Rock climbing is one hell of a strength-building workout. Not just for your upper body, but for everything. I recently joined a rock climbing gym in Los Angeles, paying $79 each month for something I actually love to hate. And yet I keep going because, in addition to training my body, I am really training to get over my fear of failure.
Let’s start with some background: This isn’t my first time rock climbing. I first got into it back in 2009, when I did bouldering to get stronger. With bouldering, you don’t wear a harness and climb only to a certain height, while relying heavily on your strength to cling to the rocky holds for dear life. If you fall, the gym’s crash pads will cushion you.
I’m pretty athletic and strong so I tore through the easier routes within the first few sessions. A route’s difficulty is categorized according to one of several grading scales. On the “V” scale, the one I’m most familiar with, a V0 is ideal for total newbies, whereas V17 is essentially for Spider-Man. Put simply, the higher the number, the harder and more technical it is. And when you metaphorically and literally reach the top, you experience some of the best dopamine squirts every time.
Rock climbing is one of those things where if you want to get better, you have to be okay with failing repeatedly so you know what to work on, making mistakes in front of others, and batting away all that negative self-talk. Eight years ago, I couldn’t handle any of these things, and I couldn’t get better. So I quit.
Rock Climbing Is My New “Failure Training”
Since then, I’ve been weight training, which has taught me that you don’t get the results you want from not consistently doing your best and learning, repeatedly. And today I am climbing again with a group of supportive friends (shout out to Andy and Sherry).
I thought that by now, I was used to failure—failure to pick up a weight, failure to see the bathroom scale go the way I want, failure to be perfect with my diet or self-control, and so on. Yet it turns out that when it comes to rock climbing, even though my mindset has changed, I’m still far from perfect at overcoming that mental resistance to get back up on the rock to keep trying.
The difference this time is that I now see rock climbing as my “failure training,” where I remind myself of the following:
- If one way doesn’t work, try something new: One time I kept approaching the first move of a climbing route with my same left foot (because that was comfortable) and I struggled to boost up. Then someone asked, “Why not your right foot and shift your weight like so?” Duh, just change it up. And that small tweak was all I needed to clamber up that route like a spider monkey.
- Forget ego and accept where you are: My fear of failure is 99% my ego telling me that I can be no less than awesome. When reality hits and I flub a climbing route, my bruised ego makes it all too easy for me to quit. I take a page from Jake the Dog that I need to initially suck at something in order to get good at it. With this in mind, I get a more realistic sense of where my abilities right now and can figure out what I need to do differently to get better.
- Seek help and support: Rock climbing is a social activity and it’s part of the reason I continue to go. My friends, who are all much better than I, give me insight, pointers, and different approaches to my problems that I wouldn’t have thought of. It can be difficult to admit when you need help, but getting help simply accelerates the learning process.
- You can’t compare yourself to anyone else: Solutions vary from person to person, and there’s only so much you can learn from watching someone else since their body type, height, limb lengths, and relative strength all make their approach entirely different. You have to get on the wall and try things out yourself. This applies to almost anything in life.
Figuring out the best way to climb each route is basically like solving a puzzle with your body while fighting invisible forces, like gravity and a fear of heights (or in my case, fear of messing up). If you can’t grab the next hold, for example, maybe you can move your hips closer to the wall to extend your reach; or just leap up and trust in your grip. The only way to know for sure is to get back on that rock and try again.