Updated: May 17, 2020
Is fear an inhibitor or a tool, an opponent or ally. Most importantly how can we teach fear in climbing and what are might we be doing wrong?
What is fear where does it come from?
Hidden within our brains lies the culprit, roughly the size of two almonds, lies the amygdala. This little collection of cells affects many emotional responses including fear and anxiety. It's out of date and in desperate need of an update.
In simpler times we needed to immediately recognise threats(big falls or predators) eat or sleep, we had to recognise comfort and easy food. The problem is our brain software hasn't been updated and it still sees in monochrome, identifies risk or safety, encouraging us to avoid one and seek out the other.
Essentially anxiety is triggered by one or more of the following; change, attention, uncertainty and struggle.
What makes it worse is we live in a world that confirms our bias, comfort is easier than ever to achieve, nourishment and entertainment can be found within minutes, and we take it every time even though there's no risk of starvation for the majority of us.
To confirm our fears we have modern media and social attitudes that confirm to you that activities are dangerous or that if we try we might fail, and that failure is unacceptable.
The difficulty within climbing is that we are constantly encountering at least one of these and as coaches we place our clients in situations that would send the amygdala crazy setting off the alarm bells, alerting them to danger. What then happens is we hear this talk of going to war, fighting the fear and challenging it, and trying to remove it.
The problem is, you can't. Well not without serious surgery, as feeling of fear is produced biologically from within our brains. It's why you hear top end climbers confess they still get afraid. It's the same problem that results in why we seek comfort over effort and why if presented with an option out we will usually take it.
So what are we doing wrong?
In climbing we too often focus on the top as completion of the task, and consider anything less as a failure. We often introduce people to climbing with as little struggle as possible, and as much verbal instruction as possible. When they reach the top we add repetition to remove change. Essentially we make the experience as controlled and comfortable as possible.
This is as far from climbing as possible....
Then usually without progression we change everything, it might not be instantly. We place them on something more challanging, at a new height or even in a new style such as leading.
We increase the struggle, add uncertainty, change the activity and then when the climber freezes we raise attention to this by being loud, trying to coerce the climber down or up.
Essentially we hit every trigger the amygdala needs to say "no" and "never again."
How can we fix this
If you take the above into account, the solution may seem simple yet common sense is rarely common practice. So here we go.
Introduce a positive attitude towards failure early, failing is how we learn
Be progressive, little falls are part of climbing and are normal. Too big too soon confirms fear.
Have smaller goals, the top is the end of the climb, the goal could be to improve the first move.
Educate that climbing is a struggle and thats how we improve, improving is fun.
By failing we learn what doesn't work and what does, lessening the uncertainty ahead.
If the climb is tough by open to practice single moves and sections before climbing it whole.
If your teaching give your clients options for escape early so you don't have to shout them down.
If your having you shout them up, their amygdala is already going crazy.
If your are shouting them up ask yourself, is the top of this climb my goal or theirs, is it really now or never.
Reward the effort not the result, this confirms the effort was worth it, and will be again.