The Fear-Gravity Parallel

Fear and training for rock climbing

This article is part of a series exploring research done by professor Jeff Elison and Don McGrath for their upcoming book about mental training for rock climbing, tentatively titled Vertical Mind.

In previous articles we discussed the importance of Thinking to identify areas, which if improved, would lead to big gains in your climbing ability. We talked about the importance of incorporating Play in your practice to build strong scripts. In this article we explore some aspects of fear and how fear can motivate us or hold us back, depending on the situation.

The Fear-Gravity Parallel

In climbing, we know that we need physical strength to help us overcome the forces that gravity exerts on our bodies. Gravity, with its endless supply of pulling power, has us pushing and pulling upward against its constant force. The stronger our arms, legs, and core are, the better we can overcome the gravitational pull and get to the anchors.

If it is gravity that we are working against with our physical body, what force are we working against with our mental strength? It is certainly not gravity. The force that we work against with our mental strength is fear. Like gravity, fear has an endless supply and we must work constantly against it to overcome or manage its forces.

Unlike gravity, fear does not exert its force in one direction and it is not as simple to understand or describe as gravity. Fear comes in many forms: fear of falling, fear of pain, and social fears, such as fear of failure.  These fears have a continuum of severity, and can move us up as well as down on a climb. Fear, therefore, deserves some study so that we can understand it and learn to manage it.

In physical training, we train our muscles and nervous system so that we can execute physical movement of our bodies against the forces of gravity as we move over the rock. We strengthen our arms, our legs, and our core. We practice different types of climbing moves so that our bodies learn the movements and execute them on future climbs. We work to strengthen our fingers and train such that we stave off forearm pump as long as possible. We employ various training techniques to help us develop the power, endurance, and movement technique required to overcome gravity’s force, and we do all this to overcome a force which acts in only one direction. Clearly, overcoming the forces associated with fear will require new ways of training, and involve training several different elements of our mental game.

Perspectives on Fear

Fear is a broad term and important to understand as it relates to training for rock climbing.  Therefore, it is worth a few paragraphs to step back and get a broader perspective on fear, before we deal with specifics.  Fear is an evolutionary adaptation that humans share with all mammals and many, many much older species.  Why?  Because it helps keep us alive and intact (allowing the opportunity for sex and reproduction).  Clearly fear can be a good thing.  Obviously it can be bad as well.  Evolution has dealt with these kinds of tradeoffs for hundreds of millions of years – and fear is still with us.  Therefore, the pros must outweigh the cons, overall.  So, let’s take a look at the good and bad sides of fear.  Understanding both the pros and cons will help us take control of fear, allow us to take advantage of it, optimize (and I do mean “optimize”) our fear, with the end result being improved performance.

Fear readies our bodies for fight or flight.  On the plus side, that fight mechanism can help us while climbing.  Adrenalin is released, blood glucose increases, heart rate and blood pressure increase, digestion slows, and attention increases.  In many cases, fear allows us to fight through the tough sections.   On the down side, that fight mechanism may be dialed up too high.  We become too tense, breathe poorly, overgrip, waste energy, experience tunnel vision – and fail.  Another down side is that the flight mechanism may cause us to lock up, grab a draw, or take – rather than move upward toward success.  The latter is like a deer frozen in our car headlights.

The Whippers Effect

Most importantly, the fight or flight mechanism affects our brains and thinking, as well.  It changes attention and focus.  At mild-to-moderate levels, fear helps us focus, helps us pay attention, and as a result increases working memory (i.e., short-term memory).  At these helpful levels, we often have a broader focus of attention – we can take in more information from a variety of sources (holds, options, protection, fall potential, safety).  Remember that working memory is where conscious thinking and problem solving occur.  The boost to attention and working memory means we think better and have enhanced problem solving abilities.  And that’s what onsighting is all about.  The end result is increased performance; we perceive, think, and remember more clearly.  Think about the vivid memories you get from some (but not all) scary experiences. Think about the moments of flow when everything just clicked – you saw the options and reacted almost instinctively – I doubt you were without anxiety, you just weren’t consumed by it.

On the down side, those attentional effects may backfire at high levels of fear.  When fear is too intense, we get tunnel vision – we can only focus on one or two things and working memory is consumed by them.  We lose the ability to process a wide variety of informational sources.  We can’t even see all the holds, all the options.  Higher-level thinking and problem solving are out the window.  Think about the seconds before your last big fall during an onsight; your mind was probably racing, everything seemed to happen very quickly, and suddenly you were at the end of the rope, without memories for details.

These attentional effects make sense from an evolutionary perspective.  Low levels of fear usually occur in response to non-specific threats (e.g., a dark forest, a job interview).  High levels of fear usually occur in response to specific threats (e.g., a rattlesnake, a thief with a gun).  In both cases, we want our attention to be boosted.  We don’t want to be ignoring threats or relevant information.  In the case of the forest, we are sensitized to any stimulus; we want to pay attention to anything and everything that moves or growls.  That’s why the startle response is “potentiated” – we jump at the drop of a pin.  Conversely, in the case of the rattlesnake, I really doubt anything is more important, so we tunnel in on it.  Memory follows attention and the tunnel vision we get shows up in what forensic psychologists call the Weapons Effect.  This is the tendency for witnesses of crimes involving weapons to remember the weapon – and not much else.  For climbers we could call this the Whippers Effect. We will recall that whipper for quite a while because of the emotion that it evoked. The more the emotion, the more it stays with us.

The Whippers Effect is one reason why our drills suggest practicing new scripts under safe conditions, such as toproping.  This also has implications for learning redpoint beta.  Stick clipping the bolt above you or toproping from the anchor allows you to hang at each section, inspect the holds, and remember under low fear conditions.  Many of us have been on routes where you have to do a hard move 10’ above a bolt. You get there pumped, try to work it out, but you only have seconds before you take the whip.  Tunnel vision and the limited time make it extremely difficult to work out and memorize the beta.  Rehearsing while safe is much more effective and efficient.  Plus it conserves energy and skin, while increasing the number of attempts you can make since you don’t have to re-climb as much or yard back up.

Have you ever experienced the Whipper Effect?

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