How To Achieve Your Maximum Climbing Potential
Something as simple and base as fear could hold you back from climbing your best. Here's how to improve your mental game and up your grade potential.
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The Three-Headed Hydra of Fear
If you’ve ever gotten nervous about taking a perfectly safe fall, talked yourself out of trying a hard route, or kicked yourself for failing to send, you’re aware that climbing is as much a mental sport as it is a physical one. “The number-one reason people plateau is fear,” says Hörst, referencing his decades of coaching experience. “They’re physically capable of climbing harder, but it’s fear that’s holding them back.” That could be fear of failure, fear of falling, or social fears (e.g., fear of judgment or embarrassment), explains Crane.
When these fears kick in, you’re more likely to back down instead of throwing for that final move, trying that dyno, or pushing yourself to the level of failure required for serious muscular adaptation. It’s impossible to climb or train at your limit if fear or doubt are standing in the way—which is why Hörst recommends addressing mental challenges before diving into any kind of physical analysis.
“Don’t let yourself be held back by misplaced ideas about adventure ethics or anything like that,” Beal says
“The truth is that our brain is a muscle, which means we can train our minds as well as our bodies,” Crane says. Like physical training, it’s hard to put a time stamp on how much mental training is necessary to see lasting results. Crane says for those who need professional help, it usually takes eight to 10 sessions to begin changing mental patterns. But it’s fairly comparable to any other training plan: Consistency and practice are key, and you can’t expect to see lasting results with just a few weeks of effort.
Fear of Falling
“Fear of falling is one of the most classic challenges of climbing. It’s instinctive, and even healthy,” Beal says. Being grateful that your body has such a genius built-in failsafe—rather than beating yourself up for getting nervous about a fall—can be one step to embracing and then overcoming that fear.
While some climbers advocate big practice falls, Beal says this won’t necessarily cure you. “A lot of overcoming a fear of falling is exposure to safe situations,” he explains. “A lot of times, climbing is permeated with this ethic of adventure and romanticism about the unknown. But the problem with that is it’s very dangerous.” Many top climbers, Beal says, don’t try a hard route without scoping out every inch of it—every bolt, every fall zone, every landing—before they tackle it on lead. The problem is that we as consumers of the climbing media never see that prep work.
“Don’t let yourself be held back by misplaced ideas about adventure ethics or anything like that,” Beal says. Like most of what we see on the internet, footage of fearless sends—and even practice-go whippers—are usually just a highlight reel. So, if you need to stick-clip your way up a route, toprope it a dozen times, or sit on your buddy’s shoulders to feel some holds, then go for it—whatever you need to do to understand the terrain and lay your fears to rest, so you can try your hardest.
It also helps to work through your fears on a rational level, Beal says. “You don’t want to ignore your feelings, but if you can compensate for them by assuring yourself that a fall is safe and it’s going to be O.K., and the rope isn’t going to break—that can help.”
Fear of Embarrassment
“In climbing, you’re hardly ever by yourself—you always have someone watching you, which can trigger social fears,” says Crane. These might be fears about embarrassing yourself, fears that others will find your performance lackluster, or fears that your partners will ditch you.
As ashamed as I am to admit it, embarrassment is the fear I struggle most with. Like Foster, I’ve had a somewhat illustrious competition ice career, winning the Ouray Elite Ice Climbing Competition—the biggest in the United States—in 2021 and placing second in 2022. Every time I think about projecting rock with friends—and revealing to them that my rock-climbing ability is still pretty mediocre—I’m flooded with embarrassment.
Sometimes, Crane says, healing social fears can be difficult without speaking to a professional.
First, Crane says, it’s also worth examining your underlying beliefs. “Ask, ‘Why am I afraid of failing so much in front of others?’ To some extent it’s totally normal—it’s innate to be afraid of embarrassing ourselves because we do want to be part of the group. But if we don’t manage this, it can take over a big chunk of our lives,” she says. Tell me about it.
Sometimes, Crane says, healing social fears can be difficult without speaking to a professional. Other times, it comes down to refocusing on why we climb in the first place and coming up with coping strategies to keep those reasons top of mind. “Try to accept that, ‘Yes, I make mistakes, I don’t send everything, and I still enjoy climbing.’ Instead of avoiding situations because they make us uncomfortable, we can work on accepting who we are and all parts of ourselves,” Crane says.
That said, it’s common to have social fears and anxieties linked to certain people or situations. So be sure to ask yourself when they occur, Does my anxiety only well up with certain people or in certain settings? Maybe it’s related to your gym’s snobby atmosphere. Or maybe you have hypercritical partners. According to Crane, some red flags of toxic belaytionships include (1) your partner often downplays your achievements, e.g., saying “Wow, that was lucky,” when you pull off a hard move (2) they’re only happy or supportive if they’re performing better than you, or (3) you feel emotionally exhausted after climbing with that person. If you talk to someone about their behavior but they keep disrespecting your boundaries anyway, says Crane, “Cut them loose.”
Fear of Failure
“If, for example, I’ve climbed 8a boulders in the past, I might go up to a 7a boulder and expect to flash it,” says Crane. “If I don’t, that can feel like a failure. This can lead me to avoid trying these 7as because I don’t want to…get into this uncomfortable feeling of not succeeding.”
While this kind of avoidant behavior can protect your ego in the short run, it hamstrings your long-term growth. When avoid climbs that are “too easy” or “too hard,” you’re only cheating yourself. After all, climbing is a mileage game—the more you climb, the better you get, especially on routes around your redpoint threshold, with just the “right amount” of challenge.
Fear of failure is something Foster can relate to—and the fear to which he attributes his longtime avoidance of rock climbing. “I think I was the youngest person to climb D15, and you come back from doing that, and you think you’re hot shit, and you can’t climb 5.12—that doesn’t really make you want to go rock climbing,” he says with a laugh. So, he consistently passed up opportunities to climb 5.11 and 5.12- routes that would have helped him develop the skills he was missing—basics he ultimately had to go back and learn.
Not sure if fear of failure is your issue? Crane says red flags include (1) telling yourself you’re not strong enough or skilled enough for a particular climb, (2) purposefully lowering expectations by telling others you’ll probably fail, and (3) procrastinating send goes.
If any of that sounds familiar, Crane recommends working to detach your self-image from your performance. Instead, focus on the process, or on the reasons you climb. You can also defuse your fears by taking a minute to assess the real-world consequences of failing on a climb. Will other climbers actually shake their heads in disgust and refuse to talk to you if you fall? Will your climbing career really be over if you never send your megaproj? Probably not. Crane also recommends having a “plan B”—a next goal, trip, or climb to focus on. That way, the project in front of you doesn’t feel like the end-all-be-all.
Reaching Your Maximum Potential
Shortly after sending Machine Gun Funk, Foster started running into Beal, the bouldering coach, at the gym in Boulder. After climbing together for a while, Beal saw how strong and motivated Foster was and decided to break some news. “You should be climbing 5.14,” he said. Foster, then 19, remembers feeling blindsided.
“I was like, ‘What are you talking about? I think you’re kind of nuts. I’m not ready for that,’” Foster recalls. He’d already made one big grade jump. How was he supposed to turn around and pull off another?
But, together, they worked on continuing to improve Foster’s strength—working toward one-arm hangs on a Beastmaker 20-millimeter edge. Meanwhile, Foster found a 5.14a, the short, power-endurance route Haiku in Boulder Canyon, that suited his style. After seven total days on the route, Foster got the redpoint.
He remembers hanging out in the climbing gym in Boulder shortly after the send, lying on the floor with Griscom, wondering, “Well. What now?” That’s when Foster remembered Riders on the Storm, a striking open project at the East Animas Crag in Durango he’d first seen as a kid, bolted by Garcia, his mentor. The line traces an overhanging prow that starts 100 feet off the ground. Growing up, Foster could see the arête from his dining-room table. The route was estimated to be 5.14 but had never been redpointed.
But, despite all the training, Foster knew the bulk of his learning would still have to happen on the rock.
Foster tried Riders, and soon found he was able to do all the moves in isolation—but couldn’t link a single sequence. The route is punctuated by huge deadpoints to slopers and tiny crimps, with paltry feet. To hit the bigger moves, Foster was having to pull off tenuous heel scums and waist-level highsteps.
“I realized I was strong enough, but I just wasn’t a good enough rock climber,” he says. So he went back to Beal, who soon had him working on one-arm hangs on a Beastmaker 15-millimeter edge. Foster also sought help from Garcia, who put him through a number of assessment protocols and movement drills: footwork drills, exercises to help Foster become more aware of where his hips were, and drills that taught Foster how to toe in and make the most of the smears that were often the only option on the overhanging arête. Foster also went back to training hard, doing hip stretches and mobility drills, and continuing to work on his finger strength. But this time, he says, it was like a switch flipped: He knew he was going to have to get way into the weeds if he wanted to make progress on this thing. So he started reading up on sports science and anatomy. He color-coded his training notes. By the end of the summer, he could do one-arm pullups on the 15-millimeter edge.
But, despite all the training, Foster knew the bulk of his learning would still have to happen on the rock. He returned to Durango. On the third day of the trip, he was able to one-hang Riders. He then spent another 25 days going over the movements with a fine-toothed comb, making micro-progress on each one and inching higher up the wall. (Remember that consistency thing Randall mentioned? This is what that looks like.) On day 38, January 5, 2022, he sent. Foster estimates the route to be 5.14- in difficulty (though others, including Beal, estimate mid-5.14), his hardest ascent on rock to date.
Lifestyle and Settling for Our “Optimal Maximum Potential”
According to Randall, there’s one other big factor that keeps people from reaching their maximum potential: lifestyle. If you’ve got a job, kids, family obligations, or other hobbies demanding your attention and energy, you may just have to face it: You’ll never reach the maximum grade you’re physically or psychologically capable of.
“You can’t compare your experience to someone else’s,” says Katie Lambert, a professional climber based in Bishop, California, who’s ticked a number of first free ascents and first female ascents up to 5.14a. “Single people who don’t have families, or who are just living on the road, go a muerte all the time and it doesn’t matter. But if you have responsibilities, and trying to climb hard is compromising your day-to-day balance and life—then it’s not worth it.”
With that in mind, it may be worth thinking about your optimal maximum potential instead of an absolute maximum. Say you’re a relatively fit 40-year-old with 10 years of climbing experience. Maybe you’re climbing 5.11+ now and you’re pretty sure you could still reach that 5.13- benchmark if you had all the time in the world, but you’ve got a 9-to-5 and a second kid on the way. Within the constraints of your lifestyle, maybe 5.12+ is the best you’ll redpoint, even with focused, consistent effort. And that’s OK.
Besides, Randall cautions, “maximum potential” can be a potentially dangerous concept when it comes to training. That’s because athletes are built one step at a time. If a 5.11b climber finds out their genetic potential is, say, 5.14b, they’re likely to jump the gun.
“[They might] start to train and behave as if they’re a 5.14b climber. This is a mistake,” he says. “Because as a 5.11b climber, you can’t handle the training loads of 5.14b climbers. You’re just going to stagnate, get injured, or get demotivated. To create a healthy, uninjured climber, training has to be a slow, progressive build.”
Besides, Lambert adds, reaching your max isn’t everything; as with so much in life, it’s the process that matters. “There’s so much in the in-between along the way that’s so valuable and so important,” she says. “Try to push yourself, but don’t forget to have fun.”
During the reporting for this story, in the midst of being inspired by Foster’s progress and facing hard truths about my own fears, I decided to go back to a route I’d toproped years ago but never redpointed, a burly undercling arch called Archangel (5.12c) in Dream Canyon, Colorado. I started taking practice falls on the route. I meditated before send goes to still my anxiety. And I started talking to friends about my fears of embarrassment—and tried to listen when they assured me that they wouldn’t respect me any less if I sucked at rock climbing.
In September 2021, after about three months of working the route, I clipped the chains and let out a whoop of joy. Sure, I didn’t jump from 5.11- to 5.14, but I did skip over 5.12b—something I never imagined I’d be able to. As someone who’s never been a natural athlete, the accomplishment left me with a spark of hope.
Maybe Foster was right, I thought. Maybe it is all just training.
Corey Buhay is a writer and editor based in Boulder, Colorado. She is a member of the U.S. Ice Climbing Team but is very much looking forward to rock season.