The Climbing-Confidence Gap

For many women, bridging the divide starts by going deeper.
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A participant working on her lead skills, Murrin Park, Squamish, BC, during the 2019 Arc'teryx Climbing Academy. 

A participant working on her lead skills, Murrin Park, Squamish, BC, during the 2019 Arc'teryx Climbing Academy. 

I could see the breakdown coming. Emma* was following me up the 5.9+ first pitch of the Eldorado Canyon classic Rincon in starts and spurts, a vertical stagger. From my belay ledge, I could see her shoulders locking up and her eyes pinching shut against the burn of tears. And though we’d only recently been introduced by a mutual friend, had never climbed together before today, and had scarcely had more than one conversation, I could tell exactly what she was about to say: “I’m sorry. I’m so weak. I’m a coward. I can’t do this.”

It was, almost verbatim, what my partner Katie* had told me a week prior at the gym. And it was, almost verbatim, what I was used to hearing in my own head—and sometimes out of my own mouth—on any lead that pushed my limits.

Historically, the men I climb with have been just as likely as the ladies to butt up against fear, frustration, or failure—to get the rope stuck, misread the route, or simply pump out and give up. But I’ve noticed that when the guys screw up, they shrug it off and keep going. In many of those same situations, my female partners—myself included—shatter.

I know there are women who are bolder and tougher than most men, but the more I’ve looked into the issue, the more my personal observations ring true: Research shows that women are more likely than men to undervalue their accomplishments. In one study led by University of Columbia professor Ernesto Reuben, male subjects exaggerated their past successes by 30 percent on average when incentivized to boast, while female subjects could only manage 15 percent. Other studies show that female students are more likely to talk down their grade-point averages, and as much as five times more likely than men to attribute their successes to help from others rather than to their own abilities. Meanwhile, a significant body of research indicates that negative thinking in both genders can undermine self-esteem and rev up anxiety. And one 2017 study of 300 athletes found negative thinking correlated with early athlete burnout. So what’s wrong with us women? I wondered. Why do we do this to ourselves?

In summer 2019, I perused the list of clinics for the Arc’teryx Climbing Academy, a three-day event held in Squamish, British Columbia, that’s half climbing festival and half technical-skills intensive. I was hoping to enroll in the helicopter-access alpine traverse (cool, right?), but then something else caught my eye: a women’s clinic that promised to teach students how to “move through fear and use fear to reach your climbing goals.” I signed up immediately.

A few weeks later, I met my five classmates and our instructor, Janelle Smiley, an Arc’teryx athlete, guide, and holistic coach. We headed to Murrin Park, a collection of shaded granite cliffs just outside town. My grand plan for the clinic was to get really scared and then have Janelle tell me all the things I was doing wrong and how to fix them. But we were in Squamish, a place known for its granite splitters. The rock was too good, the pro too solid, and the event’s atmosphere too welcoming. At one point, Janelle gave me a sideways look. 

“You seem really confident,” she said. It was more of a question.

I spilled. I told her about the fear-paralysis I get on slab climbs, mixed climbs, and almost all traverses, how my boyfriend’s prodigy-level climbing skills sometimes intimidated me when we climb together, and how I spin myself into a panic when I feel I’m moving too slowly in the alpine. Janelle stopped me mid-word-vomit.

“It sounds to me,” she said, “like you feel like you’re not enough.” Oof. I glanced over at two other clinic attendees standing nearby, eavesdropping on my spontaneous therapy session.

“Before your next climb, think about all the stuff you’ve overcome to be here. Think about all you’ve accomplished,” Janelle said. I focused on not crying. “You’re trying to be perfect all the time. But there’s no such thing. You need to own where you’re at right now, and know that that’s enough.” That last sentence stopped me. I’d heard versions of it before, but never while climbing. I realized then that maybe it wasn’t my fear of runouts or unsends that was affecting me; it was all the other baggage I was carrying in from outside the crag—all the other insecurities that had built up and compounded over my past. I didn’t have a climbing-confidence problem; I just had a confidence problem.

Janelle Smiley (right) teaching rock skills to atendees at the Arc’teryx Climbing Academy, Squamish.

Janelle Smiley (right) teaching rock skills to atendees at the Arc’teryx Climbing Academy, Squamish.

On my next lead, the bouldery start to a finger crack called Hungry, Hungry Hippos (5.10a), I took a deep breath and I told myself that I didn’t need to send. I didn’t need to impress anyone. I was here and I was climbing and that was enough. When I reached the crux and glanced at the tiny gear at my feet, I was scared, but this time the negative spiral stopped there. It’s OK to be scared, I told myself. Instead of beating myself up for my fear, I acknowledged it, kept breathing, and pulled through. This time, I was enough.

In a lot of cases, women apologize more than men because we’re socialized to. We doubt ourselves in sports because we’re told growing up that sports are for boys. And the trouble with early socialization is that neural pathways—or patterns of thought—grow stronger and more automatic as the years pass. That’s more of a problem in climbing than in other sports because climbing involves a lot of fear, and when you’re afraid, your brain defaults to the strongest neural pathways. Your prefrontal cortex shuts off, and your amygdala sends you into autopilot, a process the psychologist Daniel Goleman famously dubbed “amygdala hijack.” For many of us ladies, that autopilot is carved from thoughts that tell us we can’t be brave. Fortunately, a host of psychological research says you can rewire those thoughts with enough effort and attention, especially if you start in settings where fear levels stay low to moderate (see sidebar below).

So, what’s wrong with us women? In a word, nothing. Yes, female climbers, broadly speaking, are often less confident than their male counterparts, but it’s nurture, not nature. And that’s something we can beat.

*The names of these women have been changed to protect their privacy

8 Ways to Cultivate Confidence

The hardest part of climbing is the mental game­—and the mental landscape for women is often different than for men. If your insecurities are catching up to you on the wall, try these eight tips from Janelle Smiley.

1. Give yourself credit

Despite the gender confidence gap, research also shows that women often exhibit more resilience than men. Take one study of 3,000 soldiers. In it, the women in combat were able to habituate to the stress of long deployments much more effectively than their male counterparts. There’s little climbing-related research available, but Smiley says this resilience is something she sees all the time: “A lot of guys say that if they’re not good at something, they just won’t do it. But women have the tenacity to keep trying.”

2. Watch your mouth

Language matters, especially when circumventing your brain’s automatic responses. So try it: Instead of saying, “I’m scared,” say, “This climb is scary,” or even just, “Something inside me is scared.” This helps you stay detached enough from your fear to analyze it.

3. Turn down the pressure

Ever get upset at the crag, and then panic because you think everyone is writing you off as just another weepy female? Research proves that even thinking about “stereotype threat,” or the fear of being stereotyped, can severely hinder a person’s athletic performance and ability to perform spatial-awareness tasks. Combat that anxiety by reminding yourself that you don’t need to prove anything; you belong just as you are.

4. Correct self-effacing behavior

If you tell yourself you’re a 5.10 climber and you’ll never climb 5.11, you never will. When you notice a self-limiting belief, challenge it. Instead of asking yourself, “What if I fail?” ask, “What if I got everything I wanted?” And learn how to brag a little. Your brain looks for confirmation of its beliefs: “If you tell yourself you suck, that’s all you’ll see,” Smiley says. “If you tell yourself you’re awesome, you’ll start finding evidence of it.”

5. Apologize less

“When you apologize, you’re saying you’re not good enough,” Smiley says. Instead, thank your partner for their patience on an epic belay or for taking the heavier load on the approach. Be grateful without attaching blame.

6. Climb with other ladies

Without pressure from stereotype threat (or a macho partner), it’s easier both to relax and rise to the occasion when it’s your lead. Says Smiley, “My climbing ability grew exponentially when I started climbing with other women.”

7. Work on body image

“I used to think that if I didn’t look a certain way, there was no way I’d be able to perform,” Smiley says. “That’s bullshit.” Thinking your body isn’t good enough is just another limiting belief. Practice positive self-talk and reject climber diet culture.

8. Do your homework

Rewiring neural pathways takes time and repetition, and limiting mental work to the crag isn’t enough—be vigilant about catching self-limiting beliefs wherever you are. “You have to be ready and hungry for change,” Smiley says. “You have to say, ‘I’m fed up, and I’m doing this.’”

For more specific tips or personalized coaching, visit janellesmiley.com