The Right Dose of Fear 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, titled Vertical Mind.

In a previous article, we discussed how fear can motivate us or stop us from moving forward. It’s very difficult to find the right tradeoff. When your body is too amped, you are probably experiencing tunnel vision.  And on the bright side, at moderate levels of fear both the physio and mental effects are in your favor.  These observations have been captured in the well-known Performance-Arousal Curve.  This graph of the relationship between performance and arousal is often described as an inverse-U.  Let’s work from left-to-right to see its implications.

fear and training for rock climbing

Performance Arousal Curve

At the far left, where arousal is low and anxiety is non-existent, we are experiencing boredom and disinterest.  Obviously, if we are bored, we are neither paying attention nor motivated to perform well.  Think about a time when you were forced to play a board game that you hate.  You probably had a tough time staying awake, much less competing.  Moving a bit to the right, we start to get interested, and as a result, physiological arousal, attention, motivation, and performance increase.  So, now maybe it’s a board game you kind of like.  Moving right farther, interest turns to excitement; physiological effects, attention, motivation, and performance rise, possibly peaking.  If not, then they probably peak with low-to-moderate levels of anxiety or fear.  (Where the peak occurs depends on factors we will soon discuss.)  Now we are talking about a favorite game where you want to trounce that poser new-guy.

Move farther right and we see that with too much fear everything goes downhill, literally.  We are on the wrong side of the curve.  Your heart pounds, hands sweat, muscles clench.  Attention is either tunneled or scattered all over the place.  Working memory, just isn’t working.  Performance tanks.  In fact, some research using Catastrophe Theory to model performance suggests this curve isn’t so pleasantly smooth.  Rather, the drop off may be precipitous—a term all climbers can appreciate.  The line between the peak and choking may be very abrupt.  Let’s not go there—or let’s minimize how often we do.

There are several take-away points to be had from this analysis.  First, fear isn’t all bad—we shouldn’t unilaterally fear it.  Second, there are optimal levels of fear.  (We use the plural “levels” intentionally because which level is optimal depends on those yet-to-be-discussed factors).  Third, understanding the curve can help us control fear to find those optimal levels.  Fourth, we have some control over where we sit on the curve— and, thus, how we perform.

Factors Affecting the Performance-Arousal Relationship

Let’s take a look at those factors that affect optimal levels of arousal.  The most widely researched factor is “task difficulty.”  Difficulty here refers to intricate skill versus brute force.  Contrast the small-muscle, fine, precise motor movements required for that precision deadpoint from slopers to a letterbox versus the large muscle thuggish body-length dyno from ledge to ledge.  High levels of anxiety and muscle tension aren’t going to allow the precision you need to hit that letterbox, so the curve shifts to the left.  You experience peak performance at lower levels of arousal and even modest levels of fear may cause you to choke.  In contrast, chugging Red Bull, beating your chest, and primal screaming may optimize your chances at that body-length dyno.  It’s hard to be too amped in such a situation.

So, great, another variable.  What does this mean for your projects?  It gives you another tactic, another way to size them up.  It gives you the flexibility to adjust your approach to the specifics of your situation.  Do you need to amp yourself up or dial it down?  You may adjust per route, but sometimes per section.  During an onsight, you need to conserve energy, take in every hold and option, let working memory flow, and make quick decisions on the spot.  But even during onsights, you may hit the moment of truth where you just have to bear down and crank.  During redpoints, you also have times at which you conserve energy versus times when you crank.  Moreover, you know the route, so you may get an overall feel for whether you need to play it cool (long-enduro or delicate precision routes) versus amp up (the 3-bolt powerfest).

A second variable that affects the optimal level of arousal is you!  There are individual differences in the way our bodies and brains react to anxiety and arousal.  Some of us perform better at higher levels and some of us at lower levels.  Red Bull works for some of us and against others.  You can get a sense for this by monitoring how you react to stress in your life, in general.  Better yet, be specific and analyze how your level of arousal affects your climbing.  How do you typically react when facing a stressful situation on a climb?

A third variable, related to the previous point, is your perception of fear and your perception of your own body’s reactions.  For example, anxiety makes our hearts speed up and our hands sweat (measurable with GSR technology at levels so low we can’t even perceive the changes).  So, how do you react when you do perceive these reactions?  It could be anywhere from “Great” to “Oh no, I’m losing control,” literally.  For example, panic attacks are a diagnosable psychological condition.  Some event or thought triggers a person’s fear and their fear spirals out of control.  And so do they.  They may fear they are having a heart attack or some other physical problem.  Some sufferers end up in the emergency room.  One large contributor to panic attacks is the perception or interpretation of the bodily reactions to normal stress.  They say: “Oh no, my heart is racing, my chest is constricting, my palms and face are sweating.”  These thoughts lead to misguided interpretations: “I must be having a heart attack” or “I’m going to make a fool of myself in public.”  Their interpretations lead to more fear, which lead to more intense symptoms, which lead to more fear.…  You get the idea.

Irrational?  Yes, but understandable.  First, these events become scripted.  If people do worry themselves into being sick or making a scene, then they come to expect it to happen again—a script.  Second, under conditions of intense fear, few of us are rational.  Remember those effects on attention and working memory we discussed.  It becomes hard to pay attention to anything else, to distract yourself, and harder to think clearly.

We’re not suggesting that many climbers suffer from full-blown panic attacks.  If you did, you probably wouldn’t be a climber.  The point is that our perceptions and interpretations of our bodily symptoms vary and form a feedback loop that can be detrimental.  Or the loop can be broken and performance increased.  So, how do we adjust our interpretations?  As we’ve seen before, scripts rely on beliefs (rational or irrational) and interpretations are simply one category of beliefs.

In upcoming articles, we’ll dive deeper into understanding fear and provide tips and training tools to help you manage it in your climbing.

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