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On a chilly day in October I decided to make a little more space around my shed. This involved cutting down some trees and moving some dirt. In the course of this little home improvement project, I lost control of one end of the shovel while my foot pressed firmly on the shovel blade. This propelled the handle into the side of my chin.
In the moment after, I wondered if I had given myself a concussion. I seemed okay so I just kept working for a little longer. Later that night, my tooth broke. Damn it! The next morning, I moved through my day... the busiest and longest day for me. Setting and coaching. The next morning when I tried moving around, it seemed like the room was moving. I hadn't slept very well either. Hmmmm.... maybe I do have a concussion.
In the days that followed, I did all the things I shouldn't do. I tried exercising. That was nauseating. I drove for twelve hours. I spent the day chatting with people. I climbed with my son. I drove another nine hours. That's when the pressure headaches started. I then drove for another four hours. When I awoke the next day with the plan to go and teach, my head was saying "oh no."
STEP ONE: 48 hours of no screens; no reading; no alcohol. No noise. Early to bed. Limit exercise to easy walking.
STEP TWO: Accept that you are not the same. Let go of thinking you SHOULD be doing anything. Or you will go crazy.
STEP THREE: When there are no symptoms, SLOWLY reintegrate things. Do not go back to thinking everything is normal.
After the 48 hours, I felt better. I limited screen time. I went to physiotherapy. I was pretty good. But I notices when I climbed, my heart rate would still go up pretty quick on things that I thought I should be able to do and then I would feel nauseous.
This continued for months. I had no other symptoms, just this feeling of being really fatigued and like I had exercised too hard when I first started climbing. A day of exercise and a night without sleep. And the wobbly feeling returned. Agh!!!
STEP FOUR: Back to STEP ONE, TWO, and THREE.
STEP FIVE: When you get back to play, to screens, back to noise, to all the things you could easily do before without fear of headaches or wobbliness, BE CAREFUL.
Be aware of how you are feeling in every moment moving forward. If you have a party and drink some alcohol, plan to be low key the next day. Plan for self care. Plan to make space for the healing to continue. Healing from a concussion can take YEARS. Play it safe.
Lastly, be kind to yourself. Last night when I went to the gym to climb, I was starting slow. Letting my heart rate come down before trying the next route. I didn't do the last move if I thought it would mean I may fall and land on the ground. Jarring my head like that would not be worth it. I was afraid of what people would think of me. BUT I had to keep going back to ACCEPTING THAT I AM INJURED. Accepting that I need to let go of the idea that I SHOULD be able to climb harder. And when the pressure headaches were returning, I had to leave and go Back to STEP ONE.
Twenty years later...
My body is not the same. Less endurance. Less strength. Less determination. The place is not the same. More climbers. More routes. Harder grades. Line ups.
Some things are still the same. Rock is the same. The goal is the same. Trying to send no falls. Working sections on projects. Sore tips. Trying to stay warm when not climbing. Even a lot of the gear is pretty much the same.
It feels hard. That is the same. It's just that feeling hard comes quicker and with more unease. The head game is definitely familiar but now my determination to make things happen is lower.
With years between then and now, there is the reflection of time, space and mortality. Why do we choose these goals, work so hard for them and in the end we will all not really make a big difference. We will all just be candles in the wind.
Why is not the question. Why questions can be hard to answer and just create a position of for or against. The better question is what are the positives that one gets from the experience? For me the answer to that question is simple... climbing gets me in my body. I pay attention to how I feel physically. I pay attention to solving a puzzle. It takes me out of just watching things happen and puts me in the moment. When it is going well, it is definitely present moment. When it is not going so well, it is in the moment of chaos.
The real reason for this self punishment? The process. Even in the negative chaos of fear and loathing, there is a sense that one must overcome. Even in defeat and failure, one is broken and crushed, there is the ray of light that things may be better tomorrow. One chases the hope of victory over ones own physical and mental weakness.
The prize... to feel empowered. To feel strong. To feel that moment of success. Perhaps even to experience that freedom from all the other things of the world that entrap our mind.
Recently I messed up. No one was hurt. I could have been hurt. But my actions drew unwanted attention to myself and my mistake. That night, I couldn't fall asleep. I woke up early and could not get back to sleep. My mind playing over and over the event. What would this mean to those who had witnessed it? How I may be being perceived was stressful.
This is anxiety. These worries are things I cannot control. Sure I can do a number of other things in the presence of these witnesses to attempt to change what they may be thinking... but they will always think what they choose to think regardless of my desire. I cannot go back in time and change the event. This then creates a loop that can build on intensity or even just continue to spin in unease.
Sometimes we are not even aware of what our thoughts are. We just have the physical symptoms of anxiety. Our heart is racing a bit. We feel a sense of agitation or anger. Or we may just become lethargic and not want to get out of bed and see people. Elevated heart rate, a desire to move quickly, or a desire to drink, eat, move away. Chest breathing. Twitches of the body. These can be signs of anxiety. Interventions here can include making ourselves breath differently. Sounds easy, but in case of high anxiety can be difficult. Box breathing is one recommended method. In for four counts. Hold for four counts. Exhale four counts and hold the breath out for four counts. Or extending exhale. In for four counts and out for up to eight counts. These breathing choices activate the parasympathetic nervous system and increase relaxation in the body.
You could argue that alcohol and/or eating will activate the parasympathetic nervous system, since this is the system that supports digestion. However, alcohol and food can cause a disruption in our ability to sleep properly. Alcohol has a tendency to cause wakefulness through the night. Too much food in the belly denies us REM cycles of sleep. Without sleep, the body cannot manage all that cortisol in the body and return to homeostasis. Thus you are now more prone to experience the stress response, elevated sympathetic nervous system response. This keeps you in the spin cycle in the diagram above.
"Humor is the result of looking at your humanity from a distance. We are all a bit crazy ad funny. And laughter is the balm for healing." ~ Debra Silverman
Everything we do makes up our experience of the world. Experience is shaped by our perception of the circumstances. I am trying to climb a 5.13 or a V9 and for me, the climbing is hard. My body may not be strong enough. I may need better technique or more flexibility. I am falling off, unable to unlock the magic to doing all the moves on the route. My perception becomes, climbing is hard. Or at least, it seems hard.
We are all pretty reactionary as human beings. We want things, we work for them. We feel disappointed when we don't get them. We work to keep things away. We find ways to protect ourselves from being seen in a "bad" way. Define bad how you like. In Yoga, these are described as the kleshas. We have perceptions about the world formed from experiences and people in our lives and we carry these beliefs into perceiving everything... especially how we approach climbing and our lives. Where one climbing partner would be excited to fall off a route because s/he, "gets to climb it again." Yet I perceive falling on a redpoint a devastating blow of failure, it is our perception that differentiates our experiences. We both fell off a route we wanted to send. One of us is happy and the other miserable.
Here is an excerpt from a wonderful book by Og Mandino entitled, The World's Greatest Salesman; "I laugh at the world. And most of all, I will laugh at myself for man is most comical when he takes himself too seriously. Never will I fall into this trap of the mind. For though I be nature’s greatest miracle, am I not still a mere grain tossed about by the winds of time? Do I truly know whence I came or whither I am bound? Will my concern for this day not seem foolish ten years hence? Why should I permit the petty happenings of today to disturb me? What can take place before this sun sets which will not seem insignificant in the river of centuries? I will laugh at the world."
Between 1994 and 2001 I collected information on climbers that included grip strength, back and shoulder strength, hip and groin flexibility, endurance, core strength and performance level. It started as a master's thesis project. It continued out of my curiosity AND because people I coach like very tangible numbers. The tests are outlined in the book I wrote in 2001, published by Stackpole Books, Climbing Your Best. I was married then so the author's name is Heather Reynolds Sagar... you can still find it on Amazon. Below is a link to scores. I have added some new tests because whether you boulder or rope climb, scores can be different. I do not yet have enough numbers to actually run an analysis, but if you want me to test you, I can and we can increase the data.
Each member of the group stated their goal... "get stronger," "climb better," "better mental game..."
Each person expressed a desire to improve with varying degrees of depth in the explanation. Makes sense... we humans are wired to continually improve. If it was not innate within us to improve, to go from being fed and carried by our parents, we would have died off as a species thousands of years ago. An infant wants to explore its surroundings. A toddler wants to walk, then run. And a climber on the easier routes will naturally want to get on the harder routes, unless the will and determination have been squashed in other arenas of life and walking away from potential failure has become the new normal.
There is now scientific research that is showing that this desire to continue to "grow" or "improve" is to blame for our midlife slump... (yes, it's a real thing). Humans spend much of their 20's and 30's creating prosperity in life... prosperity that can be in the form of professional development, personal bests in various activities, having children, buying houses. No surprise then when a group of people in their 20-30's would tell me they want to be stronger, or have better technique or mental game. It is natural at that age to want to build on ones ability.... to produce results.
A number of factors go into one's ability to perform or let's use the example of climbing the next level route. The variables are going to include your strength and flexibility, your sequence, the techniques you use, focus, attitude, and your belief in the ability to do it.
Onsighting roped routes, warming up, even multiple failures on a roped redpoint project are all things that will bring down my psych. But find me a project with a move I need to figure out. Make it short so I can keep my focus and make it not super reachy and I am in heaven. I love the problem solving nature of climbing. Then make it outside instead of inside, give me a supportive strong climbing partner and we are talking a great day for me.
Knowing what gives me joy in the experience informs the goal I set. Yes, I still want to improve performance, but more importantly, I want to find a hard project with a move I need to unlock. I need to learn a new way to move. That may include needing to be stronger or more flexible. It will definitely involve setting up my training with just one or two partners who are willing to work on what I am on. And it will mean something outside. All I need to add is the actual timeline for accomplishment.
So before you train...
Understand your strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, your attitude, your ability to perform.
Then understand what motivates you, inspires you.
Create a goal that is clearly defined - this route or problem, in this period of time. This means shopping for the right experience. If you love the thrill of competition, name the one you want to attend, name the level of difficulty you want to complete either onsight or within a specified number of tries.
If it is adventure that fills you with inspiration, decide on the destination and the routes you want to send. And pick the dates.
The next step is two fold: train or practice in preparation and let go of whether it actually happens. This step repeats every time you train or try to have it happen. You have to let go of the outcome and be in the moment. Practice just being in the moment.
Unfortunately, this is also a time of year with a lot of change... not just the leaves, but often schedules. Even if you happen to be single, young and work a job that has a consistent schedule, you are perhaps being influenced by the influx of thousands of University students. Line ups are longer, sidewalks more filled, traffic moving more slowly. There is usually a faster pace in the store line-ups and more noise in the coffee shop, climbing gym or you can't get your regular spot at your favourite Yoga class. MOVEMENT is all around us. And the stillness to focus and remain focus is more elusive.
FOCUS is essential to hard ascents.
Let me say it again... as a coach... FOCUS IS ESSENTIAL TO SENDING HARD.
If you have sent routes and you were not focused, I would argue it is not the hardest thing you can do.
So How to Cultivate focus... try this meditation to create more steadiness and focus.
The above link (Steadiness meditation) will take you to a meditation practice in soundcloud. This practice can be done in a seated position or lying down on your back in a comfortable position. The key is to be comfortable so you will not have to move through the practice.
If you do not have access to Soundcloud in this moment, you can simply follow these steps:
- Watch the flow of the breath. Count backwards from 12 with each exhale until you reach zero. At zero, continue to watch the flow of the breath.
With each inhale move your awareness with the movement of the breath, in through the nostrils, down into the abdomen and continuing the movement down to the base of the body, the pelvic floor.
Take your time, repeating this awareness and gradually focusing your attention solely on the movement of the breath.
This awareness may gradually become more vibrant with effortless awareness on the inhale flow of the breath.
As you exhale, feel or sense the energy of the breath, the vitality and nurturance being seated at the pelvic floor, in the region at the base of the spine.
As this awareness begins to collect the energy of the breath, the light that rides on the breath collects and is seated at the base of the spine. Feel or sense this creating a sense of steadiness, stillness. A deep abiding sense of comfort, ease.
Rest in this awareness of ease, steadiness and stillness.
Rest for a few minutes in this sense of ease and restful awareness.
When you are ready to return, take a deeper breath in, gradually becoming more aware of the body. The hands and feet may make some subtle movements, gradually drawing you back to the present.
Opening the eyes as you are ready.
The root of all our differences, whether it is how we are perceived at work, how we perceive others, is rooted in our past experience, and our value. But the choice we make on what we say and do, is rooted in our intention.
Perception, how we understand a situation; Intention, is what we want as a result of our response.
To place a bolt and make a climb safe, perhaps, we will be perceived by others through their lens, not our intention. Another hot button issue in the climbing world is grading routes. In my backyard, there have been a number of routes re-graded by folks years after their initial ascents by other people.
What is the intention? We cannot always know for sure.
What is the result? Depends on the perception of the climbers who now climb those routes.
The end of the day... everybody is right from their own perception of the situation. BUT those who intend to support the community, the growth of other climbers, AND TAKE ACTION affirming that intention, those will be the people who, in the end, will be respected and admired by those who can see it.
What is your intention?
Not everyone can be THE BEST, but everyone can BE THEIR BEST.
To be your best doesn't mean making the podium. It doesn't mean sending the hardest routes.
It means doing what you love, what excites you. It means doing the best routes you can do. It means that you do not let the voice of fear and self doubt to rule your life.
What is at the core of your soul? Do you understand what you are supposed to do on this earth?
I don't mean the things that you do to get through the day. I mean --
What is the thing, the gift you have that you are supposed to share with the world?
Getting to know your strengths.
You can listen to the following recording or just read the description below.
Take a moment to get quiet, to turn off the music, the TV in the background. Have a pen or pencil and a notebook ready. It is preferable to write this than to type it. With eyes closed, and the body well supported, take 10 breaths allowing the inhale and exhale to balance. Sense the breath move all the way into the abdomen and feel the body relax. Notice the thoughts that move through your mind. Allow the thoughts to be there, just don't follow them. To the best of your ability, be a witness rather than the thinker. Non judgement if you do follow a thought, just come back to the position of noticing.
After a few minutes, in this state of awareness, allow yourself to contemplate, experience the moments where you have gone through struggle, where you have felt the chips were down and you were challenged. Re-live the experience or experiences. Allow the focus of your awareness to rest on how you move through the challenge. As if watching a movie, witness how you navigate the challenges. What qualities did you bring to bear? What attitude, what resources did you draw upon? What intention did you set for yourself that propelled you forward?
When you have fully re-experienced these moments and have identified, noticed the qualities, open your eyes and write them down in your journal. Be as descriptive as you need. Allow yourself time to really explore these qualities, these strengths and positive intentions that you have.
If you experience yourself thinking thoughts of self doubt, or that perhaps you are exaggerating, it doesn't matter. Write as if you are writing about someone else. In fact, it could be helpful to exaggerate the qualities.
As you review what you have written, consider that these strengths are your gifts. It is these vary gifts that you are meant to strengthen and to use to express yourself fully in this world. It is when you call on these qualities that you are your best self. So continue to strengthen them and continue to use these strengths to work with your weaknesses. In my own life, my greatest weakness is a fear of not being of value, of failing. But my greatest strength is my ability to see possibility, to be tenacious. When I use my tenacity and dream of possibility, it becomes easier to overcome the fear of failing or of not receiving the recognition I long for.
I hope this has helped you see a path forward too... Good Luck.