The most important mental quality to have is grit, which is one’s ability to stay committed when stressed. Grit in the physical realm is abrasive particles such as sand. Sanding belts and grinding wheels use abrasive particles to sand and grind tough metals. Grit allows us to apply an abrasive to metal, in its rough state, to create new metal products.
In the mental realm grit is indomitable spirit, tenacity, and persistence. Grit means we stay committed in tough situations and don’t give up. Grit allows us to apply these mental abrasive equivalents to sand and grind our way through rough challenges to reach goals.
Nothing gives us a better example of grit than climbing an off-width crack, especially an off-width roof crack. These types of climbs are struggles and tend to lack the finesse of other types of climbing. They require giving sustained effort, and when we feel like giving up, to apply more effort even if we think we have none left to give.
A great example of this is a video of Tony Yaniro climbing Paisano Overhang at Suicide Rock, California. (I’ve included the youtube link) Paisano is a brutal 5.12c off-width roof crack, first free climbed by John Long in 1973. Tony jams his feet deep into the roof crack, and then moves both hands, stacking them to jam the wide crack. Then he repeats the process. He stacks his hands and then his feet slip out of the crack, but he doesn’t let go. He persists by sticking his feet back in the crack so he can move his hand stacks a little farther along the roof.
The biggest limitation to giving this kind of effort and developing grit is our unconscious ways of avoiding stress. Coaches, instructors, and others encourage us to ignore or avoid stress. We might be doing a difficult workout and we’re encouraged to think of something else so we don’t notice the stress as much. On a strenuous climb we’re encouraged by being told “You’ve got it.” Coaching is directed toward the comfort of having “it” not how to work through the stress. This approach is known as “mind over body,” or mental toughness, meaning, the mind is tougher than the body. The emphasis is on the mind. The premise is: our power comes from having a tough mind to make the body do what we want it to do.
This approach is backwards. The mind is actually the weakest link. When we’re exerting effort we’re outside the realm of the mind – the comfort zone. Exerting effort is the realm of the body. The mind needs to remain flexible and simply observe the whole process. It needs to remain calm while the body applies its power, grinding its way through the challenge. It’s a body over mind approach, but guided by this observing quality.
We need to observe what is occurring in the mind and body. We observe what task we need to focus our attention on and continually redirect it to that task. Attention in the moment is the grit that allows us to process stress effectively. This observing quality isn’t the body or the mind. I refer to it as the witness. It’s our awareness of what is occurring within the mind and body. We observe the mind’s tendency to toughen and avoid stress and remain flexible by redirecting our attention to the body, grinding our way through it. Grit is our awareness of where our attention is and continually redirecting it to the task. Our witness is our source of power.
The mind will think of ways to avoid stress. We witness this thinking and redirect our attention to the body thereby keeping the mind flexible. The body will tense up under stress. We witness this tension and redirect our attention to relaxing so the body can process the stress.
If we’re doing a physical workout or a difficult off-width roof crack, then our witness encourages us in ways to process stress. Attention must be in the body. We process stress by breathing, relaxing, and making small engagements. The mind remains quiet and flexible, allowing the witness to direct and redirect attention throughout the moments of exertion. This is mental grit in action.
Physical grit takes something tough in a rough state, grinds it, and creates something new. Mental grit takes the body in its current state, uses a device like a workout or an off-width crack, and applies our attention to grind our way through it. Doing this expands our comfort zones. We learn that the body can do more than the mind thinks it can, if we’re able to remain flexible and observe the whole process from the perspective of the witness.
Practice Tip: Power of One
One of the most effective ways to deal with the mind’s limitations is to find small actionable steps you can take to remain engaged. Doing this allows you to remain in the stress without escaping it. Doing a little more, instead of giving up, helps you develop grit.
When you set a goal to do 50 push-ups, don’t do 50, do 51.
When you hold a yoga pose for 3 minutes, waiting for the timer to sound, continue holding it for a few seconds after you hear the timer. Also, don’t look at the timer. Knowing how much time is left is a trick to calm the mind by giving it an end result to focus on. Doing this distracts your attention from the body and processing the stress.
On a rock climb, when your mind wants to give up, stay engaged. Probe the next section by climbing into it. Make a move up or down. Stay at your stance and rest. Do anything except giving up.