2 June 2015

Positive thinking is not necessary

On the crux of Fight the Feeling 9a in Glen Nevis. For a long time I thought I was just not good enough to do this route. In the end, that thought didn’t matter. Photo: Lukasz Warzecha

A lot of folk ask me at my climbing talks about my mental tactics for climbing. They ask both about how I have been able to be confident, composed and tenacious on hard routes especially when they are badly protected. And they also ask about how I have been able to stay committed to progressing my climbing through setbacks of the hard routes I have attempted, or through injuries I’ve had in training or from accidents.

In the past I have struggled to give a good succinct answer, because it’s not something I find I have to give much conscious effort. It feels like it comes naturally. However, I have come to the conclusion that this does not mean that this ability is something inherent to me. I now think that I have, by accident, adopted an effective approach. It is not a positive thinking approach.

It’s a big subject and one I will explore in more detail on this blog in future. But for now I will try and summarise it.

The cult of positive thinking, both in society and in sports psychology, is looking increasingly like it may be among several major diversions from the path of progress of sport and health in recent decades. As a short term strategy, it can have some transient worthwhile effects. Unfortunately, the longer term effects of relying on positive thinking as a mental strategy seem to go the opposite way.

In my own climbing, I have often heard climbing partners, friends or even folk interviewing me express surprise at how ‘negative’ I sound about my chances of success on a project, or how my preparation is going. They worry that I am talking myself into failure by not thinking positively. I even attended a course (not by choice!) where the tutor taught us to rigorously identify and eliminate any negatives from our discourse about our activities. He wanted me to eliminate even the mention of falling. This struck me as ridiculous!

I do think it is possible to talk yourself into failure and have seen it done many times by climbers capable of the climbs they feel have beaten them. However, it does not follow that positive thinking is the solution!

The positive thinking paradigm, in summary, suggests that by using positive visualisation, we create an image that we are more likely to live up to in the real event. Unfortunately the research shows this approach is ineffective. Positive thinking appears to reduce motivation and self discipline. Moreover, it tends to kill the critical thinking that underpins learning of complex skills. A practical example of this is when coaching climbers to overcome fear of the most basic form of climbing fall - falling onto mats at an indoor bouldering wall. Unless you also consider what a badly executed fall looks like, how can you even visualise ‘good’ falling and landing technique. If positive thinking allows you to believe the fall will be fine when you jump for the last hold, the fall, should you miss, is that much more undermining for the confidence since you did not expect it.

In my own preparation for climbing situations of all types, I have found that I take care to examine the negative outcomes as well as the positive. I look for the problems and the weaknesses. But all this focus on the negative does not mean that I think or talk myself into failure. Quite the opposite. I deal with the problems at the time when they should be dealt with - in the preparation stage.

In this way, when I tie in at the foot of the climb, I know there will be no surprises, no confronting fears or unexpected doubts once I start climbing. All that is left is the effort. I find that the moment I step off the ground, I feel completely free to give my best effort without distraction or hesitation and in full acceptance of both good and bad scenarios should I succeed or fail on my effort. Not all performances are so cut and dry and ideal like this. I’ve succeeded on plenty of hard routes where I felt unfit, unprepared and totally gripped. I climbed them fully aware of the low probability of success and felt very pessimistic throughout. It made no difference. I had decided to try just as hard regardless of how I felt about my situation.

It is odd that the notion of focusing on your weaknesses is uncontroversial for physical training, and yet avoided in mental training in favour of positive thinking.

The funny thing is, I find that this ‘negative’ thinking is in fact the default approach for lots of people. Moreover, people often find that when they consciously try to think positively, it feels hollow. Try standing in front of the mirror and saying “I can climb 9a” out loud. Feel any closer to that goal? So if people naturally default to the right path of looking at the problems, why isn’t it working and why have people been searching for a different solution?

I find that many climbers I’ve coached go wrong at the stage right after thinking about the problems. They visualise the negative scenarios, the weaknesses they have, or their fears. But at this point they fail to move on to the next stage: taking action to eliminate/mitigate them. They keep their focus on the constraints pushing on them, rather than what they can do to alter those constraints. In the midst of this mental cul de sac, positive thinking becomes attractive as it allows you to bypass the hard bit of training - behavioural change and effort to address, rather than block out problems or weaknesses.

Another way to look at my point in this post is not that positive thinking is right or wrong, just that it is not really necessary, not that important. Any successes you have on the cliff are a direct product of your motivation for the climb and preparation put in. The perfect preparation would be to focus on all the potential causes of failure right up to the moment the success comes. 

To me, this is why you see climbers explode in a whoop of delight when they grab the finishing jug. Until this moment, there are still mistakes to be corrected, weaknesses to be eliminated, self-discipline to be executed. Forced reminders to believe you can do it are just a distraction. Of course you can do it, if you meet the demands of the task. But surely you are going to need all of your focus on meeting those tasks to make sure you maximise the probability.

Sure, a determined mindset can make a huge difference in the moment of a crux move, or last move of a hard climb. But whether that mindset is positive or negative may not be the important thing. I find they are often just two sides of the same coin; “I want to get to the top on this attempt/I’m scared I’m going to fail on this attempt”. Both are really a distraction from the one thing that will actually make a difference: Focusing on what you can do right now and executing it.

In summary, If you have focused on the problems, and then moved on to addressing them with rigour, positive thinking is not necessary. A determined performance with 100% effort can exist just as easily in any state of mind, positive or otherwise. The key point is to give that effort regardless of your state of mind.

As an epilogue, here is a basic example of this thinking in action.

Thought example 1. (in training): “I’m not good enough, I’m going to fail.”

Positive thinking action: “You will succeed, you are strong and tough and you can do this.”

Critique: Note that if you really are good enough, strong, bold, tough etc then you are perfectly entitled to think that way. But the paradox is that you will have no need to, since you will not feel like you are going to fail in the first place. And if you discover that have unrealistic expectations of failure, then addressing whatever underlying problem you have, such as fear of success, is the way forward, rather than a forcing a few positive thoughts that don’t feel right. If the positive statement doesn’t match the reality, it only distracts you from the task in hand.

Realistic thinking action: “Do something about it before it’s too late - Get that climbing coaching, build that climbing board, get on that fingerboard every day, lose that stone of fat, practice and perfect that falling technique.”

Thought example 2. (at the last move of the redpoint): “I’m not good enough, I’m going to fail”

Positive thinking action: “You can do it, get the jug”

Critique: The thought offers no practical help. It merely starts an argument in your head at exactly the wrong moment!

Negative thinking action: “Be decisive, full commitment, pull down like hell on that crimp”