I get frustrated easily by the current state of information out there about how to become a better climber. While there are hundreds of articles and “training plans” out there that go over how to get better at climbing and progress as an athlete, many of them tend to take (in my opinion) a vague approach that with the incorporation of ARC-ing, hangboarding, campusing, and limit bouldering, a climber should be able to get stronger. While most climbers DO get stronger in general with incorporating structured workouts into their climbing regimen, I feel not enough information is out there to help climbers specifically focus on their climbing weaknesses or train for a specific climbing goal. Likewise, I’ve struggled figuring how to structure my own climbing regimen to reflect my goals as a climber.
So, I have spent the past 6 months not following any real training plan, and mainly working on my climbing weaknesses. I had to ask myself, what is really holding me back from climbing harder routes? Is it my finger strength? My lack of power? A combination of the two? However, as a relatively new climber, it took me an embarrassingly long while to figure out that my biggest weakness towards progression (which is probably the same for 95% of other climbers) was first and foremost, my mental game.
Up until a few months ago, I was easily top-roping 5.11s at the gym, but could barely get up a 5.8 outdoors due to my fear of falling while lead climbing. I felt stuck. I wanted to be able to climb outside and feel confident jumping on any bolted route that I was capable of climbing. However, I did not want to put in the work to get to that comfortable headspace.
It took several (actually more than several, lol) outdoor climbing trips for me to finally face the fact that my total lack of mental strength was the #1 thing holding me back as progressing as a rock climber. In particular, I remember climbing at Reed’s Creek, a small sport crag in West Virginia, and backing down from a juggy, overhanging 5.9 route due to my fear that “I might fall.” Meanwhile, as I said, in the gym I was projecting 5.11 on top rope. Although this type of scenario happened to me before, it was truly at this point that I gave myself a kick in the butt (hypothetically, of course) 😝 This is SPORT climbing, not trad. You will be OK if you fall. Seriously. Most of all I wanted to stop irrationally freaking out on climbs that I knew I could easily do if I just calmed down a bit.
After that trip, I jumped headfirst into leading all the time. I wanted to get super comfortable with falling. My goal was to primarily lead routes while in the gym, only top-roping occasionally, which has so far been successful. I also try to lead new routes every time I go as well, to shake things up. Next step is projecting hard (for me) routes on lead…..This is something I report back on.. However, so far, I feel like my head game has improved dramatically.
I’ve gone from:
This next move is kind of scary…..TAKE!!! TAKE! TAKE! —–> OH SHIT! I’m gonna fall!!!!!! Got me? Got me? OK I’m falling! —–>WEE I just took fall! Kind of fun! —–> Dammit! I fell- I wanted to get that move! Lol.
So I’m working on fear of falling, slowly but surely.
I have also had some outdoor climbing success as well, in regards to mental game.
In late November, I led my first outdoor 5.11. It was actually my first time climbing the route at all. No onsight but did work the route to the chains- woohoo!
Anyway, my amateur advice to climbers wanting to improve your head game: Lead routes. All the time. No excuses and there’s no way around it. (Trust me…I thought there could be. I considered taking a “whipper therapy” class at my gym, hoping that it would cure my fear, lol. ). Gaining a stronger head game makes climbing so much more enjoyable, as well as less restrictive.
Here are some of my tips:
- Start by clip-dropping an easy route each time you go to the gym.
- Try leading over-hanging routes where the falls are usually extremely safe. An example: lead an overhanging 5.8 (or something that feels “easy”) 3x in a row.
- Lead routes that are well-bolted at the gym, to give you a little peace of mind as you delve into leading.
- Practice clipping stances. Top rope or follow a moderately difficult route (for you) at the gym and work on resting at the clips. Most of my personal freak outs are when I can’t find a good spot to rest and make a clip.
- Make sure you trust your belayer- are they giving you too little/too much slack? This makes a huge difference in feeling secure that you’re going to have a safe fall.
- Learning how to assess falling danger has helped me too (ie, if I’m outdoor climbing, will I fall on a ledge). As most of my leading has been done in a gym, however, I’m still working on that skill.
Anyhow, I digress. The point is, mental game was NOT something I ever really specifically focused on while training for climbing, but it was/is definitely the biggest factor holding me back from my full potential.