Saturday, November 12, 2011

So much reading, not much writing...

Since I last posted asking for your thoughts on topics to write about I have been furiously working behind the scenes researching new ideas. Thank you for all of your feedback! It’s great to hear from all of you (some publically, some privately). I just wanted to post briefly on what I have been working on and let you know that you will see more articles soon.

Per Trevor’s comment about interviewing someone I have recently contacted a local climber and post-doc, Rachel Steinberg, who recently released her dissertation research titled, “Mindfulness, psychological well-being, and rock climbing: an exploration of mindfulness in rock climbers and the potential for psychological benefit.” I had a great time meeting with her and learning more about her research and what has come out of it. I’ll be posting a summary of our conversation very shortly.

I was also intrigued by Dana’s comments about becoming a “top rope princess” and wondering about the interpersonal play between climbing partners. I’m in the middle of reading research by social psychologist, Eli J. Finkel, who has studied the give and take interplay between romantic partners swapping leads so to speak and I’m trying to see if and how it might transfer over into climbing relationships.

And lastly I’m also looking into Ann’s question about how to still grow if climbing isn’t your only sport. It made me think about personality traits and how some of us lean towards singular pursuits and some of us lean towards lots of different activities. This lead me to look into Suzanne Brue’s work on “The 8 Colors of Fitness” spelling out different Fitness personality types based on the Meyers Briggs personality tests.

So thanks again for all of your ideas! Please keep them coming and I will look into them. What I am realizing is that while the research on climbing psychology may be limited there is tons of other psychological research out there that corresponds and relates to climbing without realizing it. More soon!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Autumn Reflections

It seems only fitting that on this first day of autumn I am reflecting on what I have written on this blog and where I want to go next.

Autumn is a time of harvest and preparing for winter. Symbolically I see this as a time of reflection and introspection that prepares us for our next growth spurt in spring. I began this blog for my own exploration into the world of climbing psychology to record and share what I see, what I experience and what I’ve learned. It turned into a great project of awareness of myself and others and I’ve had a lot of fun (in a nerdy sort of way) researching what others have written and researched on it. So where should we go next?

I am aware that I have a small but loyal set of followers on this site. But my site statistics also show that many of you visit without being followers. So all combined, what do you, my readers, think should be an area of future focus for research and writing on this blog? What topic have you enjoyed most and would like to see more discussion of? What topic have I not touched on that you think I should? Consider yourselves my global focus group of sorts. Especially since so many of my readers are from outside of the U.S.

You’ve let me humor you with my thoughts and ideas and now I’d like to see your ideas. Please share via reply comments here or email me at I look forward to hearing from you!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Who Do You Climb With?

I recently took some friends outside climbing who were new to the sport. One of them said, “Thanks for taking us, we know you’d probably rather climb with harder climbers.” Not really, I replied. I like climbing with all levels of climbers because I enjoy climbing – period. But then it got me thinking of other combinations of climbers and their differing ability levels. Have you ever thought about who you climb with and what, if any, purpose it serves?

Most of us have climbing partners that either climb harder than we do or are less experienced than us. It’s very rare, in my opinion, that you find climbing partners who are at the exact same level as you are in ability, skill level, experience and what grade they climb. Most of the time I don’t think it matters who you climb with as long as you have fun climbing together. But when does it matter?

It matters when you are setting goals, working towards those goals and possibly when you feel stuck in those goals. We need someone who can push us, encourage us, lead us, support us and help us grow. Does that person have to climb harder than us? Not necessarily but it helps if we are growing. What if my partner is less experienced or skilled than me? Then they better be a good cheerleader and push us to grow. Essentially we all need an “Evolutionary Partner,” someone who helps us grow no matter what skill level each of us are at. If we can fluidly exchange roles of supporter and encourager than both climbing partners benefit. It’s when we get stuck in our roles based on respective skill levels that growth can stop.

This concept can transfer to the rest of your life too. Do you have an Evolutionary Partner outside of climbing that pushes you to grow and succeed in school or your career? Can you be an Evolutionary Partner for someone else?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Letting Go in Lead Falling

I didn’t want to write about lead falling. I hate lead falling. My psychological nemesis is and has always been feeling comfortable with taking lead falls. Over the years I’ve been able to at least do them. But I hate them. Does anyone ever feel ok with falling?

There is more than my distaste of falling for why I haven’t written about it until now. The main reason is that everyone has already written about falling. Climbing magazines write about it all the time and climbing teachers (like Arno Ilgner) have made careers on helping people feel comfortable with falling. Falling is a central component in learning to climb both mechanically and psychologically. I have read every article and book out there on lead falling and even taken a class on lead falling so why didn’t it help me? It seemed to me that I did everything on their collective lists of things to do:

Learn the mechanics of a dynamic lead fall so you feel safer. Check.
Get a trustworthy belay partner. Check.
Desensitize yourself by taking repetitive intentional safe lead falls. Check.
Desensitize yourself further by making yourself work through you fear. Check.
Arrive at having conquered your fear. Uh, no check.

It’s this mechanical approach to conquering fear that hasn’t worked for me yet. It seemed like there was something in me they were not addressing that would help me get over this *mostly* irrational fear I have. I understand the mechanics of lead falling and feel safe but I still can’t turn off this primal instinct to not fall that can hit me like a panic attack.

Then I had an epiphany – of sorts. I saw the movie Black Swan. I know you’re probably saying, what does a movie about ballet have to do with rock climbing? One thing: perfection - my other nemesis. In the movie, the choreographer is trying to teach the lead dancer that in order for her to be perfect she has to let go. She of course doesn’t get this as she has learned the mechanics of dance perfectly. So she doesn’t understand why this hasn’t won her the success she thinks it should. It’s the same with lead falling for me. I’ve learned the mechanics of lead falling perfectly yet I haven’t been able to let go. Literally let go and figuratively let go.

Letting go of what? Control. How do you let go of control in a sport that demands its? How do you let go of control when even a lead fall has controls in it? How do you let go of control when it feels to me that control keeps me alive and free from injury? If this wasn’t my nemesis I would probably have amazing answers to these questions. But I don’t. This is where I’m at in my growth – a reluctant lead faller.

How about you? Do you have any lead falling tips you would like to share with a reluctant lead faller?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Is Rock Climbing an Exercise Disorder?

Hell no it’s not! But I got your attention. I recently got my psychology panties in a bunch when I read an article about the upcoming revision of the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) due out in 2013. The DSM is considered the bible reference for diagnosing anything considered a mental disorder and creates lists of diagnostic criteria to determine whether or not your symptoms are a disorder.

On the list for consideration as new disorders is including anger, healthy eating (yes all you vegetarian and/or wheat free folks out there), pms, teenage eccentricity (isn’t that all of us?) and having a high sex drive. Really?! Will any of us be normal after this revision? Also on the list is a push to refine eating disorders to include and single out exercise disorders such as “Compulsive Exercising.” Compulsive Exercising is characterized by scheduling your life around exercise, missing work to exercise, feeling depressed if you don’t exercise, exercising even if you’re hurt, and not taking rest days. Know any climbers who sound like that? Of course you do!

So how many psychiatrists out there would diagnose hard core-unemployed-full time-live out of your van- climbers as “compulsive” and give you a prescription medication for it? I’d be willing to bet there are more than a few. If you add onto that any drive to maintain a healthy weight as any sort of motive for climbing then you will for sure fall under that Exercise Disorder category. This over pathologizing is insane! Just wait until the committees for the DSM hear about soloists and base jumpers. We could call them Compulsive Exercisers with a Risk Perception Disorder.

When the powers that be start trying to refine and define new mental disorders it becomes much more difficult to tell the difference between health and pathology. There is a very fine line between health conscious athletes committed to training vs. the obsessed exerciser with rigid eating and health ideals. That fine line is a very subjective view based upon who is looking.

So what does this mean for you as a climber and a possible consumer of mental health services? How can you tell if you have a “disorder?” By definition a set of symptoms is not considered a mental disorder unless you experience a marked impairment in one or more areas of daily functioning. Meaning your set of symptoms affect your relationships, your ability to care for yourself, your work, school, etc. If you have symptoms of someone’s idea of a mental disorder but you feel fine and are functioning fine in society then what’s the problem?! There isn’t one. Only when climbing unbalances the rest of your daily functioning can it even begin to be considered a source of any problem. As far as I’m concerned climbers are usually the healthiest, both physically and mentally, people I’ve ever met. So just stay in balance folks.

What are your thoughts? Know anyone with a climbing disorder?

References for this post:
Article by the Washington Post
Exercise Bulimia Definition

Sunday, May 1, 2011

My Place Attachment to Red Rocks

In the field of Environmental Psychology is a concept called Place Attachment. By definition it essentially means that we become attached to certain places based on what meaning we assign it due to experiences, feelings, attitudes, beliefs, memories, preferences, values, etc. The concept is more complex than my simple definition as it also includes several variables such as the length of time you’ve spent there as well as whether or not a place fulfills your various needs (biological, social, psychological, cultural). All in all, an attachment to a place is also incorporated into your larger sense of yourself. I’m guessing when they created this concept they probably didn’t have climbing areas in mind. I imagine them thinking of a childhood home or the town you grew up in. But we also have a place attachment to places we’ve visited say with our family on summer vacations so perhaps climbing areas are not such a far stretch.

I can definitely say that I have a place attachment to Red Rocks. I mentioned in my last post that it is my most favorite place to climb and now I’m starting to realize that it is because of the meaning I have attributed to it. Researchers in this field are quick to distinguish between meaning vs. preference when creating an attachment. You can have a preference towards a beautiful place but it doesn’t mean you’re attached to it. To have an attachment you need to assign it some meaning.

The meaning that I assign to Red Rocks says a lot about my values and preferences as a climber. Red Rocks has all of my top five basic requirements in an area: hot weather, Sport climbing, Trad climbing, great camping, close to but not in civilization, and excellent rock quality. But those are just requirements for my attachment to even have a chance in forming. Kind of like the requirements you look for in a date before you get attached to them.

It’s also a beautiful place, I have lots of memories here of conquests and failures, memories of good times with great friends and I have lots of memories of how much it has changed, and not changed, in the 15 years I’ve been coming. You could say that Red Rocks has kind of been incorporated into my larger sense of my own identity as a climber. As my attachment has grown so has my attention on the politics of the place. I feel protective of my attachment and contribute to its upkeep.

So where is your place attachment? Why that place versus any other crag? What does your place attachment say about you as a climber and as a person? I’d love to hear your stories about the places you love and why.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

My Annual Trip to Red Rocks

It’s that time of year again! I take off next week for my annual spring climbing trip to Red Rocks outside of Las Vegas, Nevada. Out of all the climbing places I’ve been to in the last two decades I can say hands down that Red Rocks is my most favorite place to climb. I love it so much I call it my “annual trip to Mecca.”

The psychology of a trip often gets over looked when people like myself talk about the psychology of rock climbing. We spend more time on our inner experience of an actual climb. But what about our inner experience of the whole trip?

I have believed for some time now that one of the main reasons I climb and identify as a “climber” is that I love going on climbing trips. For me a climbing trip is one part spiritual retreat and one part heroic journey.

I feel most connected to myself and to the earth when I’m outside climbing. I feel more alive. The spiritual experience for me comes from my experience of stripping away all of my other identified layers of being and getting down to the simplest (yet most complex) form of being: existing. My whole climbing day is focused on eating, hydrating and climbing. I’m not worried about work, my social network, my bills, or my other internal struggles. I just climb. For me it’s like an extended experience of meditation and flow. I can’t obtain that experience when I’m back in the “city” because too many of my other layers get involved and it’s too hard to shut them out (except for maybe the hours I’m at the climbing gym). Essentially when I’m outside I feel most in my whole body. In the city I feel I spend more time in my head. So why does “being in my whole body” feel like a spiritual experience?

The other part of the trip for me is the heroic journey. Jackie Kiewa, a climbing researcher in Australia, studied this phenomenon and concluded that climbing trips are like modern day heroic journeys – but with a twist. The old heroic journeys were usually men, who went alone to conquer someone/thing. Well, I’m not a man, I don’t go alone on a climbing trip and the only conquering we do is the climbs. Kiewa picked up on this difference in her research as well yet she still likened climbing trips to heroic journey’s because they contained additional heroic qualities such as having great physical and mental courage, having a strong sense of personal choice and effectiveness and going beyond what other people think is possible. I love pushing myself on climbing trips and having a sense of accomplishment by the end of it. I wouldn’t label myself a hero but I definitely identify with the “journey” part.

Bon Voyage! I'll be sure to write more about my experience when I return.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Belayer Relationship Part Two

In my last post I wrote about three different belayer relationships I’ve seen in climbing and how they are different based on their level of emotional connectivity to that belayer. There are a lot of ways that a belayer relationship can get damaged. We’ve all had experiences, or seen them happen to others, where a belayer does a shitty job catching a lead fall or isn’t paying attention to their climber or worse is yelling at them. How can we fix these incidents when they happen – or better yet – how can we prevent them from happening?

Not so surprisingly, the same communication skills that help couples also help belayers.

Assert your needs: we can’t be afraid to tell our belayers what we need - more slack, less slack, more encouragement, or shut the hell up. When we don’t assert our needs up front then we start feeling the consequences of expecting our belayers to be mind readers. We get angry or resentful at them for being uncomfortable when we often hold the ability to fix it by speaking up before hand. If you find yourself angry at your belayer first ask yourself if you have asserted all of your needs in this situation. If you have, great! Do it again – without yelling. And first of all, do you even know what your needs are so you can assert them? Make a list…

Notice your climber: nothing makes me more scared than pulling a crux move on lead and my belayer is down there chatting it up with someone on the ground. Are they even paying attention to me? In my perfect world my belayer is fully tuned into me following my every move; noticing when I hesitate or get shaky and offers encouragement to keep going. Of course, those are my needs that I’ve asserted and I hope they follow through. But regardless of my needs vs. other’s needs, you should be attentive to your belayer and help them through the climb with more than the perfect amount of slack.

Ask for and give feedback: after a climb (or an incident) don’t be afraid to ask “how was that belay?” and don’t be afraid to hear/receive the answer. We might not get it right but we can make it right in the future if we know what we did wrong and how to do it better next time. Also, give your belayer praise when they do something you really appreciated. We shouldn’t focus only on what they do wrong. Offering feedback in the form of praise both asserts your needs by saying what you like and helps prevent future mistakes.

Overall, the most important thing in the belayer relationship is communication. The more communication that is actively reciprocal the more trust you will build in each other. So keep talking!

Footnote: thank you to my wonderful climbing partners both present and past, who have embodied and modeled great communication and belaying skills. I can’t wait to climb with you again!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Belayer Relationship

As a psychotherapist I often work with people’s relationships and I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the importance of the belayer relationship here.

Out of all my relationships the one I hold with the most value is the belayer relationship. I mean, who else do you trust with your life, literally? It’s not that I don’t value my emotional relationships, I do. I just really honor and acknowledge that my belayer holds my life in their hands.

In addition to the trust I have with them comes a lot of more subtle relationship dynamics that play out day to day. What happens when that relationship doesn’t go smoothly? What happens when we don’t know how to identify what’s wrong with it and how to fix it? Usually we just find another belayer – or take up bouldering so we don’t have to deal with anyone else. Do you see the parallel in our emotional relationships? When they don’t work out we find another relationship or isolate ourselves for a while. I’m going to venture out here and say I would bet that how you navigate your emotional relationships is going to directly reflect how you navigate your belayer relationships.

Before you can fix a damaged belaying relationship I think you first need to define it and understand it. Here are some relationship types that I see in rock climbing:

The Business Partner: you found this belayer at the gym or online, probably with a posting of someone who needed a belay partner, you meet up, you climb together swapping belays, there is little conversation, and you part ways. This person does not need an emotional connection to go along with the act of belaying – a lot like someone who would use an escort service to get other needs met. No emotional connection – just business. However, the Business Partner has potential for more of a relationship to develop if both of you can get past the mechanics of belaying and develop a friendship on another level – like when a friend with benefits becomes someone you’re attached to. Breakdowns in this belaying relationship really only occur if you feel you can’t trust their belaying or you need more of an emotional connection with them to feel that trust.

The Buddy Partner: this belay partner is both a friend and a belay partner. Maybe you started climbing with this person as you were friends outside of climbing and started climbing together. You are friends outside of the gym and while climbing you frequently chat about life while swapping belays. You are connected to this person on somewhat of an emotional level and that connection helps you trust them when they belay you. There are a lot of us who have Buddy Partners. The gym often turns into social hour/workout hour and we have a fun time while we are climbing together. Breakdowns in this belaying relationship can occur when one or both partners damage the emotional connection and eventually the trust you have in them while belaying will erode. Or vice versa: they do a crappy job belaying you, scare the shit out of you and your emotional connection to them erodes.

The Romantic Partner: this belay partner is both your significant other and your belay partner. Maybe you started climbing and talked your sweetie into joining you, or you met at the gym, were Buddy Partners until you became more than friends outside of the gym and now you are more emotionally connected outside of the gym and climb together too. You trust this person both emotionally and with your life while belaying at a more intense level than the Buddy Partner. This union has both potential to facilitate growth and destroy both your romantic relationship and belaying relationship. Never have I seen a more intense belay partners than this union. I can’t tell you how many couple arguments I’ve seen at the gym and the crags that seem like they are about one person’s lack of ability in belaying when really it’s about their lack of ability emotionally. Breakdowns in this belaying relationship can occur much like when the Buddy Partner relationship has a breakdown. But they can also occur when outside relationship difficulties play out while climbing together. Whatever is unresolved before the climbing day will definitely become highlighted during the climbing day.

I defined the three different belayer relationships based on a continuum of emotional connectivity to that person. No connection = the Business Partner. Some connection = the Buddy Partner. A lot of connection = the Romantic Partner. The belayer relationship is like any other relationship we have in that the more emotional connection we have with the person the messier the dynamics can get. I’m not saying every belayer relationship gets messy. But if you have messy emotional relationships you might see your belaying relationships get messy too.

Stay tuned, next time I’ll write about how to recognize the warning signs of a damaged belayer relationship and ways to repair it. There might not be a way around having a messy episode in a relationship but there are ways to repair it.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Nirvana through Traversing

I’m on a mission. Ever since, and probably before, I wrote about rock climbing as a transformative practice in August 2010 I’ve been trying to find information on what is really the difference between embodied transformative practices like yoga and martial arts versus rock climbing. When I search writings of spiritual leaders they just say “Nope, not the same, never will be” but don’t explain why. I finally found an article that tries to explain it to me in the language that I speak: Flow!

Many of you know I’m a Flow freak (see my other posts). I love trying to experience Flow when I climb and I try to experience it in my everyday life as well. I finally found an academic article that the father of Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, wrote in 2000 with Jeremy Hunter entitled, “The Phenomenology of Body-Mind: The contrasting cases of Flow in Sports and Contemplation” from the Anthropology of Consciousness Journal (see my list of articles below to read the full article).

The article cited many differences between Flow in sports and contemplation. I listed a table for a quick reference. One of the key differences that finally made sense to me was that the physical demands of a more contemplative activity (examples they use: running, swimming, jogging, meditation, some easy yoga) are easier, require minimal attention for a sustained period of time and have a repetitive nature. When this environment happens it produces what they call a “steady state” instead of a “Flow state.” In a steady state the repetitive activity allows the body to be distracted enough that there is room for reflection and unconscious material can emerge; solutions to conflicts are resolved.

Oh! Now I see why climbing doesn’t really fit into this. Climbing is not easy, can be short lived, requires your maximum attention and isn’t usually repetitive unless you are doing laps on a route. And because it requires my maximum attention (at least when I’m climbing hard routes) I don’t find the space to reflect on my daily conflicts but rather it gives me a break from thinking about them for the time that I’m climbing.

But wait. So they are saying that if climbing could be longer, easy and repetitive then it would put my body into a relaxed concentrated state that would allow for more reflective transformative experiences to emerge? Well, I can do that: traversing and doing laps on easy TR routes. Some of the most satisfying work outs I’ve done were ones where I didn’t work on projects and instead traversed and climbed laps on easy routes. Satisfying in that I felt physically spent and emotionally grounded afterwards. Much like after walking, swimming and jogging.

Essentially, if I go back to my Flow language, I would need to climb on routes where my skill level is higher than the challenge level but is not totally boring. In the Flow diagram that means that to achieve a “Steady State” where I can embody a transformative practice I would be climbing in the lower right section they label “Relaxation.” So I don’t have to be bored sitting on a cushion to have a transformative experience? Sweet! I’m going to ask my climbing gym to set a long traversing route that I can incorporate into my “daily practice.”

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Don’t give up on your New Year’s Resolutions yet!

Every January I see the climbing gym flood with crowds. I always joke that they are all New Year’s resolution climbers and they’ll be gone by March. The optimistic side of me says the crowds only last until spring because the outdoor season arrived and everyone is off like a bunch of fledglings. But others quit, give up before their hard work pays off. Why? What makes climbers give up on their growth?

Self sabotage

When is that point that you start rationalizing to yourself that it’s okay to slack off of your NYR? Have you ever really listened to what you say to yourself to make it okay? Sometimes it’s not a huge declaration decision point like “that’s it! I’m done with this bullshit!” It’s more like an accumulation of all the little things we say to ourselves or things that we feel but don’t consciously recognize. Things like: fear, self doubt, comparing ourselves to others, talking smack to ourselves (I suck!), not being happy for or good enough for ourselves (it was only a 5.11a, I should do better). Those are the things that ultimately derail us from our goals and get us saying something like “I don’t really want to go to the gym tonight.” I would say the speed at which you dump your NYR is proportionate to the amount of crap you say/feel to yourself that you are not consciously acknowledging. If you’re dumping your NYR by February then you are a huge shit talker to yourself!

Internal vs. External Validation

External validation in climbing looks like setting goals on external things like “I’m going to climb a 5.12a by March,” or just concentrating on the physical aspects of training like lifting weights and cross training. Don’t get me wrong, physical training is important too but progress can be slow and leave room for the shit talking of yourself I mentioned above. The longer your external goal takes to achieve the more time you have to sabotage yourself.

In order to build a stronger training foundation you should set mental goals too. If you concentrate too much on developing the outer parts (how hard you climb) then you may not be developing the inner parts that will get you there. If you don’t know where to start take a look at what scares you. That will always point you in the direction of an appropriate mental goal.

Get realistic

What is really motivating you to climb? If you get stuck on the shallow end of trying to improve the way you look then your NYR might as well have never been created. Create a goal utilizing real honesty and self awareness if you want to stick to it and actually feel good when you achieve it.

Maximize the Flow

I’m going back to my trusty Flow Chart for this one. A great way to structure your NYR is by setting the stage for more Flow experiences to occur. To do this you need to appropriately match up your challenge level with your skill level. New Year’s resolutions tend to maximize the challenge level in hopes for growth but then mentally you might be spending your time more in the Worry/Anxiety realms of the chart. And too much time spent in the negative areas of the chart leads to the self sabotage behaviors I listed above. To maximize your NYR, adjust your challenge level to incorporate a better chance of experiencing Flow. You can still work to increase your skill level but let yourself enjoy a moment of Flow to keep you motivated with your goals. Then you will definitely feel happy about achieving your goal!