21 September 2009

If I only knew now what I knew then

I’ve written a lot on this site and recently in my Coachwise series on the MCofS site about the crippling and often hidden consequences of fear of failure on your climbing (or any skill you are trying to learn). Here is one message for young climbers, and one for adults.

There are some revealing comparisons to be made between the dynamics of fear of failure in adults and youngsters as they learn climbing. Apart from the lucky few that discover the power of focus before adulthood, focus is the main problem for young climbers. In fact most young climbers reading this post will probably have judged it too involved and switched off already. Kids at the wall try a bit of this and a bit of that, and if it takes longer than three seconds to find the correct footholds and body position they lose patience and jump for the hold and let their light bodies swing out below them. Adults look on with jeaslousy at how they hold on and keep going with such obviously poor technique. But of course they pay for such reliance on temporary lightness when they grow into heavy adult bodies and have to learn good footwork with slow learning adult brains.

So the best young climber after the first few years will end up being the one who learns to focus earliest.

But what adults gain in knowing how to discipline themselves and focus on both immediate and longer term tasks, they lose in fear of failure. They become all sensitive that strangers at the climbing wall, their mates or the coach will see them wobble, flail and fall. Without knowing they are doing it, they size up potential climbs to try based on likelihood of embarrassing themselves, rather than anything else. The result? An ever narrowing comfort zone that feels progressively more unpleasant to be outside as the feedback loop plays out over time.

Kids, on the other hand, are learning everything for the first time, they are not yet masters of anything. So failing, grappling, and trying again is all they know. As soon as adults become masters in any one field (such as their job, academic field, driving, whatever) they like that feeling and settle into it’s comfort. Sadly, this makes it much more difficult to learn other skills at the optimum rate.

The best (and happiest) adult climber is the one who learns to focus before being an adult, and doesn’t forget that failing repeatedly is normal.


Ignacio said...

Great post Dave!

I'm 25 but I might be in the first group, I hope I get to achieve both focus and the "joy" of falling careless. I'm OK at falling and somehow over peer pressure, but find focusing harder, as an anxious person, I often find myself rushing up, not even chalking until half way... then I realize it and tell myself to go calm next time, but next time starts exactly the same!

Anyways, thanks a lot for sharing your insights.


ken said...

This is spot-on! I have been so inspired watching kids throw themselves at climbs with complete abandon, unconcerned with the worries and fears that weigh down we adults. It's taken me years to overcome the fear of failure and looking foolish while climbing in the gym, or in a group at a sport crag, etc. Although getting better while squirreled away in a dark corner can help, I finally came to the realization that the one thing everyone respects and recognizes is sincere effort. If you try hard, with your heart in it, you'll never look foolish no matter how many times you fall or fail.

Robert Jones said...

Great post Dave,

In fact this is spot on in my own climbing career. Even while strong, after a short time of not climbing I always assumed it was my mental state that stopped me from attempting hard routes.... In fact it was more specific that than... it was my fear of failure in front of others.

It's a mental game but sometimes, its even more narrow than that, its a mental fear of failure.