Sporting Life: The Power of the Anti-Psych

Illustration by Jamie Givens

Illustration by Jamie Givens

Without yin, there can be no yank

In my early twenties, I kicked around Rifle, Colorado, in my beige Toyota Tercel “turd wagon,” bolting unseemly choss and then overpowering it with Jersey Shore biceps and remedial footwork. I was a sour, angry young man, prone—like many of the era’s Rifle rats—to eardrum-shattering wobblers and unfettered slander. One day at the Arsenal, a visiting Austrian asked my age. “Twenty-one,” I told him.

“Hah!” he said. “I thought you were 29.” Crap. There it was: proof that I looked prematurely aged and crusty, a burnout only six years into the game, and not one of those perpetually “up,” youthful climbers toward whom others gravitate. Seventeen years later, the situation has only deteriorated. Look up “cruster” in the dictionary, and you’ll see a picture of me: graying stubble, eyes ringed and sunken from abiding unsolicited spray, scowl lines etched into my leathery visage, the angst-knitted brow of one who’s been climbing untold eons yet is too dim to imagine an alternate reality.

So I persist, even as I marvel at just how perpetually psyched others are, especially the twenty-somethings honing today’s cutting edge. To the extent that “psych” once occasionally invaded the lightless gyre of my inanition, I remember the feeling: the yen to climb everything, everywhere. To show up at a crag and tick it right to left, or maybe start with the hardest routes and work down the ladder. The pull to throw the gear in the car and strike out for the next great destination crag. That Christmas Eve feeling when the presents sit tidily unopened beneath the tree, and you flirt with sleep, your stomach braided with anticipation.

Wow. Mega. Super-neato. To feel that again… But wait—is it really necessary? Is it really that critical to always be psyched? For some—or maybe all of us—it might not be.

Because here’s the thing: just as psych serves to keep us in perpetual motion, I posit that “anti-psych” is equally important, by providing balance. And just as there can be no yang (light) without yin (darkness), neither can there be psych without anti-psych.

Anti-psych is not merely the absence of psych, nor is it psych’s opposite. It’s not hating on climbing in order to love it the more when you eventually drag-ass to the cliffs. No: anti-psych means letting the body-mind-spirit rest, free from the pressure of having to perform, with the awareness that you must do this in order to recharge your psych batteries. So the anti-psych is all about downtime, about rest days, which themselves must be taken in a loose, noncommittal, Zen-type way— being too serious about the anti-psych (with things like running, stretching, and visualization) just corrupts it into psych. To wit, the anti-psych is not a “cry in the dojo, laugh on the battlefield” thing; it’s more a “watch TV, eat popsicles, and play Xbox in the dojo, then chortle briefly on the battlefield and flee back to the couch” scenario.

Am I making sense? Here’s an example—the first time I harnessed the anti-psych. Two centuries ago, when I was 17, I had yet to learn about rest days. Desire alone, went the reasoning, would fuel climbing day after day after day, till my tips schralped in the New Mexico heat and my arms felt like lead pipes fired (barely) by noodle nerves. It was around the seventh consecutive day of bouldering when I folded a mere two problems deep at U-Mound, twin hillocks of xenolith-studded blobs above Albuquerque. Two of my partners—Jeff and John— were the same age, and probably hadn’t rested either. But our buddy Lance was a few years older and had wised up. As I lay spat into the gravelly hardpack, near tears beneath some jug-ladder V1 that had, for the first time in months, bouted me, Lance asked, “When’s the last time you took a rest day?”

I couldn’t remember. Throw in emotional disarray over some evil vixen who’d recently dumped me (probably because I’d show up at her house stoned, in ratty blue Polypro tights, with chalk all over my hands, spewing about “dynos to knobs”), and I was a sad panda. I told Lance I wanted to quit climbing, since I “was no good at it anymore” and had become “totally unfit.”

“Go home. Get some rest,” Lance told me. “And forget the girl; there’ll be others.” Which I did: I drove home, took a long shower, turned on “Saved by the Bell,” and silo’ed Death by Chocolate ice cream, thinking about things other than climbing or, more likely, nothing at all. I felt marginally guilty being so inactive. Not a day had elapsed over the past year during which I hadn’t climbed, ran, cycled, and/or lifted weights. But this was a miracle afternoon, passed in a torpor that, as it congealed, quickly exiled any guilt. The next morning I awoke refreshed, joined the crew on the basalt cliffs of White Rock, and onsighted the 5.11+ Thorazine Dream, my hardest à vue to that point. Something had shifted and broken loose; change was in the air. I, only 17, had discovered the power of the anti-psych!

Do you remember the joke from Colors, the one Robert Duvall tells Sean Penn about the bull not running down the mountain to screw the lone cow, but instead walking down to screw the whole herd? That is a koan, at its rawest, for the anti-psych, a lesson to recall the next time you find yourself fit but grossly overtrained, bemoaning some phantom “plateau.” I have a buddy, Cam, who lives this philosophy. He climbs two, maybe three pitches a day when he goes out, spending hours half-asleep at the base of the wall, profoundly anti-psyched. But come time to shoe up, he’ll float whichever 5.12 or 5.13 you point him at. This is some lightning-focus, Jedi master, kung fu black belt, anti-psych voodoo. I wish I were so consistently skilled, because even though I first incorporated the anti-psych lesson 21 years ago, I still have to be reminded periodically of its power, such as last summer, at the close of July.

Forget April: July is the cruelest month (for climbers). The heat, the humidity, the summering, Sunday-driving, flatlander maroons clogging the mountain roads—jangus. The only reason to shoe up is to be nominally fit come August and Sendtember. As this July unspooled in all its unholiness, I lost a letter grade each week, even easing off the throttle as I fought to maintain fitness for two autumn projects in the Flatirons. Come July 30, I crumbled.

“This sucks,” I told my wife. “I hate climbing. I need to get over it.” And with that, like one of Pavlov’s dogs, I manifested the anti-psych response; I slipped gracefully into darkness. The next seven days passed in a haze of Metro 2033 (Xbox 360 first-person shooter), dog walks, jumbo Mountain Dew Blue Freeze Slurpees, and a weekend jaunt to the in-laws’ mountain home, where inertia so claimed me that I didn’t leave the house for an entire day, languishing instead with a pulp novel while my wife, her parents, and the dogs hiked up a local peak. (Was I not a “climber”? They certainly had to wonder.) Then, the rebound: psych. A flurry of activity ensued during the next week. One day, a friend and I bolted and cleaned a 35-meter pitch—the first of the Flatirons projects. The next day, I redpointed it (my hardest in a while), and on the third day, my wife and I hiked 1:15 uphill for a hardware-updating effort on an existing climb.

Then back to the couch. I had drained my psych batteries, but still had the one project left. Would I prevail?

When I wrote the first draft of this piece, I was four days away from trying that second Flatirons project, bolted early in that rebound week of psych. It looked tough: tiny underclings and pimpers segueing into single-pad flanges on a 110˚ swell. Brutal. But I was ready. I had five Fudgesicles for dessert the night before the climb, cracked into a second L.A.-noir paperback with suspiciously big print, and stayed up till 1 a.m. besting Metro 2033. I couldn’t have been any fitter, any fuller with anti-psych. In fact, the next day, I managed to send the proj and make progress on the special-ops shooter Bad Company 2, though I’d be hard-pressed to tell you which accomplishment I’m more psyched about.

Matt Samet aspires to be the most antipsyched climber you’ll ever meet.