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The Three Things I Wish I’d Been Told as a Beginning Climber

Three things I wish I'd known when I started the sport. Had I known them, I would have enjoyed climbing earlier, and I would have climbed harder faster.

As a coach and climber, here are three things I wish people had told me when I started climbing. First, your climbing doesn’t really matter. Second, don’t compare yourself to others. Third, you need to try harder. Simple stuff, but easier said than done.

Had I known them, I would have enjoyed climbing earlier, and I would have climbed harder faster.

1. Your Climbing Doesn’t Matter 

Well, it does matter, but not in the way you think. Your climbing only matters because it matters to you; you have assigned it a level of meaning and importance that would not exist independently of you. You are looking around the climbing gym, the crag, at your friends, through a lens you created. You cannot assume anyone is looking through the exact same lens at your own climbing; no one is feeling or reacting to your climbing performance the way you are. 

Your climbing partners and friends care about your climbing successes because they care about you, and they can even empathize because maybe they are on their own journeys. But no one else’s guts are wrenching or palms sweating like yours while you are on that climb. And no one else is about to lose their shit like you are if you don’t send this route NOW. For them, hoping you send it next time or next season is OK; for you, falling off just one more time can bring out a whole heap of emotion. Just like when you send your project, your joy will be different than that of those watching from the ground. So I am sorry to tell you, but your climbing doesn’t matter to anyone else like it matters to you. 

If you are going to be hard on yourself, make sure it’s not because you think anyone is watching or judging you through the same lens that you are watching and judging yourself. This isn’t a slap of nihilism, but a reality check as to who is actually creating and giving meaning to your climbing; more important, who you allow to create and give meaning to your climbing experience. If that random person in the corner doesn’t feel emotionally attached like you do to your performance, why are you even looking over there to begin with?

Not caring what others thought of my climbing, whether their opinions were real or imagined, was something that took me a while to grasp. But once I did, I got a hell of a lot better at climbing. Caring about whether someone was or was not watching me climb stunted my growth as a climber. Maybe I didn’t try the climb I most needed because I was afraid I would fail. Maybe I didn’t want to try as hard because that person who inevitably would flash it after me would make me look weak. Maybe I needed to make myself as small as possible, to not get noticed while I trained, because my pull-ups were abysmal.

It’s easy to shrink away in a corner of the gym and avoid pushing ourselves because we fear what that vulnerability will feel like. But then we take away so much of who we are, and how we grow, all based on mostly imagined consequences. 

The real consequence: Your fear that people give a shit about something that they do not will stunt your growth as a climber. Remember, no one cares about your climbing like you do … not even your mother. 

Sarah MacGregor, Indian Creek.
Sarah MacGregor enjoys the tight hand jams on Neat (5.10), Optimator Wall, Indian Creek. (Photo: Bryan Miller)

2 Don’t Compare Yourself to Others

Put away the measuring tape. Climbing is a visual sport allowing endless opportunities to learn from others’ talents. Being inspired by others is important to keep pushing and stay psyched for what is possible. But there is a huge difference between seeing someone’s success and using that as inspiration and motivation moving forward versusmentally beating yourself up because you are not where they are.  

We all compare ourselves to others: It’s a natural tendency. But bring some awareness into this action, and ask yourself why you feel the need to weigh yourself against others: Are your goals for comparison based on learning and self-development in climbing? Does making comparisons to someone else’s performance make you feel differently about them? 

We often see epic send videos on Instagram, but what we don’t get to see are the hours and hours of training and sacrifice that went behind mastering the skills needed to send. Social media certainly doesn’t show us the low days, the frustrated days, the bad-workout days. But, in truth, we all have those days, even the pros. Don’t forget that. 

We compare ourselves to others because we crave objective criteria to be able to self-evaluate. We then look to others who are maybe similar in age, body type, climbing style, gender … to get us the information we need and crave.

We simply want to know how we stack up. Objective criteria for self-evaluation can be extremely frustrating to find; even climbing grades can give an overview of progression, but it ends up being rather subjective when looked at more specifically. So it makes sense that we look to others to tell us more about ourselves, but be aware that unless you are narcissistic, you will probably end up the loser of the comparison game in your own mind. 

Self-confidence is one of the most influential factors in athletic performance. Comparisons can have a negative effect on our self-esteem, however, because we make judgments about our own capabilities based on someone else’s experiences. Instead of always looking outward at others to track your performance, create personal standards and start recording your training and climbing goals over-time. Then ask yourself: Where was I in the past? Where am I now? Where do I want to go? 

Using a climbing journal to write down your day-to-day training and climbing is all you need to create benchmarks of success. It also gives you insight when you need to troubleshoot a bad day, or week, of climbing performance. You might isolate potential obstacles (like a stressful work week that deprived you of sleep), which allows you to pinpoint problems that could otherwise go unnoticed.

Write down how you are feeling: before, during, and after the workout. How (and if) you recognize the emotions that come up during a session can be the most important data you collect. If something comes up, take the time to practice recognizing what you are feeling, and write it down. 

The same comparison traps can apply to self-comparison. Climbing training and performance are not strictly a linear progression. We have good days, we have bad days. We have good weeks, we have bad weeks. You will progress, then slightly decrease, then you will progress more … etc. Collecting as much data as possible, consistently, and over time, helps you see the big picture. 

Wicked Gravity, Back of the Lake.
Ariane Brouillette, Wicked Gravity (5.11a), Back of the Lake, Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada (Photo: Eva Capozzola)

3 You Need to Try Harder

We have already determined that you are emotionally invested in climbing (see #1). This is a good start, but how do you put that emotion into action? We have all heard people say “hard work and dedication… yada yada… You will succeed,” but what does it really mean to try hard?

Let’s start here: Have you seen a climber on the wall trying hard? If you haven’t, stop reading and do so now. Adam Ondra is a good one to look up on YouTube. The footage of him on Disbelief (5.15b) is a case in point. 

Okay, great, now that Ondra’s screaming is echoing in your ears, let’s talk about what is actually happening between those ears when we learn new skills. In this case, the skill of trying hard. 

New skills are hard at first—they require new connections between neurons in your brain. These new connections are weak at first, sort of like a path to a brand-new climbing crag. Over time, and with practice, the neural pathways associated with that skill become stronger and more automatic; the path to the new climbing area becomes well-worn as the area sees more traffic. 

Climbers who aren’t pushing themselves become autopilot climbers. Yes, even when every route is different. If you aren’t challenging yourself on harder climbs, your brain, and the body it controls, isn’t working hard to make new connections. The path is not getting worn. You need new stimuli to challenge you, a new skill to learn, a new movement. Don’t teach your brain and body to stop trying when you reach a certain point of pump or uncertainty.

A crucial step in trying hard: Are you actually on routes that are hard for you? Is this the grade you have been climbing all year? The same wall angle? The same-same? Does the thought of trying this climb make you nervous? If it doesn’t, then it’s probably not hard enough. It’s a fine line. You don’t want to get yourself into a situation where a climb is so far above your ability that you become injured, or worse, completely and permanently demoralized. Yet, a healthy dose of failure never hurt anyone. This does not mean you should always be trying at this level, but instead build it into your climbing routine. Trying hard will do amazing things for your climbing. 

To truly try hard and push your limits, you should always meet yourself where you are at. Trying hard one day may mean something completely different than trying hard on another day. Be kind to yourself, and remember quality of training is more important than quantity. 

If you aren’t failing, there is no way you are trying hard. If you never fall, or if you always say, “TAKE!,” you aren’t trying hard. It may seem a little like reaching into a void for those of you wanting to know how to try hard, but a lot can happen between your perceived ending of effort and your actual, physical limit. Those who are the best in their sport reach into the void, into uncertainty, all of the time. This is yet another skill to practice with intention. 

Uncertainty is scary. It is against our nature to want to push through the unknown. It is against our culture to embrace failure. But when you think about it, climbing is already going against so many of our natural built-in alarm systems, what is one more move?


Carly Cain
The author, Carly Cain. (Photo: Jacob Carr)

Between the repudiation of your climbing ego, untangling from your self-created climbing hubris, and illuminating the art of really trying hard, I hope that this article helps you see the potential for more productive climbing years. No real or important change comes quickly or easily. Everything you want to transform in your climbing-self has to be done thoughtfully and consistently, over time. Start simple: Observe yourself, your patterns, your reactions, your emotions to this sport.

Any progress is a success. Even noticing your potential for improvement is progress, so keep an eye out for those little moments. If you can train yourself to notice the small successes, and to celebrate them, you are already well on your way into the heart of climbing, and encapsulating everything I wished I had been told years ago. 

Carly Cain is a coach at Climb Strong.

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