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Comparison Can Steal the Fun From Climbing: Quit Judging Yourself

Climbers find it hard not to compare ourselves with others, whether in a gym, at the crag, or on Instagram. Learn how to can it. You'll climb better for it.

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The chains! A big grin stretches across my face, and I pump my fist. A wave of pride washes over me as I lower. I’ve finally sent the project I’ve been working on for months. I reach the floor, high five my belayer, and then look up.

Two routes over, James is quietly flowing up the wall, heel hooking and crimping, onsighting a climb I flailed on. My joy vanishes, replaced with frustration and jealousy. I just remembered: My friend is a much better climber.

gym climbing
Part of being in a gym is sitting around and watching. And cheering. And watching. Beau Toepfer of Basalt, Colorado, up. (Photo: Fabrizio Zangrilli / Monkey House)

It’s hard for climbers not to compare ourselves with others, whether in a gym, at the crag, or on Instagram. Even the best climbers in the world compare their climbing to that of their peers. It is how we internalize and cope with comparison that keeps climbing fun or puts us under a black cloud.

5.15 Self Critics

Nathan Joyner, the general manager of High Steppe Climbing Center in Yakima, Washington, says that at one time he compared himself more to others, leading him to a dead end. “I had been looking for validation from others and wasn’t getting it,” he says. “To get back to a positive relationship to climbing, I had to reorganize my priorities and restore my motivation.”

Use Climbing Cool-Down to Maximize Memory

But how? When we are bogged down by thoughts of comparison, is it possible to break the cycle?

Michele Lang, the owner of Insight Climbing & Movement on Bainbridge Island, Washington, believes that the best way is by using mindfulness and meditation techniques. Lang starts by analyzing her self-talk, asking, “How am I talking to myself?”—whether, she says, in a considerate or self-loathing way. Through years of climbing and watching her daughter compete at a high level, Lang has found that negative self-talk is widespread in climbing. “We talk to ourselves so much less kindly than we do to others,” she says. We wouldn’t tell our climbing partners that they suck at climbing when they don’t finish climbs, but many climbers tell themselves that.

When she does start to go down the rabbit hole of comparison, Lang focuses on the mindfulness technique of letting go: focusing on her breath, and trying to live in the present moment. That’s just a thought, and doesn’t represent who I am. It was a comparison thought that I can let go.

“We are all 5.15 self-critics,” she says. “I’d rather not create that suffering for myself.”

Use Your Curiosity To Become A Better Climber

Manage Comparison

Lang is co-facilitating a six-day mindful climbing retreat at the Deer Park Monastery encouraging climbers to look inward and be fully present in climbing (and life). She points me to self-compassion.org, which is not for climbing per se, but teaches useful general practices for being easier on ourselves and provides exercises that anyone can do.

The tip I found useful right away urges: “acknowledging [my] self-critical voice and reframing its observations in a more friendly way.” Taking that tack, I can say, I gave this route my all, instead of, I suck because I didn’t send. Lang notices that many climbers think they must be hard on themselves to improve, but the opposite is true. When we cease beating ourselves up, she says, it “frees up a lot of that mental bandwidth,” allowing us to climb with fewer constraints.

gym climbing
Layla Alden, 13, of Truckee, California, sees some upside to watching another climber do a smoother job on a climb.

For many youth climbers, comparison is an inherent part of climbing. Layla Alden, a 13-year-old from Truckee, California, puts it bluntly. “I compare myself to my friends,” she says, as if that would be obvious. “I watch them climb and compare my own climbing to theirs.” Layla has been climbing since the age of 2, and now, as a teenager, is more aware of what her peers are doing. Seeing a facile send, she says, “makes me want to do the climb again, and do it more like the person I watched. It doesn’t always make me feel good about my own climbing, though.” Still, she uses comparison as motivation, saying it “inspires me to be the best climber I can.”

Bill Ayre, a youth climbing coach at Vertical World climbing gym in Seattle, finds that the 9-to-15-year-olds he works with may limit their climbing by, as he puts it, “putting barriers in front of themselves. The kids might associate a climb with someone else and say, ‘If they can’t do it, I can’t do it.’ Yet that way of thinking may keep them from trying routes that are within their abilities.”

Focus On Your Performance

As a guide for Alpine Ascents International, also in Seattle, Andrew Bennett is well versed in other climbers’ behavior. Rather than comparing himself to other climbers (and even clients), he finds it useful to look inwards. “Compare yourself to you. How were you climbing three weeks ago, three months ago, or three years ago?” Bennett says.

Tod Bloxham, the owner of Edgeworks Climbing + Fitness based in Tacoma, Washington, echoes this strategy. “I’m competitive against myself, gauging my own marks,” he says. He finds it useful to look at trends “and not focus on a good or bad day.” He also finds that when he looks for routes that he finds interesting and that look fun, he can climb more freely. This approach also leads a climber to choose routes for other reasons than grade.

climbing sport psychology
Todd Bloxham (passing on wisdom to his daughter Hailey) of Tacoma, Washington, tries to judge himself by personal progress “and not focus on a good or bad day.” He also aims to choose routes based on how how they look rather than grades.

Madeline Crane, a sport psychologist from Austria and an author on climbingpsychology.com, offers one-on-one coaching sessions for climbers looking to improve on the mental aspects of climbing. In a blog post about social comparison in climbing, she offers tips on how to work through comparison when it becomes detrimental to climbing performance, writing, “Positive affirmations—or self talk—is one of the most powerful mental tools you can have in your mental toolbox.” She continues, “In order for affirmations to work, they need to be accurate and feel right for you. This means, every one of us will find different affirmations helpful.”

Awareness is another tool. “It can also help when you notice that you are comparing yourself to others and feel bad about it,” Crane writes.

Is Comparison Serving You?

Michele Lang tells her young climbers, “Focus on what you can do,” rather than on what others are doing.

boy on training wall
Youth team practice, two evenings a week. Left to right: Jeremy Sachs, Ronan Donnelly, Beau Toepfer (climbing), Hank Cerrone, Owen Geiss (white shirt). (Photo: Alison Osius)

It has taken me years to figure out why I compare myself to my climbing partners, and I’m still working on it. When I measure myself against others, I start to lose interest in climbing, training, and going to the gym. When I climb for myself, because I enjoy the movement, and am still in love with the sport, I’m simply climbing because it’s fun; and in the moment, that is good enough.

Takeaways

Avoid the down sides of comparison by:

  • Taking deep breaths and focusing on the present.
  • Using positive self-talk.
  • Climbing for fun rather than chasing grades.
  • Measuring yourself against your past performances and not someone else’s.

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