Rock Warrior’s Way, Ilgner identifies seeking external approval as a source of suffering, which causes part of the mind to compare oneself with others and conclude they are better or worse4. This leads to an inflation or drop in self worth and amends the self-image positively or negatively. This is all about how it looks, rather than feels, to yourself and others. Ilgner suggests, in Chapter 1 Becoming Conscious5, a way of shifting perception from carrying out the habits and negative self-talk that occur unconsciously, to being the watcher of these phenomena. Ilgner states, “knowing there is an inner you independent of any beliefs or thoughts gives you the power to change”6. Ultimately, the aim is to switch permanently from seeking external approval to using an inner guidance system of values, which increases personal power to respond.

Ilgner categorises two power sinks and four power leaks that get in the way of performance7. Power sinks are connected to self worth (comparison to others) and self image (personal history; e.g. if I climbed really well at the last session I unconsciously believe, and expect, to climb as well or better this session, which creates pressure to perform). Power leaks are connected to unconscious habits, inner dialogue (e.g. excuses for self sabotage; generalisations instead of specifics – “I always…”), reacting (when feeling weak, agitated, anxious or powerless), and hoping and wishing. All of these things can drain energy and stop you doing things you could otherwise do. With all of these energy drains the aim for Becoming Conscious is awareness: notice, when you can, which one you’re doing; what is your inner talk saying?8

There are two power sinks and four power leaks, as described by Arno Ilgner

In Vertical Mind, McGrath and Elison set out to show developing “scripts that enable us to produce flawless movements, focused attention and productive emotions with high efficiency” is the most effective mental training9. In psychology a script runs when you’ve become so used to an activity that you do it automatically, like driving, for instance. A script can also create expectations that may be disappointed (like the climbing well last session example above). Scripts can be changed, using the following process10:

  1. Identify what you’d like to change.
  2. Pick an alternative behaviour.
  3. Catch yourself in the old script and practise 2.
  4. Repeat 3. over and over in a safe environment and maybe exaggerate the behaviour to make it ‘stick’.
  5. Test the new script in an affective environment (i.e. under stress or pressure).

So, using both books’ theories, to overcome my learned fear of climbing up whilst bouldering I’m going to do the following experiment in my next session:

  1. Climb all the easiest level routes (green) mindfully, noticing my inner talk11 and energy drains.
  2. Make a note of what I noticed after completing the green circuit.
  3. Climb all the next level routes (bee stings) as per 1.
  4. Make a note of what I noticed after completing the bee sting circuit.

The Results

I felt nervous as I got ready to leave home. I didn’t notice my self-talk, but I did notice my heart was beating fast. I met a friend at Boulder Brighton12 and we warmed up together, chatting, so I didn’t notice any self-talk. I started on the green circuit and completed three climbs before I noticed I was gripping harder than necessary and my hands were shaking. Until that point I had no awareness of inner talk or my body; I was ultra focused on completing the climbs. Something must have opened up in my mind because I noticed I could have climbed the last route differently, so I did it again. I still felt shaky, but slightly less so. Then I had another go and began to feel more in the moment, thinking where and how to move my body. I began to enjoy it. I gave it one last go and moved to the next green route. Two adolescent boys were near the next route. I hovered at the edge of the mat, not wanting to climb with them watching. I chatted to my friend for a bit then noticed the boys had gone. I’d been afraid of not being able to complete the route in front of them, which made me aware of the pressure I felt to perform (this relates to an affective environment in the Vertical Mind process for changing a script). The climb was so easy and over in seconds when I did it. All of the green routes were stupendously easy and with them under my belt, and my confidence for climbing up increased, I moved onto the bee stings.

The bee stings were slightly trickier than the greens, although I did them all except one on a slight overhang. After completing the circuit I went back to the overhang problem. I tried to do it quickly, buoyed by my success at completing the others. I got to the crux but chickened out. It was like there was a big “no!” in my head and no room for anything else. My friend went for it and completed it. She said she had time to think at the top before making the final move. I gave it another go: I got scared and slowed down, stayed there, breathed and then a curious thought occurred; “what if I move this hand here?” I found myself making the final two moves, completing the route. I felt panicky on the way down and I think it’s something to do with fear of elation that could lead to complacency, and then an accident (this scenario has actually happened before), but trying to get down the wall quickly is more likely to lead to an injury. Slow, precise, mindful movements are key.

I achieved my objective of climbing up. It was really hard to notice self-talk, except on the occasion at the top of the wall, after talking to my friend about her taking her time. The delay of acting on negative self talk seems to work really well so I’m going to continue practising. I think the self-talk happens so quickly sometimes that I don’t notice it; all I notice is the feeling of not wanting to try a route for whatever reason, and I tend to act on that automatically (react/habit). Is it that I’ve missed hearing the self-talk or is it that there aren’t words – just a feeling? Maybe noticing the feeling is the start of Becoming Conscious. Next time I’m going to start with a circuit of bee stings, then try a circuit of seagulls, which is the next level up.

Watch this space for part two of Mind games: overcoming irrational fear in climbing. Feel free to ask questions or make comments.

¹This article on the British Mountaineering Council website gives you information on what bouldering is.

²The Rock Warrior’s Way Mental Training for Climbers, Ilgner, A., 2006, Second Edition; Third Printing, Desiderata Institute, La Vergne.

³Vertical Mind Psychological Approaches for Optimal Rock Climbing, McGrath, D. & Elison, J., 2014, Sharp End Publishing, LLC, Boulder.

4The Rock Warrior’s Way Mental Training for Climbers, Ilgner, A., 2006, Second Edition; Third Printing, Desiderata Institute, La Vergne, p.2

5Ibid. pp.1-24

6Ibid. p.8

7Ibid. pp.16-20

8Ibid. pp.22-24

9Vertical Mind Psychological Approaches for Optimal Rock Climbing, McGrath, D. & Elison, J., 2014, Sharp End Publishing, LLC, Boulder, p.15.

10Ibid. p.27

11Ibid. pp.22-24

12Boulder Brighton’s website is here.


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