“Whipper Therapy” is not mental training.

At least not for most people.

(Note: if you want to skip the theory and start practicing immediately, click here for a short guide to fall practice!)

Over the years I’ve seen a lot of climbers who were permanently terrified of lead climbing because of the potential for falling. Now, in some cases, that’s perfectly reasonable. If your belayer lacks full competence, or you are climbing close to the ground, that is a logical time to be afraid. There are times when you are not safe, that’s just a natural condition of life on earth; however, we humans have a skill known as engineering which allows us to make safety in very surprising places.

I mean, we put a man on the moon. If we humans can manage to make that safe enough, then, of course, we can do the same to certain situations on the rock.

We have two kinds of fears: Those which are the natural response to finding yourself in an unsafe situation, and those born of illogical gut-instinct that that overrides your wisdom. We actually want to keep *one* of those, but the other….. well, I’d really like it if you felt safe everywhere that you actually are safe. Climbing is more fun when you are not terrified, and there is no benefit to you of being afraid during times of safety.

So why is it so hard to overcome?

A climber grabs on the last hold to complete the hard moves of Seperate Reailty (5.12a)
Photo by Jacob Bodkin
Part of the problem is the prevailing wisdom of “whipper therapy” whereby climbers tell each other to “get over it” and “just take the fall.” So you do it, and it’s terrifying, and it doesn’t help, and that’s to be entirely expected. If you put your brain in a situation where it feels terrified, and then do something which feels terrifying, then your brain receives a very clear message that “Yup! The scary thing was definitely scary! I should definitely continue being afraid in those places!”

Think of it this way: If you had a friend who was afraid of spiders, would you fill a bathtub with tarantulas and ask him to hop in and “get over it?” Doubtful. It’s very obvious that this won’t work, so why do we do it with climbing?

Well, sometimes it *does* work. This method of overcoming your fear of falling is very similar to the “flooding” method used to move folks past phobias in therapy. This approach does work for some individuals; however, it does not always work, and it is very traumatic for the people for whom it does not succeed. Flooding has largely been abandoned for that reason with most folks preferring a more gradual exposure to the phobia. A more manageable “exposure therapy” can be scaled appropriately to any individual and has been widely successful for many millions of people around the world.

The idea is to expose oneself to a very manageable level of anxiety where you can control it and develop the skill of centering your mind and bringing yourself to a state of increased peace. For details on that, read my latest article “Learning to Relax”

Trust the safety system!
Trust the safety system!
Why bother?
Why should you even bother with controlling your fear?

The first rule of my entire life is this: Rock climbing is supposed to be the most awesome thing in the universe, second only to “more climbing.” Nevermind grades and sending the sick gnar, the whole point of climbing is that it’s supposed to be immensely fun, and you aren’t having fun when you are terrified.

When you become anxious, your body releases adrenaline. Adrenaline is best known for famously giving mothers the spontaneous ability to lift cars off of babies; however, there is no such thing as a free lunch. The price for enabling this reserve of strength is that you completely sacrifice your endurance. Adrenaline actually shuts off the pathway which metabolizes lactic acid and allows you to endure long crux sequences.

It’s easy to imagine a scenario where you find yourself climbing, and you start getting pumped, so you become afraid of the upcoming fall, and that fall fills your mind while leaving no room for your brain to coordinate your movement. Adrenaline floods your system, you lose the ability to de-pump, and you rapidly hit the point of failure and fall off of the route. Without fear, you could have relaxed and recovered. Perhaps you could even have sent!

Without fear, you would not have given the fear a reason to exist, because you would not have fallen. When pump induces anxiety, it causes you to fail and reinforces that negative feedback loop that tells your brain that pump leads to falling, and falling is terrifying. Now, not only are you afraid of falling, but also afraid of simply being pumped! To succeed and be truly happy as climbers, to maximize our fun, we must break this cycle and free our minds to find peace within severity. It’s a skill that you can take with you everywhere, not just on the wall.

It’s not that the strong climbers are calm, but rather that the calm climbers can become strong .

 

If you know the way, climbing can become a path to peace. It doesn't have to be frightening
If you know the way, climbing can become a path to peace. It doesn’t have to be frightening. Photo by Andy Toms

If you struggle with these fears, feel free to visit me at Atlanta Rocks, or sign up with me at Mojo Personal Training! Or if neither of those stoke your mojo, read my follow up article on “A short guide to fall practice.” 

Happy Climbing my friends

PS: I think I’m a bad businessman… I keep giving all my secrets away for free! #SorryNotSorry #SpreadGoodMojo

PPS: Is there a topic you would like to hear about on the blog? Give me a shout out, I’ll give it some thought and post it back up as a detailed article!

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Learning to relax: a short guide to fall practice for climbers

I’ve been coaching climbers for about a year now in my capacities as Mojo Personal Training, but I’ve been coaching folks in how to fall for much, much longer than that. I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty of why these methods work today, that’ll come next time! At the moment,  I want to give you a short, concise guide for implementing drills to overcome your fears on the wall and have more fun while you’re climbing!

Falling

Getting Started
This is a drill to be practiced in safety. After all, it would be completely right and natural to feel afraid if you were in physical danger. So the first and most important thing is to pick a climb where you know all of the possible falls are safe.

One note: when I taught lead-climbing at my university gym, we taught that the first three bolts were essentially the “no fall” zone. If you fall on the way to the first bolt, you will hit the ground. If you fall on the way to the second bolt, you will risk hitting your belayer in a fall. If you fell while trying to clip the second bolt, you risk hitting the ground… and finally, if you fall while clipping the third bolt, there’s a chance that you’d hit your belayer.

These are the kinds of things you want to think about when selecting a practice climb, you want to think about the “what ifs” for falling at each bolt, and when you’re clipping the next bolt. Because of that “no fall zone” it’s usually not a very good idea to practice falling when you are low on a route. It wouldn’t be comfortable anyhow, because there isn’t much rope in the system to absorb your fall force.

Whoops!

Scout the route from the ground, assess what can happen if you fall off the various positions on the climb, and make sure you have a range where you can practice falling safely. It’s usually possible to do this for most climbs from the ground, and that takes a lot of pressure off of you during the climb. If you’ve decided that you are safe while your feet were on the ground, you don’t have to worry about it on the way up.

How to practice falls

  1. Climb to a zone on your route that you have identified as “safe.”
  2. Prepare to fall, and note your anxiety level on a scale of 1-10
  3. If your anxiety is above a 4, then down-climb a move or two until it is only a 4/10
  4. If your anxiety over the thought of falling is only a 3 or lower, climb a move or two higher!
  5. Once you’ve found the sweet spot where your fear is at a manageable level of a 4/10, go ahead and take the fall

    *Note: at one point in my climbing career, I was so frightened that I had to downclimb below my clip and take a fall on pseudo top-rope to control my fear. Everybody starts somewhere, don’t force it too hard!

  6. Once the fall is completed, take a moment to relax until your anxiety reaches a 1 or 2/10.
  7. Climb back to the same place you fell before, and take the fall again.
  8. If your anxiety level for that fall is still moderately high at a 3 or 4/10, then repeat that fall until both your pre-fall and post-fall anxiety levels drop to only a 1 or 2
  9. Once you’ve mastered your mind on falling from this position, try climbing a move or two higher and repeating the drill.
  10. Only practice between 3-6 falls per attempt. Your mind needs time to relax and assimilate what it has learned.
  11. I’ll usually only perform one or two rounds of fall practice on a given day, which means between 3-12 falls. Anything beyond that seems to have diminishing returns. If you keep going for too long, it just tires out your brain and isn’t as beneficial, so you’d be better off getting some proper climbing done instead of additional practice!

Through repeated practice sessions, you’ll find yourself moving a few inches or a few feet higher every day. In the future, if you have a project which has a fall that is scary, you can repeat the same process to grow accustomed to falling where it no longer causes anxiety. If you do this even just once every session during your warm up, you’ll find yourself overcoming your fears rapidly.

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For Trad Climbers:
You can perform the same drill, but if your anxiety is high (as mine was when I started), you might need to build an anchor in the middle of the route, and then take pseudo toprope falls below that anchor before moving to fall practice. Personal note: I was so afraid at first, that simply calling for a *take* on my own gear was enough to bring me to a 5/10 anxiety level and I had to practice there for my first session.

I started small but eventually was able to move on to taking proper lengthy whippers on my gear, and even grew comfortable with falling on try-hard onsight attempts. It just takes a little time, and if you do this on your daily warmup, then you’ll still have a full day of real climbing ahead of you, and now you’ll be more productive due to lowered anxiety!

Final Notes:
Brains are amazing, they learn very well, and climbing does not have to be terrifying. If you practice it right, climbing can become a path to peace that helps you relax and handle the stress of your daily life. But the first step is to build trust in your belay system. Knowing that you are safe is one thing, but I want you to feel it, deep down inside at an instinctive level.

Happy Climbing my friends!

This thing is hard.... why am I up here?
This thing is hard…. why am I up here?