How Fear of Failure holds you back in your rock climbing

It has been a while since my last blog post, mostly because I moved from Fort Collins, CO to Colorado Springs. I’ve also been busy climbing too! I thought I’d give a quick update on the new book that Jeff Elison and I are writing, and also talk about how fear of failure can cause plateaus in your climbing. First, on the book, Sharp End Publishing, who also distributes popular titles such as Climbing Free by Lynn Hill and The Rock Warrior’s Way by Arno Ilgner, will be publishing the book. We settled on a title, Vertical Mind: The New Psychology for Optimal Rock Climbing. The book is in the final stages of layout and cover design and we are psyched to get it out there. Response so far from people who have previewed the book (including Lynn Hill) is that it fills a significant hole in the current climbing literature, and that it will be very helpful to people trying to improve their rock climbing.

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Now onto the topic of plateaus and fear of failure…..

Sensitivity to evaluation by others is part of human nature.  It has been around for so many thousands of generations that it operates automatically, outside our awareness.  Fear of failure may be less significant for people who have been climbing for a long time and who understand that failures can speed progress; however, for most of us, the fear of failure holds us back.  It often prevents us from doing exactly the thing we need to do in order to progress—push ourselves.  It may also prevent us from climbing routes that are inspiring, but at our limit.  When fear of failure kicks in, we pay a price in performance and enjoyment, the two things we are trying to enhance.

Fear of failure is mostly fear of looking bad in front of other people. This fear of having others judge you poorly is most obvious with glossophobia—the fear of public speaking—often rated more acute than the fear of heights or the fear of physical pain. Just as glossophobia can render a speaker paralyzed before an audience, fear of public disgrace can leave a climber powerless.

The Fear of Failure Plateau

If failure causes embarrassment and embarrassment motivates you to avoid trying hard routes, climbing in front of others, new climbs, new styles of climbing, or new techniques, then fear of failure is holding you back.  It is slowing your progress.  It is gnawing away at your opportunities to have fun.

Let’s say that I consider myself a solid 5.11 climber.  One day I go to the crag with my partner, we warm up and he proceeds to climb a classic and cool 5.10+.  We are both surprised when he falls repeatedly at the fourth bolt, and again just before the anchors. At the anchors he asks if he should lower, leaving the draws for me to climb the route. In kicks my ego.  I know that he usually climbs a little harder than I do, yet he struggled. What if I fall even more times than he did?  Why should I risk failing on a 5.10+ when I am a 5.11 climber?  I tell him to clean the draws and we go on our way.

Okay, so what’s wrong with this picture?  First of all, I let my partner’s performance affect my motivation to climb a classic route.  For all I know, he could be having an off day.  The fact of the matter is that my self-image was threatened and I robbed myself of the chance to be challenged.  Second, I let my self-imposed 5.11-climber image get in the way.

So, what really happened here?  When my self-image, steadfastly protected by my ego, was threatened, I shied away from the challenge that threatened it.  I ended the day with my ego intact, but with the niggling and negative thought that I might have failed on a 5.10+ that day. This implies that there may be other 5.10+ climbs out there that I should avoid in similar situations.

Thus, a non-optimal cycle is created or maintained.  When I feel like I may fail on a route in the future, I may avoid the climb.  Over time, this undermines my experience base and my confidence.  I may eventually find myself cherry-picking routes that suit me, which in turn narrows the experience base that I build, further limiting my growth as a rock climber.  For most of us, this fear of failure slows our growth as climbers or we may even stagnate in a plateau!  In 9 Out of 10 Climbers, Dave MacLeod emphatically makes the same point about fear of failure.  The figure below illustrates the effect of this negative-feedback system that can hold us back.


In Vertical Mind, we delve deeply into why fear of failure is part of human nature and provide practical exercises to help you break the non-productive cycle. I will touch on some of these in an upcoming post.


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