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How to Shift Your Focus Into the Present to Manage Fear—Including Your Fear of Falling

Why “get ‘er done” doesn’t work

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Molly Mitchell takes the ride on the Roof Wall, Eldorado Canyon, Colorado.Alton Richardson

Have you ever experienced being above your protection, gripped by hesitation and a fear of falling? Your friends “encourage” you by telling you to “Go for it” or that “You’ve got it.” But part of you knows better: It knows that your fear has meaning; it wants to protect you from danger. So do you listen to your friends and go for it, or do you listen to your fear and back off?

Motivation drives how you climb. It reveals what you value and impacts how you make decisions on the rock—and also informs the consequences of those decisions. For example, if you’re motivated to bypass your fear and avoid falling, then eventually, you’re likely to injure or traumatize yourself. Everyone falls, and if you haven’t learned to fall skillfully, a bad outcome might deepen your fear. This approach reflects a “Get ‘er done” motivation, or more specific to our sport, the old, misguided “Man up and go for it”—you try to move past your fear in order not to have to deal with it anymore. But such all-or-nothing thinking (all = “I send”; nothing = “I call for a take or don’t even try the route because I’m afraid of falling”) shifts your attention out of the present toward some imaginary future when you’ll no longer have to face your fear. However, in rock climbing, since we are almost always trying routes that are new to us—on which we might fall—this dilemma will re-present itself time and time again.

With this thinking, you’ll soon begin to perceive falling as stressful and fear inducing. Stress and fear are uncomfortable states, so we avoid them. However, something seems wrong about being motivated this way, about running away from what is integral to the sport. Instead, we need to approach fear as a teacher that actually helps us understand risk and manage stress. What’s needed is a shift in motivation, which you can accomplish by addressing, in order, the following six questions:

  1. Clarify your goal: Do you “get rid” of fear or embrace falling as a skill?
  2. Identify when to seek comfort: The future or the present?
  3. Clarify your relationship with stress and fear: Do you “get rid” of them or honor them as teachers?
  4. Decide how to engage: With all-or-nothing thinking or little steps?
  5. Address your ego: Do you tie your identity to the outcome, or do you separate the two?
  6. Elucidate who makes decisions: Your friends or you?

As you go through the list, note your answers. Any time you select the first option, you’re taking a “Get ‘er done” approach. Here, you react by switching into survival mode—fight-or-flight and all-or-nothing thinking. You’ll either fight through all of the risk and send without falling, or flee and do nothing. Ego feeds this whole process: It hopes you’ll succeed, which will prove that you’re a badass; or it’ll make excuses for you doing nothing, for walking away from the climb.

Overcome Your Fear of Falling
To learn how to incorporate falling as an essential skill, take our new online course Overcome Your Fear of Falling taught by Arno Ilgner, founder of The Warrior’s Way mental-training program and author of The Rock Warrior’s Way.

All that’s needed to take control of your fear and deal with the stress is to answer each of these six questions skillfully—choosing the second option in all six cases, which will switch you into a “Get focused” mentality. This is how we move from misplaced, macho thinking toward a healthier, more engaged approach.

The goal of “Get focused” motivation is to learn falling as a skill—to engage your stress and fear with curiosity, which in turn lets you take small, actionable steps, relying on how much fear and resistance you feel instead of feedback from your friends or ego. A small step into stress, such as taking incrementally larger falls off an intimidating crux, creates “some fear” and “some resistance,” which is fine. This resistance indicates that you’re not in your comfort zone anymore; you’re edging into the stress zone where learning occurs. But you’re also not in your panic zone where the fear is so overwhelming that you can no longer learn. Instead, you are in the driver’s seat, incorporating falling as a skill by identifying and taking small steps toward mastering it.

So don’t try to “Get ‘er done” when you’re above your protection, pumped and hesitating; rather “Get focused.” It’ll help you value your fear and make decisions with more manageable risk consequences. By getting focused, you’ll be able to respond skillfully when the inevitable happens and you find yourself airborne. You’ll also enjoy the whole process more, too—which, after all, is why we climb.

Get Focused

Shift from the plateau-inducing “Get ‘er done” mindset into a more open, focused one by adhering to the following six steps:

  1. Clarify the goal: Learn falling as a skill
  2. When to seek comfort: In the present moment
  3. Relationship with stress and fear: Honor them as teachers
  4. How to engage: In small, manageable steps
  5. Ego: Separate identity from outcome
  6. Who makes decisions: You do!

Film: How Matt Cornell Free Soloed One of America’s Classic Hard Mixed Routes

"The Nutcracker" explores the mental challenges of solo climbing and the tactics Cornell used to help him send the route.