9 December 2014

One thing out of your comfort zone

Video above: One thing out of you comfort zone, each day.

Una on Twitter was asking me about recovering leading confidence after a bad fall. She felt she was still struggling, even following the advice in 9/10. Was there anything more? In a practical sense, not really. The advice I laid out in the book about progressively exposing yourself to more and more challenging leading situations is the easiest, if not only way to do it. But that’s not to belittle it. For some people, it can be an enormously difficult thing to do.

Therefore, the response is to take it seriously as such. A huge problem needs a huge response, in the form of dedicated and relentless application of training over a long period. Here are six common pitfalls with building up leading confidence after a knock:
  • Expecting too much. The apparent unfairness of confidence is that it takes many exposures to build it up, but a huge chunk of it can be wiped away in one go with a bad fall. Patient application of the training is definitely required. No perceptible difference may be noticed for many training sessions. The other problem is that it is harder to measure than pure finger strength. Even if you are making gains in mental confidence, you might not notice until this add up to something quite substantial.
  • Measuring the wrong thing. Lots of people measure the success of their training based on time. “I’ve been working on my leading for two months and I’ve not noticed any changes”. However, if you were only leading for two sessions per week, that’s only 16 training sessions in two months! The result may have been different with 5 sessions per week.
  • Failing to complete the training. Practicing leader falls indoors is just one small part of gaining leading confidence. If you are training for something like trad climbing, you need to have plenty of safe falls, as well as real trad leading. Lots of it. One without the other tends to be ineffective. Yet a lot of climbers complain of lack of time and opportunity to get on real rock, especially at this time of year with dark nights and poor weather. Unfortunately, this is the excuse that separates those who succeed and those who fail. We are training mental confidence in leading - the climbing standard does not need to be high, the rock doesn’t need to be dry and the sun needn't be shining. Get a headtorch and a Gore-Tex and go climbing! You think people don’t do that? Sure, it’s great if you live somewhere like Scotland where you can go mixed climbing all winter - a perfect training ground for leading confidence (people were quick to cite it’s effect on me when I downgraded The Walk of Life from E12 to E9 a few years ago). It’s true that winter climbing makes climbers mentally tough. But if you can’t access this, just go to the crag and climb at the level you can in whatever conditions you find.
  • Kidding yourself. A big problem with training your leading confidence is kidding yourself that you are going out of your comfort zone when you are not. Recently I climbed with a chap who was climbing well but leading confidence was his main weakness. He was more than capable of taking proper leading falls and building up a ‘go for it’ attitude in his outdoor leading. But when backing off from a lead, he said “I need to go back to the climbing wall and do more practice falls”. They won’t work. He was choosing them precisely because he’d already mastered that level. They were now inside his comfort zone, an easy option. Finding the right intensity of experience to build up your confidence is not easy. But it is just as easy to undershoot and unwittingly stay within your comfort zone as it is to overdo it and maintain a state of poor confidence.
  • Asking for failure. When it comes down to it, leading combines the skills of common sense problem solving, mental toughness and practical skills. Many climbers focus too much on the mental toughness part. Young lads are especially good at overriding their fears and just going for it and everyone can do this to an extent. Overriding fears is good if it’s irrational fear, In other words, when your mind ought to know that you have a solid base of practical skills and well developed problem solving approach. Far too many climbers push on with the fear conquering without developing that base of skill in parallel. This is asking for failure, because you will put yourself in situations where you are genuinely unable to wield control. Good leading is about having more control. It is also about having control over fear, as opposed to having no fear. Excess of irrational fear, and lack of healthy fear both lead to loss of control, in different ways. Take care from every training session to learn new details about the practicalities of leading - dealing with gear, ropework, falling technique, anticipation and planning etc. Don’t just focus on being fearless.
  • Not really wanting it enough. This aspect is underestimated in sport and training, surprisingly. Those who want it badly enough simply do not rest until they find the right path through the training to get to the goal routes they cannot live without. Rather than throwing up their hands after experiencing lack of progress, they jump right in and make plenty more errors until they find a formula for progress. Inevitably, we never get the balance of training 100% perfect. No one does. But burning desire to move forward and get to the next level is a crucial catalyst in letting you absorb the stresses and knocks of pushing outside your comfort zone. It creates resilience in people that are not inherently made of hero stuff. So, sometimes a clear conversation with yourself about exactly what this means to you is the fuel you need to get you through anything. What if you have that conversation and realise you don’t want it badly enough to push yourself through all the challenges? Hurry up and do something else then! Life is short.

Training the mind has some similarities and some important differences from training the muscles. It is similar in that it is a ‘plastic’ tissue. Train it appropriately, and it will change. The difference is of course it’s vast complexity and especially how the layers of thoughts, emotions and basic programmed responses all mix together. Mental training demands careful consideration to make sure you are applying a sustained progressive overload, but getting the size of the stimulus just right.

My approach as a youngster was just to climb one thing that was truly out of my comfort zone, every time I went climbing. Every time, no excuses. If it didn’t give me a dry mouth and a small knot in my stomach, I knew it wasn’t really out of my comfort zone. 

NB: The notes above are NOT a guide to what to do to improve your leading confidence. They should be read in the context of applying the advice in 9/10.

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