How taking up bouldering taught me a lot about myself
Rocks are my heroes. They’re sharp, solid, heavy, groovy, smooth and bold. Pretty much all the meaningful adjectives I’d like to apply to my own character. I’ve been bouldering once or twice a week now for about three months. It started as a shared activity with my partner, something neither of us had done much before. Because it was no ones ‘thing’ yet, we could do something as equals. Three months later, it’s fair to say we’re both addicted! We’ve become regulars at the climbing hall just down the end of our street. The longer I remain involved in a new habit, the more I can see how it’s influencing my patterns in everyday life. Bouldering has definitely revealed some of my habits and attitudes that I carry through life, and when I climb. Climbing cultivates an overall awareness and a mind-body connection with synchronising mental and physical exercise while having fun. I’ve learnt a lot about who I am and how I respond to challenges, by showing up each week to the challenges in the boulder gym. Some things I’ve learnt are;
- I’m an unpractised problem solver. I’m not sure I’ve ever won a game of chess in my life. I don’t practice the skill of imagining potential future moves and the consequences of the next one often enough in my daily life. It’s the same with climbing. I find it really hard to remember the movements that worked for other climbers. I feel like I’m watching their moves but not really seeing the strategy behind them. Projecting climbs is a skill that really works my brain because I still struggle to visualise myself on the wall when I’m not doing it. Yet my boyfriend can watch climbing videos on Youtube and I see him implementing the techniques we’ve watched days before. Thankfully, it gets easier. I try and notice just one helpful detail in the beginning and remembering it to apply to my own technique, rather than expecting to pick up all the details immediately.
- My mind bails on me well before my body does. My friend says “Hey, you looked like you could’ve kept going, what happened?” Well, my brain happened. I’ve really noticed mentally checking out is something that I do when I feel any kind of adrenaline, in every facet of my life. Climbing is a kind of induced stress when you think about it, and it takes time to train your mind to stay clear and focused when your body is under physical stress. When the doubt sneaks in, or I have a moment of worry I’m going to fall (even though my body feels ok), I have to get off the wall immediately. If I’m unable to judge where my boundaries are, I’d rather back out than reach for that next hold and fall. Which brings me to…
- The fear of falling is way worse than actually falling. Let me be clear, I’m bouldering, not climbing. There’s no harness because you don’t need one. I’m 3m high at most, and if I do slip, I land on the squishy floor mats. I’ve slipped unexpectedly and landed on my back. You know what? Nothing happened, it was even funny. But somehow even after that, the idea of the fall is still worse than the reality, and it means I’m playing it safe and not pushing myself too far out of my comfort zone, or if I do, not too often. I’m reminded that we’re all usually capable of more than we think we are, and our fear of perceived failure is usually way worse than experimenting and finding yourself flat on your butt. Every time you get up, you climb it better because you’ll actually know your limits, and you know the worst possible outcome is still pretty squishy.
- I’m not a finisher of things. In fact, I asked myself “Do you even want to get to the top of the wall?” and my little slightly-scared-of-heights-voice says ‘uhh maybe not?”. I admitted this to my climbing partner today and he turned around and said to me “That’s the beauty of it, you don’t need to want to get to the top, you just need to reach for the next hold, and then the next one, and then you just arrive at the top”. Oh, the climber’s metaphor for life. You don’t even have to want to make it to the top. In fact, sometimes focusing on the top means you climb in bad form, or hurry up the wall without any technique and end up exhausted. By focusing on pushing myself just that little bit more each climb, it changed the way I perceived success. I don’t have to reach the top to measure improvement, I just need one more move than I did last time.
- There are plenty of times I start a climb and haven’t planned on where I’m going. Which is fine, if you’re just getting beta on the climb and want to experiment with it first hand. But beyond experimentation, good climbers have a plan so they can budget energy and choose efficient techniques and…make it to the top (because that feels great!). This is so me. I throw myself into situations without even thinking about the desired outcome, and it means I have a scattered focus and I’m willing to accept anything. The outcome is that I usually don’t get what I want, and sometimes I even feel like I’ve compromised myself in the process. Life lesson number five: Set an intention and use the power of focus. It’s just as strong (or sometimes stronger) than muscle.
- Micro-corrections are way more tiring than taking the time to place your body efficiently. Micromanagement runs in my family. We’re all pretty particular about the way we like things to be. No doubt this translates to my relationships…and to bouldering. I’ve learnt that the more I adjust and shift until it feels comfortable it ends up reducing my overall endurance. Slow and smooth, and committing to movements with just the amount of tension as I need to complete the move means I climb for longer and my body aches less the next day. In daily life, pacing my energy and taking the time in the morning to position my attitude for the day ahead (making clear and realistic expectations for how I feel that day) keeps me calmer and less mentally exhausted.
- There will be your nemesis, and you won’t always beat it before the climbing hall changes the routes. And that’s ok. Sometimes I won’t succeed but there’s always plenty of new problems. Let me tell you about my recent nemesis. I called it the ‘green brain’ because it was a giant bulbous green hold with cerebrum-like shallow grooves. I need to grasp the offensively protruding bulb with two hands, suspend myself with two tiny fragments of footholds and reach one hand out to grab a far left hold. I slipped. Every. Single. Time. Frustration bubbled up and I felt childishly defeated, on the brink of a tantrum. But you know what? Just when I was telling myself that I was clearly not a good climber because I couldn’t get a low-grade climb other people got easily…they pulled it down and put new problems up. Moral of the story? Like bouldering walls, life has no shortage of problems. Sometimes the problems will require a certain strength that I haven’t learnt yet, and that doesn’t mean I’m deficient, it just means I am yet to acquire that particular skill set. Don’t add to your list of problems by being self-critical. If and when you don’t succeed, know it’s sometimes ok to let it go and simply wait for a new challenge.