Some of my favorite memories from my early years in climbing involve times when I thought I couldn’t possibly make the next move, but somehow managed to hang on through that moment of doubt and persevere. It seems like I experienced these moments more frequently back then. At first thought, it makes sense, seeing that I was a sport-climber-turned-boulderer and powerful moves were my Kryptonite. I had to try really hard really often back when I wasn’t as strong. A lot has changed in the past 18 years. I have become pretty well acquainted with bouldering, I have gotten stronger, and I have accumulated a lot of experience along the way.
But even after all these years, one thing remains the same: climbing is hard. That’s one of the best parts of it—no matter how strong you get, it’s still hard. And that begs the question—why does it feel like I am trying hard less often these days? Getting stronger is no excuse, because strength is only as good as its application. Getting more experience is also not a good explanation. If anything, I should know by now that a little (or a lot of) grrrrr goes a long way.
One of my favorite pieces of advice to give people is to try hard. I like to think that I follow my own advice, and a lot of the time I believe I do. But when I started preparing for the upcoming World Cups, I stopped to take a look at my climbing and came to a realization: I give up too often. A good deal of the time that I fail, it is because I didn’t try hard enough, or (even worse), didn’t try at all. Sure, there are times when I just lack the power to do something, or am approaching it the wrong way. But when I reflect on my failures in the gym or outside, it is apparent that I “let” myself fall quite often, instead of really falling. As climbers, we all know the difference between those two types of failure. And I have to say, if there is satisfaction to be found in failure (and I believe there is), I find much more of it in a failure that follows a knock down drag out fight, rather than a failure of the “try hard”.
I have slipped into a nasty habit of letting my effort quickly diminish as soon as I mess something up while climbing. I might place a foot incorrectly, or forget my beta for a second, and then in my head, I’ve already fallen. This mental decline is almost always followed by physical failure. This is a bad thing, especially since there are approximately 1000 subtleties to potentially screw up every time I pull on the wall. Perfectionism is not always conducive to sending.
This is all so obvious that it feels a little funny even writing about it. “Climbing is hard.” No, you don’t say?! “To get to the top, you must try.” Thanks, Angie, Master of the Obvious. But recognizing that I’m not trying hard enough often enough was, believe it or not, a big deal for me. Or maybe I should say, admitting it was a big deal. I think that part of me has known I do this but didn’t want to admit it. Because trying hard, like really trying hard, all the time is REALLY DIFFICULT. I must have fooled myself into thinking that the strength and “expertise” I have built up over the years somehow lessen the importance of “try hard.”
Since admitting a weakness is just the beginning, I had to do something about it. So for the past few months, I have been making a conscious effort to improve my mental game and get my “try hard” muscles back in shape. It has been, you guessed it…HARD. What do they say about breaking habits? It takes 3 weeks? Well, I’m about twice that far into my attempt at breaking my habit of giving up, and yet I still find myself wanting to “let myself fall” sometimes. It’s only natural, I guess, when things get incredibly uncomfortable and frustrating and not fun to want to walk (or fall) away from them. So when those moments arise, I try to fight off the little demon on my shoulder beckoning me to “LET GO! LET GO!” and tell myself to “GO! GO!” instead. My success to failure ratio still isn’t as high as I want it to be, but I have had a few breakthrough moments when I have surprised myself.
The other day, for example, I was climbing a new boulder in the gym that was hard for me. I had worked out the moves and knew the beta, but when I got about halfway through, I felt that voice creeping in, questioning my ability to do the next move. BUT YOU KNOW YOU CAN DO IT. So I try the move, and surprise myself by doing it. However, there are still 6 more moves til the end, and I’m feeling pretty done. KEEP TRYING ANYWAY, WHAT’S THE WORST THAT CAN HAPPEN? Oh yeah, the worst that can happen is that I fall, which is what I’m definitely going to do if I just let go. I fight through one move at a time, abandoning my “everything needs to be lovely” mentality and adopting the “everything is going to be desperate” attitude instead. And it gets me to the top. It wasn’t perfect, and it wasn’t a beautiful display of skill, but not all successes are.
I find that I am having more of these moments lately. Moments when things don’t feel comfortable or easy or “right,” but I just go anyway, often surprising myself with success. I am also finding that one of the interesting intricacies of the “try hard” thing is that a huge portion of the “trying” is mental, and that is what needs to be constant. Then, I have to master the ability to flip the physical “try hard” switch when need be. After all, there are definitely moments when “relaxing hard” is just as important to success.
These are all things I thought I knew after so many years of climbing. And I did know them on some level, but now I am learning them all again. Funny to think that here I am, 18 years later, trying to remember what it was like to not have expectations and bad habits weighing me down. Trying to tap back into those late nights at Climb Time when I was learning how to be a boulderer, throwing myself at problems with all my might, letting pure will fill the gaps when power was lacking. It’s a refresher course in “try hard”…. and it’s frustrating, and fun, and rewarding, and exhausting…just like it was when I was 15. Damn, isn’t climbing awesome???