Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Benefits and Risks of Visualization

Happy Holidays! I blame my lack of writing on busy holiday schedules and Mercury being in retrograde. Since both are near an end I thought I’d sit down and think about my blog.

I’ve been reading various sports psychology books and articles and I keep coming across the benefits of visualization when it comes to succeeding in your sport of choice. It seems that every author on my reference list (see my list below!) has mentioned it in their books.

Climbers, of course, are notorious visualizers. You can see them at every crag and gym "reading" the climbing route before they get on it; carefully planning each move to avoid falls and planning out crux moves. You can tell their doing it when they stand at the base of the route with their arms in the air mimicking moves like a pantomime.

For those of you unfamiliar with reading a route it’s done by imagining each move (where your hands go, where your feet go, how the move will feel in your body) before you get on the route in hopes it will help you climb it without falling. The thinking goes that if you can’t imagine a climbing move then you’ll probably fall there. More than likely this is the crux for you and you should stop and study that part of the route and not climb it until you have a plan that makes sense for you.

But does visualization really work? Or is it a crutch you shouldn’t lean on? And is there a wrong way to visualize?

My answers are yes, yes and yes.


I can say visualization works from a research perspective but I know for sure it works from a personal perspective. I read routes to feel more in control of the route – and myself. By looking ahead I feel like I can emotionally prepare for what the route is going to throw at me. When I’m outside I feel like looking ahead helps me see any potentially unsafe parts of the climb where I probably don’t want to take a fall (ledges, etc.). If I’ve visualized it then I feel like I can move more confidently through the moves and save my mental energy for the crux.

For me, visualization has also contributed to many “flow” experiences that I’ve talked about before. It sets me up to start out in the “control” section of the flow chart and gives me a greater chance of my climbing experience bumping up into that all mighty flow section. At the very least, visualization keeps me from being in the “arousal/anxiety” sections of the flow chart and that’s worth a million bucks.

So why do I say you shouldn’t rely on it? While planning the route is great you also need to have the ability to be flexible while on the route. If you read the route one way and that way didn’t work then you need to be able to rethink an alternative move on the spot.

It seems that climbers tend to either feel comfortable reading the route ahead of time or just climbing and reading along the way. It’s like the difference between chess players and basketball players. Chess players plan moves ahead, basketball players think on the spot. Or maybe climbing is like a hybrid of the two? For me I tend to read the route only when I perceive it to be difficult. If I think it’s an easy route I won’t read it ahead of time. Either way, it seems that climbers tend to be divided on whether or not you should read routes. Each camp thinks their way makes for a better climber. I say use it when you need to and also practice deciding on the spot.

And finally, yes, there is a wrong way to visualize a climbing route. You have to let your instincts guide your visualizations. If you get too much into your thinking head and out of how your body feels then you won’t visualize a move that makes sense when you get there. Over thinking moves, or worse, 2nd guessing yourself, will sabotage your efforts. So even though I say “visualize” the moves – I really mean “feel” the moves.

Happy New Year! Got any climbing resolutions to share?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Lose Your Competitive Mind to Gain Your Competitive Edge

I recently had someone ask me if I participate in the local climbing competitions at my gym. In telling her no I realized that I have never really thought about why that is. I love watching comps but I’ve never liked being in them. I know if you were to ask me why I would say that I don’t like the intense feelings of anxiety I have during a competition. I have a hard enough time managing my own usual levels of anxiety when I climb and competing always felt masochistic to me. But there must be more to it so I started looking into it.

In a recent online interview, Dan Millman, author of “Way of the Peaceful Warrior” and “Body Mind Mastery” reported the biggest problem with the world today is the competitive mind. According to Millman, the competitive mind is an ego based fear with a core idea of separateness from others and in being separate you strive to overcome others.

Could this be part of why I feel so anxious at climbing comps? Could it be that I start thinking of my fellow climbers as “others to overcome” and it suddenly adds more pressure then I can handle? It’s very possible. I’ve participated in competitive sports growing up and I was usually able to use that competitive anxiety to my advantage; but in climbing the competitive anxiety/energy was too much for me to manage. I often felt that I couldn’t stay in my body during climbing competitions and used up too much energy being in my head with my competitive anxiety. In the other competitive sports I’ve participated in I can’t remember any other anxiety that I needed to manage before the competition. So adding some competitive anxiety to the mix probably didn’t affect me there.

However, I’m sure that competitive anxiety affected me negatively somehow because one of the reasons I was drawn to climbing so much was the non-competitive feel it had. The general feel of climbing to me is more collaborative and social. The climbing community is usually friendly, welcoming and generally helpful. I don’t usually see the competitive side until I go to watch a competition. When I do see overly competitive climbers at the crags or the gym I usually try to steer clear of them and not engage. Now with Dan Millman’s explanation of seeing them as “others to overcome” I realize that my efforts to avoid this energy are probably some type of self-preservation so that I don’t associate climbing with dominating or getting dominated by others.

Striving to overcome others through competition reminds me of another topic I’ve addressed in my blog: control. I wrote that you can only control yourself, your efforts and your reactions but that you can’t control external circumstances. Having a competitive mind is outcome and achievement based thinking and could sabotage your efforts to succeed. Ultimately we can’t control if we win because we can’t control what others are going to do. And we can’t control even if we will succeed, we can only control our effort.

Dan Millman reported that instead of having a competitive mind when we compete or in life otherwise, it is better to have a “collaborative mind.” When approaching climbing from a collaborative mind we see that other’s success is our success. Sometimes we are the student and sometimes we are the teacher. This is definitely something that I did not grasp over ten years ago when I was considering participating in climbing comps. I just wrote them off as something I didn’t want to do. Now after researching the psychology of competition I realize that I avoided it because I didn’t have the skills or the perspective necessary to manage my own competitive mind. Guess I have a new project to work on…competing with a collaborative mind.

Monday, November 8, 2010

How to Put the Brakes on Your Panic

It’s funny to me how my work as a psychotherapist often intersects my climbing life. I recently took a class on working with victims of trauma and realized that many of the same concepts and interventions that a therapist may use with trauma victims could also apply to working with climbers who suffer from a high amount of anxiety while climbing.

Trauma victims (and more specifically, people who have PTSD: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) experience chronic anxiety that is often experienced in their body through shallow breathing, increased heart rate, increased sweating, overly tense muscles, shaking and a shut down sense of awareness that looks like tunnel vision. Sound familiar? When we as climbers get the shit scared out of us on a route it often looks and feels just like this. We may have difficulty finishing the climb and feel paralyzed to move forward. One significant difference is that people with PTSD experience this throughout their day in various environments while climbers probably only feel it on the rock. As soon as you get off the climb you usually feel a whole lot better. But how can you deal with and move through that kind of panic while on the route?

Arno Ilgner, the author of “The Rock Warrior’s Way” and “Espresso Lessons,” does a great job teaching climbers how to mentally prepare on the ground to avoid reaching this kind of panic. I highly recommend checking out his work for more tips on mental preparation. But what if you prepared and still panicked? Then you need to learn how to put the brakes on your panic so that you can finish the route.

The first step is to get out of your head and back into your body. If this is done on the route then hopefully you can do this while hanging at a bolt or gear placement so you can fully decompress. If you are in between placements then hopefully you can find a safe rest position. Next you need to bring awareness to your breathing. Slow it down and breathe deeply without hyperventilating. If you are panicked then your brain has turned on its shallow/rapid breathing in anticipation of coming stress but in order for you to actually handle the stress you need to make your brain go back to a more relaxed mode of breathing.

Next, bring attention to your body and scan it for areas that are unusually tense. If you are hanging, take a moment to stretch these areas out. They might be your forearms, your shoulders, your neck: wherever you are holding unnecessary tension.
Usually the above two things: breathing and stretching, will decrease your panic.

But if you are truly tunnel vision panicked then you need to shake your brain out of its fixation by paying attention to something else momentarily. Normally climbers train to focus and concentrate on nothing else but the climb. But in the case of true panic your focus has gone overboard and you need to reset it. In extreme panic you may need to recall information that has nothing to do with your climb: what day of the week is it, what’s the date, what is my phone number, etc. This distracts the panicked brain into taking a new circuit.

When your panic level begins to decrease then you can go back to problem solving the situation you got yourself in. You need to assess whether or not to keep going, whether or not you feel safe, whether or not you have the strength to continue. If you do continue to climb then you may consider dividing up your climb into mini-goals (i.e. from bolt to bolt) and reassess your panic level at each bolt. It would also be a good idea to periodically check back in with your body and assess your breathing and tension areas again. Panic is usually stress maintenance gone awry. If you can get back into your body, into a routine of assessing how you feel in the moment and making needed adjustments, then panic can be held at bay.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Perfectionism: don’t let it ruin your climbing career

Now here is a topic I really relate to: perfectionism. Do you know that I had a hard time writing this post because I wanted it to be perfect? I even perfectly researched it. It’s everywhere in my life so it’s no surprise that it creeps into my climbing too. Are you a perfectionist? Does it affect your climbing? If the first answer is yes, you may not think that perfectionism affects your climbing negatively, but it does.

Perfectionism can be both bad and good depending on the traits you’re talking about. On the good side, perfectionists strive for excellence, have a strong drive to achieve, pay attention to details, commit to projects fully and follow through. These are great traits to have as a climber. We set goals, work projects, strength train, pay attention to getting the technique right, and keep working that project until we finally get it. There is a part of us as perfectionists that was probably drawn to climbing in the first place when we recognized the potential for climbing to satisfy our some of our perfectionist needs.

But there is a dark side to perfectionism that is rarely looked at. Unhealthy perfectionists may have all of the good traits listed above but they also measure their self worth entirely on their accomplishments. Not only that, they won’t let themselves feel good about that project they just finished because they never seem to do things well enough to warrant the feeling of satisfaction. They engage in perpetual self-evaluation that is chronically negative. They are quite literally their own worst critic.

Additional unhealthy qualities of perfectionists include: procrastination, self-deprecation, fear of failure, all or nothing thinking, paralyzed performance, rigid behavior and it lowers you ability to take risks. Unhealthy perfectionists worry more about avoiding mistakes than worry about doing something perfectly right. Instead of striving for excellence, they are striving to avoid getting something wrong and hence looking bad or losing approval. Ultimately these negative traits can lead to the kind of poor performance that the perfectionist is trying to avoid in the first place; setting off a vicious cycle of then setting even higher standards for the next go around that can’t be met.

Here’s what these unhealthy traits look like in climbing:

Fear of Falling: there are a lot of reasons we have a fear of falling and perfectionism can be an underlying reason. If we are afraid to make mistakes, afraid to look bad or afraid to take risks then it could show up as a fear of falling.
Plateaus in growth: for the same reasons listed above, perfectionism will stunt our growth as climbers. We have to be willing to take risks and make (safe) mistakes in order to grow. Otherwise we literally paralyze our performance and growth will stop.
Quit climbing altogether: (gasp!) This is the ultimate consequence of perfectionism. Perfectionists will often try to hide their mistakes in order to preserve their perfect image. It’s pretty difficult to hide your mistakes in climbing so the next step is to avoid the activity that you can’t be perfect at which means quitting climbing altogether. For me, this is sacrilegious. There is no offense worse than quitting climbing because you can’t be perfect at it.

So what’s a perfectionist to do?

Be perfectly imperfect. When you are able to decrease your perfectionism you will actually increase your accomplishments. Coincidentally (or not…) this is the same logic I applied to my post on Control Freaks: let go of control and end up controlling more. See the pattern? There are a few keys to letting go of your perfectionist ways:

1. Notice the pleasure and enjoyment of climbing – not just the feeling of accomplishment. Enjoy the whole process of working a project or climbing a route. Don’t just feel good at the top of the route.
2. Make mistakes on purpose. Mistakes = learning. Fall on purpose (be safe and smart about it though!).
3. Be aware of the negative self talk that runs like a repeating tape in your head and replace them with more neutral or positive comments. Just because you can’t do something now doesn’t mean you won’t ever be able to do it. Appreciate the grey areas and the possibility for growth.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Prescription Top Roping

Touchstone ClimbingIn the culture of rock climbing there is one all pervasive thread of existence and that is risk. We develop skills and knowledge to manage risk, contain risk, prevent risk, and react to risk. Even psychology researchers have studied risk and why rock climbers are seemingly attracted to it. But what if risk didn’t exist in rock climbing? Would we still grow as rock climbers? Absolutely.

An environment without risk in rock climbing already exists and has existed for some time now in the form of climbing gyms. Gyms create an environment where risk is so minimized that it is practically non-existent; you have to pretty much try to hurt yourself in the gym. Some would argue that this waters down the sport and that if you take risk out of the equation then it’s not really rock climbing. Or that somehow you are not as mentally tough as other climbers who incorporate risk into their practice. Perhaps.

But I would argue that you can, and should, use the gym as another tool to sharpen your mental skills in the absence of risk. There is a lot to learn about yourself and your thought processes when you remove risk and sometimes only when you remove risk. Psychology is a lot like the layers of an onion. You have to peel back the layers to get to the core psychological beliefs that often drive other thoughts and behaviors piled on top. In climbing we often focus so much on managing the risk that we forget to focus on what core beliefs may be behind them.

If you want to experience peeling back your layers try this the next time you are at the gym: spend your work out exclusively top roping (no bouldering or leading) and incorporate climbing routes that either approach or max out your climbing ability. When you are done with each route take a minute to think about how the route went and the messages you told yourself as you were climbing. Those little automatic often unnoticed negative things we say to ourselves. What were they? These are your core beliefs in the absence of risk.

For me, as an example, I can think of a bunch of things I have said to myself on top ropes: I can’t do it (= I’m not good enough), I’m too short (=the cover up for I’m not good enough), this route sucks (=blaming others for why I’m not good enough), and my all time favorite – I might hurt my fingers, shoulder, etc. (=the consequence of not being good enough). So for me what it all boils down to is I’m not good enough. Yikes. How’s that for a dose of realism.

Now imagine me taking that big heavy baggage of I’m not good enough and add in a whopping serving of risk piled on top. It’s going to compound that negative message that I carry around like a heavy backpack. And that’s exactly what happened when I first began lead climbing. What it boiled down to was that I believed I wasn’t ready to lead because my core belief was I’m not good enough. I could have and did push through both learning to lead and managing my negative core beliefs but it was messy at first. I spent more time managing my risk and learning the mechanics of leading than managing my core beliefs. The awareness of my negative core beliefs came much later. But since you are reading this post now, I highly encourage you to identify any negative core beliefs that may be holding you back. Developing mindfulness around these beliefs and countering them with more positive helpful beliefs helps them go away much faster.

Climbing without risk is an important tool in peeling back the layers of what you bring with you when you climb. It can teach us more than just what our negative core beliefs are. In the absence of risk I believe that we can also deepen our awareness of our bodies, develop more mind/body connections, and have more space to open our minds without the presence of fear. With that said, I also don’t recommend staying in this safe environment for very long if you want your climbing ability to grow. Think of climbing without risk as a developmental tool. Then get back out there on the sharp end to further develop the rest of your skills.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Mixed Messages: What’s a Woman Rock Climber to Do?

I’ve always been amazed at how social dynamics in the climbing world reflect and often exaggerate the rest of my world. Should be no surprise really. We recreate social dynamics in every facet of our lives so climbing should be no different. The funny thing is that I tend to overlook the dynamic when it’s happening outside of climbing, or maybe just accept it as status quo, and then look more closely at it when I see it repeated in my climbing life.

One of those social dynamics I see recreated in the climbing world are the mixed messages I get as a woman rock climber.

One social dynamic tells me that as a heterosexual woman that men will find me attractive if I appear vulnerable and needing their protection or support (yes, I’m broadly generalizing to make a point). While the feminist social dynamic tells me I have to be strong and independent regardless of who finds me attractive. So in the climbing world does that mean that if I am a strong and independent female climber then men won’t find me attractive? I see strong women rock climbers hooking up with male rock climbers all the time, so obviously some men find a strong female rock climber attractive.

Or maybe they find me attractive but the relationship is a disaster because of the opposing expectations? In a relationship it’s very hard to be both vulnerable and strong and independent.

My own personal dating history can be boiled down to this: man finds me attractive as a strong independent rock climber and then doesn’t know what to do with me when I’m vulnerable and needing emotional support. Relationship eventually crumbles because they expect me to be strong all the time. Or I dated non rock climbers who were attracted to me for my vulnerable feminine side and then didn’t know what to do with me when they saw that I was a strong rock climber. They were intimidated by it.

From another perspective you could also say my dating history can be boiled down to this: I was trying to figure out for myself what mix of vulnerable vs. independent worked for me as a modern western woman and had a difficult time attracting a man with a balance of those expectations because I wasn’t even aware that I was doing it. I’m sure I too was sending out contradicting messages of vulnerable vs. independent and those men had a hard time understanding what was expected of them. What about the men? Are they aware of what mix of vulnerable vs. independent they want in a partner? When you have two partners unconsciously trying to find a balance between levels of vulnerable vs. independent it’s going to create friction eventually either on or off the rock.

As a therapist, I see this vulnerable vs. independent dynamic playing out all the time in couples who seek therapy trying to save their relationship. The way I see it, you can’t fix anything that you aren’t aware of doing in the first place.

If you are a woman rock climber and you are having conflict with your partner (same sex couples apply here too!) either when you climb together or outside of climbing, take an honest look at this dynamic of vulnerable vs. independent and see if it is affecting your relationship. Are you giving out the same mixed messages to your partner that you receive from society?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Are Rock Climbers Control Freaks?

A control freak is usually seen as something bad. But a climber with excellent emotional and physical self-control is considered enviable and it’s a skill set most climbers want to have. So really what’s the difference?

By definition a control freak is someone who tries to control the people and environments around them, usually by over controlling and micromanaging in order to get some sense of control in their lives. Being a control freak usually develops from not having much control in your environment when growing up (strict or abusive parents, multiple unexpected changes, or experiencing some other kind of disempowered state). Many of us take that feeling of insecurity and transform it into something more manageable. Some people do that by becoming control freaks. I argue that some of us became rock climbers.

Regardless of where our need to control came from, as rock climbers, what’s more important is how we harness that need for control.

You’ll remember that when I wrote about Flow in July (Addicted to Finding Flow) that I said I would revisit it, and this is one of those times. On the list of requirements needed in order to obtain Flow, #5 is: “You have a sense of control over the activity.” The question becomes though, what are you exactly controlling in the first place?

The way I see it, you have two things you can control: your environment and your response to your environment.

If we try too hard to control our environment we start leaning more towards the control freak side of the spectrum. In doing so we are depending on external variables to tell us whether or not we feel in control. Controlling variables is ok up to a point. For example, we can choose what route to get on, how hard the rating is, whether we lead it or not. We can also control other common external variables like sleep, diet, and how many drinks we have with the group around the campfire the night before. When kept in check, controlling our environment looks more like smart preparation. And enough preparation can leave you with increased mental energy to cope with unexpected challenges (Jackson p. 133).

If a climber spends too much energy trying to control the environment, then they can also start blaming the environment for their lack of success: I couldn’t reach the hold, the music playing in the gym sucked, this route setter sucks, my belayer sucked, etc. Focusing too much on our environment actually takes away from the focus needed to get absorbed into the climb (#4 on the list of Flow requirements). The more we try to externally control, the less we actually feel in control.

If we can accept that controlling the environment has limits then we can begin focusing on what is really important: our emotional and physical responses to the challenge. With this acceptance comes responsibility. A climber needs to be responsible for their own thoughts and actions in response to a challenge instead of blaming variables in their environment. Susan Jackson in her book, “Flow in Sports: The keys to optimal experiences and performances,” notes that the key to flow is preparing the “controllables” and then letting go of consciously controlling. She adds, “…releasing the desire to be in control can paradoxically result in more control (p. 129).”

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Rock Climbing as a Transformative Practice

In the world of spirituality and psychology I often see references to people’s “daily practice.” Spiritual leaders and therapists will ask you “do you have a daily practice?” Usually they are referring to meditation, yoga, martial arts or the like. The general thinking goes that in order to grow spiritually, or personally, you need some sort of structured practice that provides the medium to experience a state of presence that will ultimately lead to higher consciousness. So why can’t rock climbing be considered a daily practice?

Rock climbing is similar to yoga or martial arts in that all three have surface level athletic components (techniques, training, etc.). One could practice yoga or martial arts (or rock climbing) for the workout alone and never fully get into the philosophical side of the practice. The difference is that yoga and most martial arts already have a religious or philosophical discipline built into the practice that a practitioner can explore if they want to. Rock climbing has similar philosophical components but no official structure or discipline in which to acknowledge or nurture these internal experiences.

But really, what does rock climbing have to teach us that could be considered transformative? Outdoor education programs have known for years that utilizing rock climbing experiences with their students often results in profound transformations – and these are usually just one time experiences. What could open up as possible outcomes if rock climbing were used deliberately on a more long term basis?

I have considered many of my experiences with rock climbing to be transformative over the years. From climbing I have developed a greater self knowledge, a greater sense of awareness of space and self, increased self-esteem, an ongoing feeling of accomplishment, community and a strong connection to the outdoors. For me, these developments have contributed to growth in other areas of my life. They have transferred into my work as a therapist, into my personal relationships, and how I carry myself in general (balance, self-awareness, and confidence in my physical abilities).

What would a structured spiritual discipline look like in rock climbing? I don’t know the answer to this question. I can think of plenty of scenarios that seem more like a joke or parody of this question then a serious thoughtful answer. Maybe rock climbing isn’t ready for something like this? It might have a hard time shaking its adrenaline junky image. Or maybe rock climbers are not ready for something like this? Or maybe it’s just me. Since nothing like this exists yet (as I know it) then it’s hard for me to imagine what it would look like.

What has been your experience? Could you (or do you already) utilize the transformative lessons that rock climbing has taught you and apply it to the rest of your life?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Why Climb?

Red Rocks While on my recent vacation and break from posting to the blog I was asked, “Why do you climb?” Pretty deep question when I think about it. Usually people ask me something more on the surface like, “How did you get into rock climbing?” or “What do you like the most about rock climbing?” Did this person really understand that I could go on and on about why I climb? I spared them the 40 minute lecture and made a mental note to write about it instead.

I asked my boyfriend, Trevor, why he climbs. He replied, “It’s good exercise.” Really? That’s it? Yep, that was it. For me, that is just the start. Of course climbing is good exercise. You gotta hike in and carry a huge backpack of gear just to get to the base of the climb. Then while climbing you have to utilize every muscle in your body in order to get to the top. But for me, the physical benefits are an added bonus to the mental side of climbing. The mental side is of course why I climb.

I wondered why other people climb. I tried searching online for other articles about why people climb. I came across the usual reasons like good exercise, get to see beautiful places, love the friendships you have with your climbing partners, etc. I agree with all of these reasons. But there is more for me. What’s interesting is that the reason I climb has changed and evolved several times over the years.

When I started rock climbing I got hooked because every time I climbed I seemed to improve. I could do a move or finish a route that I couldn’t do the last time I climbed. It was the only sport I had participated in that provided me with such immediate and tangible feedback. It was fun and challenging and that was enough of a reason to say why I climbed.

As the accomplishments grew so did the supporting variables like getting to travel to cool places to climb, getting involved in the climbing community, making great friends; all components that rounded out and cemented my identity as a climber.

Then, the overuse injury happened.

I first tore my rotator cuff back in 1997 – out for six weeks. That steady increase in improving my climbing ability came to a screeching halt. As any climber who has experienced an injury will tell you: getting back in shape is a bitch. Before the injury I was climbing hard. After the injury I could barely climb 5.9’s without pain. Recovery was slow; much too slow for my ego.

Turning point: Do I humbly take the time to recover and come back to climbing? Or move on to the next sport that will stroke my ego?

That one turning point changed why I climb forever. I chose to be patient and humble and build back my accomplishments ever so slowly. More importantly, I chose to climb for the sake of climbing and not just for the accomplishments. I chose to climb because I enjoyed it and stopped climbing to fulfill my drive or ambition to be a great climber. That drive was still there but it wasn’t the leading reason that kept me climbing. You could say that I became more detached from the outcome. It wasn’t that I didn’t care. It was more that I was recognizing a depth to the sport that perhaps I overlooked before; a depth that I couldn’t see when I focused on the ratings.

Not attaching my self-worth to the outcome meant I started noticing subtleties of the sport that I didn’t notice before. Having to recover from an injury meant needing to develop a higher level of body awareness to avoid re-injury. I began noticing more of how a move feels in my body or how a route feels as a whole. I started having more fun learning sequences of moves like a dance routine. I started climbing routes because they were 5 star routes rather than projects I needed to check off my list. In short, I started climbing for the sake of climbing.

What at first seemed like a cop out on the surface turned into a gold mine. After I detached myself from the outcome, the accomplishments actually came a lot easier and faster. I recovered from my injury and came back climbing harder than I was before it. The injury actually served as an excellent opportunity for growth.

So why do you climb? No, really, why do you climb? Not the surface reason but the underlying reason? Does it stroke you ego? Or do you climb for the sake of climbing?

Monday, August 2, 2010

Yin and Yang Integration

Men and women climb differently. They move differently, learn differently, process information differently and mentally approach climbing all together differently. Yet, both can climb the same climb and you may not notice much of a difference at all in their internal processes when the outcome is the same. Now before I get a bunch of emails about being sexist or stereotyping, let me explain.

Men and women bring different strengths and different ways of being and knowing to climbing. Both feminine and masculine styles are valuable in knowing and understanding to help your climbing grow. Understanding both styles can help you assess where your own climbing is at and where it may need to go in order to grow and get past a plateau. When we are stuck in our climbing development we often need to broaden our perspective and apply what is missing in order to get unstuck. Thinking about different climbing styles is one of those perspectives.

Having a feminine or masculine style of climbing is not limited to what sex you are. I have known lots of women climbers who embrace a more masculine style of climbing (think muscular boulderers). And I have known male climbers with more grace and subtlety than their female counterparts. Whatever style you seem to inhabit most often is fine – until you reach a plateau. A plateau may indicate that you are developing too much of one style over the other and you have lost a key balance that is needed to keep growing both physically and mentally.

Different rock climbing styles are best likened to the Chinese concept of Yin and Yang. Wikipedia says “Yin and yang are complementary opposites within a greater whole. Everything has both yin and yang aspects, although yin or yang elements may manifest more strongly in different objects or at different times. Yin and yang constantly interacts, never existing in absolute stasis… Though they are opposing, they are not in opposition to one another.”

Climbing has many yin and yang components that we juggle and balance each time we go climbing (see Table 1).

Yin and Yang Table by Rana Betting Climbs may draw upon different components depending on the rock and the route. For example, I find crack climbing to be more masculine (yang) in its approach. Grunting up cracks often leaves me feeling like I lack grace in my movements. But if I get on a bolted face climb (more yin) then I feel my movements open up and the feeling of grace returns. It doesn’t mean that cracks cannot be climbed gracefully. Anyone who has ever watched a video of Steph Davis climbing a crack knows it can look graceful. It just means that I have a hard time climbing them gracefully. I have over developed my face climbing yin skills and I need to consciously develop more of my crack climbing yang skills to compensate and grow. How about you? Where in the balance of yin and yang climbing styles could you use a little more growth or development?

We may also be unconsciously drawn to a style of climbing that best fits with a way we already relate to the world. Assessing the levels of yin and yang in our personality as a whole may give us some clues as to why our climbing development may be stuck. Think of your career or your relationships. Do they have more yang qualities than yin? Or more yin qualities than yang? This information could correlate to your climbing style. Climbing reflects life. Life reflects climbing.

That last concept will be one that I come back to again. I believe that climbing has a lot to teach us about our life in general. But I also believe that our climbing often reflects the chaos or peace in our lives. How is it reflecting yours right now?

Monday, July 26, 2010

What Does Flow Feel Like?

I realized my last post spent a lot of time explaining how to achieve Flow through setting up the necessary components but I didn’t get a chance to talk more about what it actually feels like when you get to experience it.

How do you express in words a very inner experience? It makes me wish I had the word skills of a poet.

And what if you haven’t experienced it? Does that mean you suck as a climber? No. It just means that you are missing out on a more holistic climbing experience that includes the inner experience. You can still climb without experiencing Flow much like you can still have sex without having an orgasm; still feels great but feels much better along with the final product so to speak. But I digress. Again, wishing I was a wordsmith.

I think it is necessary to say that you feel Flow throughout the climb. It is a process, not something you feel only when you get to the top of the climb. For me, Flow is the feeling of effortless grace. Each move just folds into the next one as if I’m climbing automatically. I am not thinking about my technique, it just comes to me through muscle memory. I am fully immersed in the climb with a sort of “relaxed concentration” of calmness and confidence as I move upward. I seem to intuitively know where to go and how to move my body to get there. It’s like an organic dance with the route as my dance partner. I am in full control without consciously trying to control it.
The author in Flow
Am I the only climber who recognizes how complex this experience is? It’s like a spiritual experience for me. There are so many layers in what I just expressed yet the inner experience so often gets minimized and overshadowed by other components such as onsights and first ascents. Meaning, the inner process gets overshadowed by the final product instead of focusing on how you got there. What I’m trying to stress is that if you actually cared about HOW you got there you will start actually getting more of those onsights and first ascents you deem so important. You could say I’m advocating for adding the “inner experience” to the list of disciplines you need to hone in addition to technique, strength building and understanding gear systems.

Achieving Flow for me must feel something like a Zen student trying to experience a satori when they meditate. While I do not have a formal meditation practice, I have talked with many friends who do and our language is often similar in what we are trying to experience. The quick fix American side of me wishes I could just snap my fingers, put everything in place and experience Flow on every route. But feeling Flow is something of an accident. You can only set everything in place and build a solid foundation and then you have to wait for Flow to happen. How frickin’ frustrating! But I like knowing that if I do put everything in place waiting for this “accident” to happen then at least I am more accident prone.

I’ve met a few wordsmith climbers in my time. Are you one of them? Please share your experience of what Flow feels like. What does Flow feel like for you? Maybe you have experienced more layers or more sensations than I reflected on. I would love to hear about it.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Addicted to Finding “Flow”

Five years ago while researching the psychology of rock climbers in graduate school, I came across a term that finally identified a large part of my own experience in rock climbing: Flow. In my last post I mentioned giving name to the mental components of rock climbing. Well, this is a big component. You’ll hear me reference Flow – a lot. You could say I’m addicted to Flow. I even refer to it with a capital “F” because it commands that much respect as a climber.

The term Flow was created by psychologist and father of Positive Psychology, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “me-high cheek-sent-me-high-ee”). Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi Flow has also been referred to as being “in the zone,” or “in the groove.” In Eastern philosophies, Flow is similar to the spiritual development of overcoming the duality of self and object.

In an interview with Wired Magazine, Mihaly said Flow is, "Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost." Climbing is the perfect sport for this phenomenon to occur. By its very nature, rock climbing is set up to meet the components of Flow that Mihaly says need to be present for Flow to happen:

1. Have clear goals (i.e. get to the top of the climb…).
2. The activity is set up to give you immediate feedback (i.e. popping off of a climb or successfully making it to the top is definitely immediate feedback).
3. There is a balance between the level of challenge and your level of skill (see chart below).
4. Have a high degree of concentration and focus.
5. You have a sense of control over the activity
6. You become so absorbed in what you are doing that you experience a loss of self-consciousness (as in worrying, am I doing this technique right?), time flies by (wow, I can’t believe we’ve been on this route for an hour!) and your focus of awareness is narrowed to only the activity itself (you’re not thinking about bills you need to pay or the drama you had with your sig. other last night).
7. It’s fun and rewarding! (This one is important. Otherwise, why climb?)

Flow Chart
Mihaly was one of the first researchers to include rock climbers in his psych research and recognized our skills as something more than “risk seeking.” He recognized the secret to what all climbers are really seeking: the experience of being “in Flow.” Whether we are conscious of it or not, we are all seeking the experience of Flow when we climb – and in our life in general.

The problem with Flow is that the feeling is hard to obtain. I don’t get to feel Flow on every route that I climb. But I do seem to feel Flow more often than not and it keeps me hoping that I’ll feel it again. Finding Flow on a route is much like the psychology of gambling that keeps people going back for more. Gamblers win on a variable interval schedule called “intermittent reinforcement.” They win just often enough to get them to plug more money into the slot machine. I would be willing to bet (pun intended…) that gamblers are just like climbers in search of Flow. I have experienced Flow on an intermittent schedule and now that I’m aware of what the concept is in general, I find myself trying to consciously create Flow every time I climb.

So why is experiencing Flow important while climbing?

On the most basic level the experience of Flow is pure happiness. The research on the psychology of happiness has shown us that we could all use a little more of it to counter our daily stresses. Americans tend to be more unhappy than other cultures in spite of our vast resources and knowledge.

On the climbing level, experiencing Flow will improve your climbing and improve your experience of your climbing. If you are constantly pushing yourself on projects (high challenge level), chances are that you may be spending more time in the Arousal and Anxiety fields of the chart. This can be frustrating and lower your motivation to continue. Or if your skills have improved but you’re not pushing yourself then you may be stuck in the Control section of the chart. Sometimes this can feel like our climbing growth has reached a plateau. Think about where you spend most of your time on this chart. What would you need to adjust in order to have a higher chance of experiencing Flow?

(For more information on the psychology of Flow, see my reference list below)

Monday, July 12, 2010

Who wants to talk about psychology?!


I do! And hopefully future readers of this blog. When I started rock climbing in 1992, (man, that makes me sound old…) one of my climbing mentors, Andrew Sell, told me: “learning how to climb is 90% mental and 10% physical.” Really?! Then why is it that everything I see in the media world of climbing would lead me to believe that climbing is 90% physical and 10% mental? Climbing magazines shy away from psych topics and instead focus on who climbed the latest 5.15 and what shoes you should buy. Climbing books are no better; they usually only devote a small chapter to climbing’s mental contribution (unless of course you are Arno Ilgner, who is the only climber I’ve found to fully tackle this subject –thanks Arno!). The climbing media make it seem as if the mental aspect of climbing is some elite club you can’t get into for fear of giving away some kind of magical power. The only thing this approach has accomplished is reinforcing the notion that rock climbing is for adrenaline seeking death wish super monkeys. It also leaves regular climbers like you and me getting frustrated when we bump up against our own naturally occurring mental limitations.

When climbers like you and me get frustrated it usually stunts our climbing development and at worst, makes us want to quit climbing all together. No one talks about it because they don’t really know what “it” is or how to talk about “it” and we don’t want to appear weak or dumb. We can’t find any solutions in the media because they make it seem like we should already know how to conquer our own mental shortcomings.

This is why I am starting this blog. I want to start giving a name to all the different complexities that Andrew was talking about when he said climbing is “90% mental.” I want to help climbers grow and evolve by bringing awareness to psychological topics others avoid. If I can prevent at least one climber from quitting rock climbing because they reached their mental plateau (and there WILL be mental plateaus!) then I will consider this blog a success. So welcome! Join me. Where should we start?