I was climbing at the Obed area in Tennessee with Benji and Wes, two local climbers I’m working with to improve their mental game. After some warm-up routes, we got on Barbwire and Lingerie (5.12b) for an on-sight effort. The route begins with some small crimp holds on an overhanging wall as one climbs past the first two bolts. It also has a crux near the top that is difficult to figure out. Wes went first, climbed confidently through the lower section, climbed into a sequence he couldn’t reverse on the upper crux, and fell. I had a similar experience. Then it was Benji’s turn.
I asked Benji what he was thinking about before he started climbing. He said he had a lot of questions surrounding the uncertainty of being able to clip the second bolt. “Will I be able to hang onto the small crimps? Will I be able to clip the bolt? Will I hit the ground if I fall while clipping?”
He felt anxious about the uncertainty created by these questions. Then he shared an interesting observation: he felt anxious about becoming anxious. He imagined holding onto the small crimps, becoming anxious, and felt anxious about being on the route in such a state.
Mental training has many parts and one of its most interesting ones is how the mind scares itself. It’s challenging enough to deal with tangible fears like fear of falling. These fears come directly from the situation. There’s a possibility of falling and we fear that tangible consequence.
What’s more challenging is finding our way through intangible fears that create a toxic inner situation. Being anxious about becoming anxious isn’t generated by the situation. It’s created by how the mind reacts to the situation. We crave certainty and knowing we might become anxious removes that certainty.
I asked Benji what he intended to do about the anxiety. He said something very interesting: “Some questions can’t be answered.” He explained that simply asking questions and thinking about what could happen doesn’t give us enough information. Rather, what’s required is experiencing the situation itself. Benji knew he needed to climb and let his engagement give him answers.
The ability to observe the mind’s desire for certain answers is a critical part of mental training. The mind tends to be motivated by achieving an end state that is comfortable, such as arriving at the top of a climb, or successfully clipping a bolt. Achieving a comfortable end state is uncertain, which shifts our attention into the mind, causing a toxic downward spiral of anxiety that feeds upon itself. We’re anxious about becoming anxious, which steadily diminishes our confidence.
We shift our attention to escape this toxic downward spiral. Instead of focusing our attention on what is uncertain, we focus it on what is certain. We’re uncertain about outcomes; we’re certain about processes. We’re uncertain about our ability to achieve a comfortable end state; we’re certain about taking small steps through stress as we move toward that end state.
Outcomes are uncertain. We don’t know if we’ll be able to achieve them because they exist in the future. Thinking about outcomes keeps our attention in the mind, focused on what we can’t control and creates anxiety.
Processes are certain. They’re actions. We know how to do processes such as breathing, relaxing, and moving. These processes occur in the present moment. Focusing on them shifts our attention to the body, what we can control, and diminishes anxiety.
To be effective in making this shift requires recognizing when we’re in such a state. This is what Benji did. He recognized that the questions his mind was asking couldn’t be answered prior to engagement. From that observation, he was able to let engagement give him the answers. He focused on breathing, staying relaxed, and moving as he grabbed the small crimps and climbed to the second bolt. He found a stance and clipped it. Then he continued to the top, succeeding on his hardest on-sight to date.
Observing the mind create anxiety and intentionally focusing our attention on processes, changes uncertainty to certainty. By focusing on certain processes we don’t let the mind scare us. We’re able to relax into the stressful present and take small steps through it.