Tantrums and tears: Dealing with failure in climbing

Those of us who are seriously addicted to this climbing thing will know the desperate frustration of failure on a route we have psyched ourselves up to send, and many will have experienced the resulting tantrums. Sometimes I feel like a spoilt child who has been denied sweets before lunchtime – stomping feet, tears and all.

Although caring about my sport is certainly a good thing and a driver towards improvement, I have recently started thinking if this approach to failure is necessarily the healthiest one and whether it is something I should work on changing to achieve the biggest gains from my training.

In the last few weeks, I have embarked on an online Climbing Confidence course, designed and led by Womenclimb’s founder Emily Pitts, with the aim to build confidence in my climbing. The course has been in the making for many months, and I helped in the very early stages of its development, so it is particularly exciting to participate in the first ever one.

I’m in the early stages so far, which involve a lot of self-reflection, and one of the key things I have had to address is how I deal with failure.

Fear of failure can be a massive stumbling block when trying to build confidence in climbing, and for me that manifests itself not only in the fear of falling, but also in proper tantrums when I don’t do as well on a route or send it as quickly as I expect myself to. Is this a healthy attitude? Perhaps some of that angry energy can go towards determination to try again, and again, and again, until I get it?

It’s difficult to find this balance, because without the frustration the desire to succeed would also not be as strong, and perhaps the dedication would falter. But then, if the level of frustration is so high it makes me want to just give up, that’s in no way productive.

Perhaps the key is in a change of attitude to failure? It should be taken as a sign to try harder, train harder, analyse where I went wrong and look for new options, focus on my weaknesses. With that attitude, failure becomes a positive catalyst. In fact, I should be striving to push myself to lead routes I fail at, because this is what will make me a better climber. But crucially, I need to embrace failure and remind myself that it’s my catalyst to grow my skills, not my reason to give up or walk away.

I have found this sort of attitude is much easier to achieve when I’m tired and don’t expect myself to be climbing well. The lack of expectations gives me a sense of freedom where I don’t feel I need to prove anything to myself or anyone around me – just climb. But paradoxically recently my performance on these days has been better than I expected, and a couple of times even better than previous sessions where I’d had more rest.

I think much of this comes down to the psychology of expectations. When I give myself the option to fail and just relax, I do better because I don’t overthink my actions. It’s like being able to do a certain move the first time you try a route, and completely failing on subsequent attempts.

So I guess the next step is: how do I switch off the negative thinking and change my attitude to maintain that balance between being relaxed and trying my best?

I would love to hear how others deal with failure in climbing. What’s your approach? Please leave a comment below!


4 Replies to “Tantrums and tears: Dealing with failure in climbing”

  1. Nice article. I understand where you are coming from.
    I have recently changed my approach in my thinking when working routes and it seems to be paying off. I lead my hardest route ever the other day, when it felt impossible when I first got on it. Instead of feeling frustration, I channel that energy into trying harder to work out the best sequence for me. I laugh to myself when it feels impossible, and I keep trying over and over again.
    I think to myself that every move I am doing, even if it’s not getting me anywhere, I am getting stronger each time. Like training.
    The tantrums and tears do come when you are tired though. So I need to recognise when it’s time for a rest or a break, or my belay partner recognises it for me!

    1. That’s a good piece of advice with regards to being tired. Thanks for sharing your experience 🙂 I guess it’s a journey for each and every one of us!

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