“You Americans always say, ‘You’ve got this,’ and, ‘C’mon,’ but why?” the Slovenian climber Marko Prezelj said to me and a few other Boulder climbers out cragging on a cold day at the West Ridge in Eldorado Canyon, Colorado, a decade-plus ago now, when he was out in Colorado for a visit.
“But it is obvious that she”—referring to my friend Majka Burhardt, whom I was belaying on some sandbagged, pumpy 5.11 crack she’d just whipped off of, having for some reason chosen it as a “warmup”—“is not going to succeed. So why do you say this?”
“There is no reason to say this!” Prezelj concluded.
We all had a good laugh—Majka included—because Marko was just taking the piss, but in his blunt, Central European way he had a point. It’s almost an unconscious habit among American climbers: We see someone getting pumped, or struggling up at a crux, and we holler up “C’mon!” or “You’ve got this!” or “Go for it!” It’s a quick, dashed-off bit of cheerleading, almost a courtesy, extended to friends, acquaintances, and random climbers at the gym and crags alike. But does it really help the climber? And why do we do it?
In my own climbing, I’ve noticed that verbal encouragement helps in some cases and hinders in others. I’ve thought a lot about this recently, drilling down to discover why I have such a nuanced and variable response, and have come to the conclusion that it’s all situational. I reached out to friends, peers, and other climbers, as well as posted a poll on Instagram, and got similar results (more on that later), which showed me that I’m not alone in my uneven response.
When I’m in Grrr Mode on a redpoint or onsight, I have found it helpful to have my belayer (and/or maybe a friend or two on the ground—but not a whole host of onlookers, which is too loud and distracting) give the occasional encouragement, especially at cruxes; this lets me know that my belayer is with me, paying attention and ready to catch a fall, which frees me up to focus on trying as hard-as-I-fucking-can. On the flip side, if there’s too much encouragement—like every few moves, or while I’m on the easier bits of a route—I start to wonder if I’m climbing poorly, and thus look so sketchy that my poor belayer has no choice but to encourage me. This inevitably pulls me out of the moment, and then I do climb poorly—a self-fulfilling prophecy! Also, when I’m in a bad mood or anxious or sleep deprived or stressed, encouragement doesn’t work; it just drives home how shitty I already feel, which in turn makes me climb shittier (more shittily? with greater shittiness?).
And, when I’m working out sequences that are difficult for me, encouragement rarely—if ever—helps and in fact puts me in a bad mood. Working out sequences can be frustrating, and unless I specifically ask for beta, I usually need the silence and quiet headspace to puzzle out the moves in my own time, in my own way. When I’m sliding off some greasy crimper for the tenth time in a row and my belayer says, “Looking good” when I know I look more like a water buffalo trying to impregnate a log, I can’t help but wonder if they’re messing with me, or just saying something for the sake of saying something, like that parent who feels forced to say “Good job!” when their kid, for the four-thousandth time in an hour, says, “Hey, look what I can do!” while touching the top of his head with both hands and sticking out his tongue.
I’ve noticed I don’t do well with encouragement while bouldering either—with my spotter so close, their words become a distraction. There’s something about the proximity and volume that makes me feel observed, at which point my climbing crumbles. Not that I boulder hard enough to need encouragement anyway, but I always marvel at the top wads and how well they hold it together squeezing microscopic slimpers while “Let’s fucking go!” is screamed directly into their ear by some THC-addled wookie.
Anyway, enough about me (my favorite topic, and likely your least favorite…). Let’s hear from other climbers about what works and why.
Encouragement should be focused
Almost everyone I spoke to expressed appreciation for focused, specific encouragement, and said that it had powered them up some of their hardest sends—especially when it came from their belayer/trusted partner.
Heather Weidner, a professional climber in Boulder, Colorado, who has redpointed both 5.14 sport and traditional routes, says, “I’ve found if someone says something like, ‘You got this, you’re going to send,’ it’s not helpful.” The sentiment is too vague, and puts a nebulous pressure on her to “succeed.” However, says Weidner, “General, supportive encouragement like ‘Nice!’ or ‘I’m with you!’ lets me know my belayer is being attentive and cares about my success.” She cites the climbing coach and her sometime partner Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou as a perfect example: “Robyn often says things like ‘Try hard!’ before or during an attempt, or ‘Stick like glue’ before I deadpoint to a crimp. It’s usually extremely pertinent and thoughtful vs. ‘You got this.’”
Kevin Corrigan, this magazine’s digital editor, likes a gentle nudge from his belayer, too: “I appreciate encouragement from my belayer. It lets me know that they’re paying attention and engaged. That helps me muster up the confidence to push on even if I might fall.” And Corey Buhay, a professional ice climber who just won the mixed competition at the 2021 Ouray Ice Festival, says focused encouragement from her belayer helps calm her in the moment. “It keeps me out of my head,” she says. “Simple, calmly delivered statements—‘Good,’ ‘Nice work,’ or ‘Keep breathing’—help me maintain positive self-talk internally without interrupting my focus. It’s like working with classical music in the background.”
Katie Lambert, a contributor to this magazine and professional climber based in Bishop, California, has a more ambivalent relationship with encouragement—it’s been a mixed bag for her, and comes down to “tone and timing.” Like good stand-up comedy—delivering a killer punch line at just the right moment—encouraging your climber well comes down to knowing them, knowing the route, and knowing how much to encourage and when. “For redpointing at my limit,” says Lambert, “I tend to find it super distracting and have asked people to either refrain altogether or to at least please say anything before I launch into the hard bits.”
Encouragement builds community
I do believe that most climbers want the best for their partners and friends—we want to see them succeed because then they’re happy, having found meaning in the struggle, one in which we’ve likewise become invested through the bond of the rope. So even if we aren’t encouraging well (see above), it doesn’t mean we don’t have good intentions. Brittany Goris, an itinerant professional climber who just became one of the few American women to send 5.14 trad, puts a more articulate point on this.
“I have always cared about how my climbing is bigger than myself, in the way that my attitude and performance sometimes have the power to inspire or motivate others,” she says. “Knowing that other people care about my success, through concrete encouragement, adds motivation for me because it makes me feel that my climbing has more meaning than just on a personal level.”
Goris adds that encouragement can also be a two-way street, one that buoys up all climbers: “I also find it very empowering to know that other people believe in me. I use that fuel to improve my own confidence and overpower any doubts I may be feeling that others can’t see. I want to be the climber they see, that can do the thing and make them believe that they can do the thing too—or at least try.”
In other words, like the unseen Force that permeates the universe in Star Wars, Goris takes the stoke from her partners and channels that into her own sending energy, to in turn inspire her partners to also try their hardest.
Delaney Miller, the associate editor at our sister publication Gym Climber and a former champion competition climber, comes from a background—indoor and comp climbing—in which she, too, learned to harness the energy of others. “Back when I was competing, listening to the crowd was one of my favorite aspects of the whole event,” she recalls. “That energy… you could feel it. It’s cheesy, but when the lights are dimmed, the spotlight on you, and a whole community is cheering for you, you feel like you’re in a whole other reality; it’s one where nothing matters but trying your best and being a part of something.” Is she still able to channel that energy today, out at the cliffs? Yes and no. Outside, she says, “It’s easier to pick individual voices out and actually hear what they’re saying, which in my experience has been both motivating and distracting. But, I’ve noticed that on the days when I found it distracting, the problem wasn’t the friendly cheers, but me. On those days, I was off to begin with: nervous, taking climbing too seriously, maybe just in a bad mood.” As with me on my own off days, the encouragement itself isn’t a problem for Miller—it’s just that it becomes a distraction when you’re already having trouble filtering out the world.
Some climbers are indifferent to encouragement
Finally, there seems to be a class of climbers—perhaps those less sensitive to noise?—who are more or less indifferent to encouragement. With my wired brain and sensitive hearing, I’m not one of them, but maybe I should take a page from their books—and dim the volume by shoving earplugs in at busy crags.
“If I’m climbing at my limit, it doesn’t matter whether I get encouragement—I may or may not even notice,” says Chris Weidner, husband to Heather Weidner and a journalist and guidebook author in Boulder, Colorado. And Jonathan Siegrist, a 5.15 machine who is one of the world’s top rock climbers, says that most of the time he doesn’t hear encouragement either. He concedes that encouragement when he’s at his limit might help “ever so slightly” and helps him •sometimes• make a move when he’s hesitating, but for the most part it has no bearing on his climbing. Even when a cliff-full of climbers is shouting at him—say, with dozens of Euros screaming “¡Venga! ¡Venga! ¡Venga!” while he’s going for broke on La Rambla (5.15a) in Siurana, Spain—Siegrist remains unfazed: “When it turns into the entire crag, it can be a bit much …” he says. “But really, whatever.”
Bill Ramsey, a professor of philosophy at UNVL and a lifelong climber who just sent his most recent 5.14 at age 59, is somewhat impervious to encouragement too. Like the philosopher and observer of life that he is, he’s noticed a peculiar thing about encouragement: “Nearly all of the time it doesn’t matter because I don’t fully hear it—I’m too focused,” says Ramsey. “So if people are yelling ‘COME ON!’ or whatever, it doesn’t bother me (maybe some part of my brain even thinks it’s nice that people are rooting for me), but it doesn’t really help me either. However, what I have noticed is that a change from the norm can be slightly bothersome. So if I’m trying a project and people are yelling encouragement, and that is what I come to expect as background noise, if it isn’t there for whatever reason—just silence—then I notice that and it’s actually distracting. It’s like a ticking clock—you don’t notice it until it stops.”
Instagram poll—what readers said
I posted a quick, five-question poll on Climbing’s Instagram stories, as I was curious how readers felt. Interestingly enough, out of the 3,500-odd responses to each question, a clear majority opinion emerged for all but one—and the responses basically matched my own feelings, so I suppose I’m not an anomaly. (I figured my innate crustiness made me an outlier here, but apparently not—just in every other aspect of life, which is why, for everyone’s sake, I rarely leave my basement.) To the questions:
1. Does verbal encouragement help you on a flash or redpoint at your limit?
- Yes: 68 percent
- No: 32 percent
2. Does verbal encouragement help you while you’re figuring out beta?
- Yes: 40 percent
- No: 60 percent
3. Are you able to block out encouragement in cases where it’s not helpful?
- Yes: 62 percent
- No: 38 percent
4. Do you like your belayer to encourage you?
- Yes: 85 percent
- No: 15 percent
5. Do you like onlookers to encourage you?
- Yes: 51 percent
- No: 49 percent
That is, on all but question 5, there was a clear majority. Most of us are helped by verbal encouragement at our limit but not while figuring out beta, we overwhelmingly like it to be from our belayer but are split 50/50 on onlookers, and most of us are able to block out encouragement when it’s not helpful. (In the climbers I sent questions to, most cited unsolicited beta spray as the least helpful type of “encouragement”—as Climbing’s content director Duane Raleigh so aptly put it, climbers likely spray beta “to show off their knowledge or mastery of the route, more an ego thing than actually being helpful: ‘Look at how much I know. I’ve done the route and you haven’t—I’m better!’”)
With all that in mind, I deliberately listened to myself one snowy spring afternoon at the gym while belaying my buddy Brandon, to see where I landed, as a belayer, on the Encouragement Spectrum. I tend to like minimal but focused encouragement myself and figured I reciprocated accordingly. However, I was surprised to hear how often I said “Good” or “Nice” or “Strong” (apparently I’m a fan of the single-word cheer) while he climbed—it began to feel like overkill, and so I scaled back. Not that Brandon noticed one way or the other; I have a quiet voice, the music was blaring, and he’s good at staying in his own bubble. But it did show me that, on an unconscious level, I dole out more encouragement than I’m aware of, and I imagine most of us do as well. Like any habit or tic, verbal encouragement can become an ingrained pattern you barely notice, even if it’s annoying others. The best solution, I believe, is just to be clear—communicate to your belayer, friends, or anyone else in the area whether or not you want to be encouraged while climbing. And if you’re climbing with a new partner, ask them what their preference is.
The final elephant in the room is that of encouraging strangers, whether at the gym or a busy crag. I usually only do it if they’ve encouraged me first—not because I’m standoffish or competitive, but because I just don’t know what they prefer, so it’s safer to stay silent. There is some innate part of us that wants others to succeed, but everyone is different in how they respond to encouragement-energy, and so I play it safe. Says Buhay, “I think it’s like yelling at the TV when you’re watching a football game. We want to feel like we’re a part of the action, and we want to feel like we’re contributing to the end result.” It’s a natural human drive—though your hollering can’t distract the TV.
However, she continues, “I also think there’s some selflessness in it, and something beautiful in the encouragement. When I’m feeling grouchy and self-absorbed, I don’t encourage people verbally. I have to force myself to say anything. It’s only when I’m feeling genuinely stoked for my partner and truly want them to succeed that I forget about myself, and find myself climbing with them, talking to them as I’d want to talk to myself on the wall. And that, to me, feels like the definition of partnership.”