3 December 2011
Recently I’ve been coaching a lot of sport climbing and spent lots of time trying to get climbers to recognise that leading confidence is placing a huge barrier in the way of improving almost any aspect of their climbing.
What I’ve noticed is that climbers with leading confidence issues are desperate to avoid tackling it despite appearing quite highly motivated to make changes in most other areas of their climbing skills. Taking the first step in attacking leading confidence just feels so painful and scary. It’s more comfortable to convince yourself (and try unsuccessfully to convince me!) that it’s unattainable due to past bad experiences with leading or that it’s not actually an important weakness.
Next time you lead a route, notice what thoughts are running in your mind during the climbing. If most of the time is spent thinking “I’m scared, try to calm down… I can’t get to the next bolt, the last one is too far away, I don’t want to go any higher… what will happen if I fall” then very little progress can happen in your climbing. Fear is paralysing your ability to focus on the rock and the moves, and therefore your ability to learn.
In fact, your climbing standard might be doomed only to go down. Every time you toprope, you reinforce the feeling that toproping is normal, leading is abnormal. And when you do lead and take a fall, you have never learned to fall cleanly and your scrape down the rock rather than leaning back and letting the rope take you will wipe away even more of your confidence. A downward spiral basically, of climbing feeling progressively more scary and unpleasant until you eventually feel you just aren't enjoying doing it at all.
Improvements in confidence come in small increments, from forcing yourself to lead more and more and not ignoring learning how to fall nicely onto the rope. But what I’m realising is that many folk stall before even getting onto the road to improvement because they have yet to actually see it for the huge problem it is.
Leading confidence is not a small detail of climbing. For many climbers, it’s the biggest challenge climbing will ever throw at you. Beat it, and many more skills will unfold beyond and become attainable. Respect it as a worthy enemy and give it effort and energy accordingly.
Footnote: Leading is not essential in sport climbing. I often say to climbers that if they never want to lead and always toprope routes others have lead that’s totally fine. Climbing can be whatever you want it to be. I’m sure there are plenty of folk that do just that and probably get on very well because they can get on with actually enjoying their climbing. However, although I’ve said this to many climbers I’ve never actually met any who have decided to reject leading. In fact, often I’ve noticed that just by recognising that leading is an option (not an imposed rule) and it’s their choice, they choose to attack leading and if they follow the right steps (part 3 of the book) progress is almost guaranteed.
A jump from being too scared to lead hardly at all to leading consistently can be achievable within a few sessions for some, just because the shift in attitude from leading as an unpleasant rule to a worthy challenge is so powerful. That’s what happened to me also - at 16 and too scared to lead. My attitude changed and I jumped from Severe to E2 in a week.