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.