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So You’re Washed Up? Here’s How to Deal with It (and Get Back on Track)

You’re weaker now. So what? Here’s how to handle setbacks and get back to your old sending self.


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Last year I sucked. Well, I started off good. But then I fell lower and lower on my project. Training was hard and I felt progressively more tired. Meh. It’s fine, I told myself in the beginning. But when you start coming down off warm ups with your arms bursting like overcooked sausages, it’s hard to feel good about things. Suddenly, everything is not fine, and you’re telling yourself that you’re a washed up piece of shit who’s never going to send anything ever again…or at least, that’s where my mind goes. 

The cause was mostly related to all my dumb injuries: my bum shoulder was inflamed and limiting my mobility; my fingers kept getting bruised while I climbed (yes, that’s an injury! You try dealing with bruised fingers week over week); and my left arm was (mysteriously) chronically pumped. At first I thought the pump was a product of the route I was trying, which had many shitty left handholds, but months later, when I finally saw a physio, he explained that one of my supinators wasn’t activating, causing everything else to work way harder. Great, I thought, Now I suck AND I’m an idiot for not figuring this out sooner. You could say that I don’t handle setbacks too well.

Long periods of slump can really be awful. Eventually, I stopped getting on my project and I instead spent more time in the gym doing boring rehab exercises. And I spent way too much dough on physios who massaged my neck and shoved needles into my arm. At least there’s ice cream, amirite?

But in the end, I learned, or rather, re-learned a lot. Setbacks are normal. Injury, stress, and day-to-day responsibilities can be real mental and physical drags, but they’re also inevitabilities, like gravity, or the indisputable fact that peanut butter and mustard sandwiches are great. (Seriously, they taste like Thai food.) We all know that setbacks are opportunities to come back stronger and yada yada (*cue the David Goggins motivational speech), yet we are but fallible creatures, and the ride from a success to rock bottom never gets less disorienting. So, in case you also need a reminder, here’s what to do to get back to your old sending self.

Step One: Reevaluate the process.

Ok, so you suck now. Or feel like you suck. What to do? It’s time to take a good hard look at how you got here and to acknowledge where you went wrong. Injured? Ask yourself how and why, because chances are you were overtraining or undertraining or training the wrong things. Whatever it is, this is your opportunity to address the problem so that it won’t arise again. 

Of course, some things are a little less in your control. If you’re seeing performance declines because your job is hard and you’re stressed out all the time, then find a way to let out the stress. Meditate. Watch bad T.V. Smoke some weed. Whatever your thing is, do it, see if it works, and pivot if necessary. 

Earlier this year, when the usual symptoms of tiredness and fatigue started to come on, I knew I was heading down another road towards Slumpville. This time, it wasn’t due to injury but a family death. I was stressed and sad, and it was affecting my climbing. Instead of forcing myself to train, I did nothing for a week. Absolutely nothing, unless you count walking to the store to load up on more snacks. But it was good for me. When I returned to climbing the next week, I actually wanted to be there, and I climbed harder as a result.

Sometimes the root cause of  your regression may be minor and obvious, but sometimes it can be large and obscure. You may need to uproot your whole training program! Chances are, you will need to do some research or seek a professional medical opinion, as I did in the case of my arm. This in itself can be stressful, as it often is tedious and time-consuming. Unfortunately, you will not get better or be able to progress unless you fix whatever it is. Without learnings, history has a way of repeating itself.

Step Two: Focus on tactics rather than sendage.

Earlier this year, I sent the project that I had been working on for most of 2021, the one in which I began sucking on. The day I sent, I knew two facts: (1) That I would send the route at some point. (2) That I could send it that day. But I wasn’t attached to when it was going to happen, because after about a year of working the line, I had long resigned myself to the long haul. Instead of thinking about sending, I focused on execution. There was a stopper move mid-route, a powerful lock-off from a god-awful slopey crimp to a wide pinch. I had fallen there four times and then climbed to the chains. But that day, I stuck the move and rejoiced in the subsequent kneebar rest. Ahead of me was a hard V6, then a techy V8, followed by a V3 to the top. The route was definitely not over, and I could feel myself wanting to get nervous. But I reminded myself to focus on the process. I tried to bring my heart rate down as I rested. Then I focused on each move as I reached it. And that’s why I sent. I did not let distractions like hope or doubt get in the way.

Step Three: Cultivate an expectation of success.

When I was a kid competing in climbing competitions, my coach gave me a mental training book called With Winning in Mind, by Lanny Bassham. I read it twice, and I’ll never forget one of Bassham’s stats: that 95% of winning is done by 5% of athletes. That is, if you’re used to winning, you keep winning. In discussing what distinguishes said winners from everyone else, Bassham talked about the important difference between those who hope they have it in them and those who know they do. Of course, in order to know you have it in you, you have to have put the work in. That’s why Step One is so important. 

***

Two weekends ago, I almost stuck the move to the undercling on my new project. Prior attempts had led me to the bearclaw crimp and the pinch right before, and slapping desperately at the undercling while my arms bowed like boomerangs. But this time, I almost had it. I was psyched.

“Did you see that?!” I yelled down to my boyfriend. I pulled back onto the wall, beaming at my mini-success, and fell a bunch. To be clear, I wasn’t and still am not close to sending—but progress is progress, right?

My boyfriend was not having as successful of a weekend. He was tired and still sore from the week’s work. Overall he did fewer attempts on his project and fell lower than he had in prior  weeks.

“That was bad,” he said. 

“No, it wasn’t,” I said. “This is just a part of the process. Don’t let it get to you.” Progress in a weekend, it doesn’t matter, I said. What matters is long-term progression. 

The following weekend, he did much better. In fact, he’s damn close to sending. We’ve started plotting the day we get to go grab some celebratory pizza and ice cream from town.

I on the other hand climbed like absolute dogshit. It was the worst weekend I’d ever had on the project, even counting my first few attempts. I sulked like a child and contemplated throwing my shoes in the river. Progress from one week to the next doesn’t matter until you’re the one experiencing failure, at which point it seems to matter a whole helluva lot.

It’s funny how detrimental even minor setbacks can feel. That’s ego for you, this need to prove yourself over and over again. It’s moments like these when I remind myself of all the lessons I’ve learned from actual, long-term setbacks. Projecting is just plain hard, no matter what kind of progress is. Minor setbacks will therefore feel significant, since logic has a way of going out the window when you’re doing something that you’re passionate about. That’s OK. Time for a rest day!