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).”

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