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.