How to become a successful climber

My last couple posts about the mental game were things I’ve been thinking about for a while, and while I hope to develop those thoughts further, they felt as fully-distilled as I know how to make them at present. This post isn’t that. This post is a rant. It’s a rant that’s been fermenting in my head for a while, but it hasn’t distilled yet. Let’s see what comes of it. Think critically for me as you read. I’d love to hear your feedback, especially if you think I got something dead-wrong, or I failed to speak clearly! I think this post might eventually distil into a couple of different clear thoughts that each need their own discussion later on. What bits resonate the best with your personal experience?

How we define success:
What defines success in your climbing? Sending your latest project? Onsighting a new personal best? I know those things sure feel great, but they’re only the beginning of the story. Success for me is diving full-tilt boogie in a full-on effort and falling the farq off!

Disclaimer: I’m not a badass, and I fall off of climbs frequently. (That’s what the rope is for, it’s like a video game. You get a do-over). Given that I’m a regular punter, why would I consider an everyday occurrence to be a success?

I’ve got a lot of rambling philosophy about climbing that’ll usually come out over a campfire with a generous serving of whiskey, but one thing I’ve always been adamant about is this: When you show up to the climbing gym, you have two choices. Either you can send stuff, or you can get better at climbing.

Sending does not make you better at climbing. You sent because you were already better at climbing. Bagging a successful ascent does not inherently build new skills for you as a climber, rather it’s a demonstration of skills and abilities you already possess. In other words, you were already awesome on the ground before you even tied in and started up the route.

Falling off of a route gives you an enormous opportunity. You get the chance to ask yourself: why? Why didn’t I send this line? And if you fall off enough, you have an opportunity to think about the big picture. What patterns do I see in my failed attempts? If you fall often enough, you’ll start to notice recurring limitations. Perhaps you feel your forearms are often pumped, or you frequently become stymied by extreme crux-moves. Perhaps you wasted energy through anxiety over falling, or your fears prevented you from pushing to your full capacity.

If you push hard against your limits, you will often fall. But it’s like the pressure building within a balloon, as the air molecules push harder and harder against the surface it expands. As you push against your limits over and over, they too will expand from the force of your determination, it’s physics. Or metaphysics. Or, if you fall often enough, meta-analysis!

Well, not quite meta-analysis, we only have one case study. But you clearly have the opportunity for ordinary analysis on yourself. Any good study requires a large number of data-points, right? Every fall happens for some reason, and that’s useful information. If you don’t fall off, you don’t gather any data for self-study; however, if you fall off all over the place, you gather TONS of information about your limits, and that mass of information tells you how to progress!

In Dave McLeod’s book “9 out of 10 climbers make the same mistakes” he says (and I’m paraphrasing very loosely here) that the difference between the pros and us is likely only 4%. Now, I know what you’re thinking. The difference between 5.15 and my current level probably isn’t 4% more bicep strength. But these guys at the top of the game, they’re dedicated. They try 4% harder in every session. They hold on 4% longer through every fingerboard set. They get 4% more back at that crucial rest before surging forward; they push 4% harder in every training session, and they believe 4% harder on every redpoint attempt. That doesn’t add up to much today, but over a year, or a career, that adds up to quite a bit.

Many climbers view falling as failing, but it’s my belief that failing often is the only real path to success. So what’s it going to be? Will you go to the gym, fall, collect your data points and get your 4% today? Next time you go to the climbing gym, think about it. Will you send things, or grow as a climber? You don’t need to believe you can do it right now, but you need to try with everything you have. That’s the experiment. See, none of us really know how much we are capable of, we limit ourselves reflexively for fear of failure or fear of falling. We think, “there’s no way I can make this move” and we let go. Fuck that. Try it. Try it as hard as you can try, for science. Just tie in, and see what happens, over and over again.

Approach the wall with curiosity. You may think the sequences look hard, or awkward, or even impossible. That’s okay to think, our brains are made for thinking, just don’t get hooked on those particular thoughts, those thoughts act like you can know what’s going to happen from the ground, and it’s never that easy. You stare up and see smaller and larger holds, perhaps they’re positive, or not. Take it all in, make a guess at how the moves would go, then get curious. You have an idea, let’s see if it works!

You formed a hypothesis; the route appears extremely difficult. Now for the experiment. Saddle up and apply everything you have to test your hypothesis rigorously. What’s the conclusion? Knowledge. And knowledge is power. You have everything to gain!

Sometimes, when you look up from the ground, sequences seem utterly impossible. But as you climb, and sink your fingers into the problem, your body feels it’s way through, and suddenly you’re gliding through the moves! We feel that we “know” how hard a climb is when we’re looking at it from the ground, because the holds look a certain way to us, but often that intuition is dead wrong. Have you ever looked up at a climb and thought it was easy, only to be tossed off unsuspecting? It works the other way too; I’ve seen folks declare a climb to be “impossible” only to flash it moments later. Moral of the story: don’t fixate on thoughts of the climb as hard or easy, go and find out! Every single day and every single route are just opportunities for curiosity and inspection. It’s never as simple as “this is too hard” or “this should be easy”, each climb is a question: “I wonder how this will feel today?” You never quite know until you try it!

Savor your airtime, it’s what makes you grow. Every failure is just another data point adding up to that moment on the ground, right before you tie in and start climbing. At that moment, you already are anything you can be, you are the sum total of every 4% you’ve tried to earn, and you carry with you the lessons learned from every time you’ve ever fallen off of a route.

There are a lot of lessons from climbing that immediately transfer off the wall and into your daily life, and this really is one of them. Look back and think, every time you’ve ever failed led up to right now. Every single one of those intense learning experiences has made you the incredible human that you are today. There is a quote attributed to Thomas Edison that “[he] did not fail 1,000 times before creating the lightbulb, but rather the lightbulb had 1,001 steps in its creation.” I can’t verify if he said it, but I love the sentiment. 1,000 failed lightbulbs were just data-points and opportunities to learn on the path toward invention.

Back to the wall. The climbing gym is a safe space where we’ve made every attempt possible to create safety and reduce risk. Unlike the rest of life, the climbing gym offers a laboratory where we’re free to fail our way to success without worrying about the “bad stuff” that could happen, so go out, get your 4%, and smile with success every time you take a fall! Sending doesn’t teach you anything new, but falling? That’s the biggest success I’ve ever found!

Bonus Mojo: If you’ve ever been angry or disappointed after falling off a climb, this philosophy gives you free-license to be happy about it instead and laugh all the way to the ground as you lower off satisfied…. because learning is always cause for celebration!
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Cheers, and happy falling!

Atlanta Climbing Coach

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