The mental aspect of climbing is one of the most challenging topics to address. Each climber has an individual experience of fear on the rocks shaped by their past experiences. Yet this experience is something that all climbers can relate to, regardless of their level. In today’s post, guest contributor Laura K. asked athletes about their experience of mental barriers and how the support of others has been instrumental in getting through challenging situations.
I’ve been both an endurance athlete and a climber for a few years. The mental barriers of climbing have left me baffled and stuck, while I have been able to push through multiple triathlons and long-distance running races. Is mental prowess achieved in different ways for different sports?
I began to address this question by first talking to Tess Ferguson, 21, a certified rock climbing guide with the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) who has been scaling walls for more than five years. I was surprised to find that even someone who I considered a professional still struggled with complex emotions when pushing her limits on the wall. “The thing that most helped me get through Terra Firma at Seneca Rocks, West Virginia, a heady route at my limit, was my good friend Jessica. She was working the route immediately left of me and was running through the same emotions that I was. Having a friend to talk you through the complex gambit of human emotions while climbing is invaluable. What else is really happening here? What are your real motivations for climbing a route? Pride? Personal accomplishment? Expectations? The beautiful thing about climbing is that it is such a complicated mental battle. I like to sometimes tell myself ‘Hey, it’s just rock climbing, we’re just here to have fun!’ But so many of the decisions we make have incredibly real and unforgiving consequences.”
For Tess, the support of a fellow climber who could talk her through her fear on the wall was essential. And even though climbing is a sport done with a partner, it can feel very solitary at times. Being alone on the wall while following multi-pitch climbs at Seneca freaked me out. No one could help me. I had to figure out a way to get through this climb, all on my own. It was up or down, no in-between. With endurance sports, you can always stop, slow down, and take a breath. With endurance sports, the support of a fellow athlete or coach can also help you get through those last miles on a long run, or the cheers of encouragement from the sidelines can help you through difficult parts of a course. Support is close by.
In October, Amanda Morgan, 25, of St. Augustine, Fla., tackled one of the most mentally taxing races of endurance sports, the Ironman World Championships. The challenging 140.6-mile race in Kona, Hawaii, is arguably one of the most beautiful races, but just as notorious due to the climate. For Morgan, support came in the form of her coach, Blain Peerson, who was paramount in qualifying for, training for and racing at Kona. “Having a coach helped in every way,” Morgan said. “At this point in my life, it helped me figure out what I needed to focus on. Accountability was there. A few times, I really did not like him and wanted to cry. His coaching pushed me hard enough without getting injured. It comes down who can put in the most work without getting injured.”
Through these conversations, I learned that regardless of the sport, the support of fellow athletes can help you overcome mental barriers. For me, the biggest difference between running a marathon and climbing a difficult route is that I perceive the consequences of a slip-up while climbing to be much worse than those on an endurance course. However, the rewards of conquering your fears, crushing mental barriers and pushing yourself past a limit you never thought possible, is always worth it.
Thank you, Laura, for sharing your insights and those of your mentors!