Notes on Trying Hard (Like Really Hard) in Climbing

What does it mean to try hard? Is it physical or mental, and how do we get better at digging deep? The author discusses.

I tried multiple times to write this essay. I sat down and stared at the page. I went for a walk and then stared some more. I did background “research.” I ate a snack. I gave up for the day.

It’s funny how as soon as you think you’ve got some sort of grasp on the art of trying hard, you find yourself procrastinating and then failing to even start. Such is the elusiveness of true effort, which, of course, applies just as much to climbing as it does to everything else.

I learned this past year that I don’t always try as hard as I could or should, that while my limit for “hard” expanded through training and the course of working a difficult project, my perception of “hard” likewise had to shift. I learned that sometimes there was in fact more in the tank, if only I gave myself the opportunity to dig a little deeper, but I had to be OK with getting on the wall and failing completely. So some days I would get on my project and surprise myself by making a good link. Other days I would be hanging from each and every draw. But the key was to tell myself I would do my best, that I would try to try hard, while letting go of the result.

Growing up, I had a coach who did two-hour lessons with me every Saturday starting at 9 a.m. Excellent guy, really knew his stuff. He made me cry almost every time. Years later, while we were reminiscing over a cold one, he told me that back then, he didn’t consider it a good lesson until I was in tears. Like I said, great guy. No, seriously, he taught me everything I know about climbing. And I was an emotional kid: I would cry, too, when I thought the lesson wasn’t hard enough, because I craved to be pushed to that physical and mental limit.

That naturally raises the question: is trying hard mostly physical or mental? It’s equally both, I think. I read once that to achieve a flow state in anything, your actual abilities (physical) have to meet your expected abilities (mental), which have to line up with your goals. I think at its essence, achieving flow state is the art of trying so hard that it feels easy.

Of course, an important element of trying hard is balancing this triangle in which we all live: One corner is training, another is adaptation, and the third is recovery. We tend to bounce between training and adaptation. But eventually you have to complete the cycle and fully recover. Personally, I’ve found that after every three to four weeks of consistently climbing and training hard, I need an easier week, where I don’t train as much and I don’t force myself to get on the project. And then I come back stronger, with a deeper ability to try hard. 

Wait, part of trying hard is resting? Yes, and on a day-to-day level, it’s incredibly important. A former, younger me never took more than one rest day in a row. Now I frequently take two, and I’m a better, more complex climber for it. I think at its essence trying hard is all about mastering complexity within a training protocol, which is intertwined with daily demands. To truly try hard, you have to master the art of setting yourself up for it, which includes not only proper training, but nutrition, sleep, work/life balance, stress-management, days spent doing little to nothing, days spent doing absolutely nothing, etc. Those are all key elements to both physically and mentally being prepared to try hard, and, yes, it is very complex.

But am I overcomplicating trying hard? Maybe. Because it’s also true that to try hard you must simply try hard. You have to hold up your end of the bargain. If you make a commitment to yourself to work a project with the goal of sending it, you must show up and get on the project; there are no workarounds. Yoga classes aren’t going to do the trick. More pull-ups aren’t the answer. You have to clock in intentionally to exercise your try hard on the thing in which you intend to try hard on.

One reason you might not be trying hard is fear: fear of falling, and of failure, are the usual suspects. So, funnily enough, just wanting to send does not equate to trying hard. In fact, there’s a very real chance that desire will inhibit your ability to try hard. Growing up, before every competition my dad would tell me: Trust yourself. I still repeat this mantra to myself before getting on hard climbs outside, because one of my biggest downfalls can be trying to over-control the situation: Locking off when I should be dynamic, doubting my foot placement, or simply climbing too slow. Trusting myself means allowing myself to climb freely and efficiently, even if I sometimes make mistakes. And climbing free allows me to try my hardest.

I used to get irrationally / insanely / impossibly  nervous before important competitions. I’d feel nauseous and get headaches. I’d feel stuck in my own body, weak and clunky on the wall. Women’s routes in IFSC competitions may settle around 5.14a/b, and yet I’d fall on low-end 5.13s at the crag. It’s amazing what stress can do to the body, how much it inhibits your ability to exert. I stopped competing years ago, but I still experience the same symptoms, although to a lesser degree, when I’m about to redpoint a long term project. But I’ve learned that I can still climb well when it matters. I can ignore the fact that, before getting on the wall, I feel ready to puke by telling myself that it’s just my nerves giving me psychosomatic symptoms. That I’m ready. 

Meditation helps, too. People hate hearing that. Maybe it’s too cerebral or too obvious or too foo-foo for your tastes. Indeed, for me, the idea of sitting quietly to “free the mind” sounds unapproachable and totally ridiculous. But my meditation is my own, it is not boring, nor is it hard. I just close my eyes and focus on my heart rate. Then I visualize the route, and as I move through the moves, the rests, the cruxes, I think about how I want it all to feel. Pulling memories from the times I was off the dog, when I felt fresh and strong on each link, I visualize feeling that good from the ground. I don’t visualize trying hard per se. Trying hard is more the consequence of me doing everything else perfectly: of staying calm, clear minded, and executing the moves. Trying hard is the end result, and I focus on the process of making it happen.

Some climbers like to focus on “building their pyramid.” This can be great for helping you to up your confidence and pinpoint where your limit may be. But you’ll never really know what your limit actually is until you test it. “Building the pyramid” can be an excuse not to try hard, as can fitness laps or other mechanisms of telling yourself you’re ready or fit or whatever. Last year, I warmed up on at least three routes before getting on the project. I’d start with a 5.11, then move to a hard 5.12, then do a hard 5.13. I told myself all that was necessary, and I used the fact that I sent all my hard warm ups to cushion my ego if I did poorly on the project. Then, when it got colder and there were fewer hours in the day, I realized I could get just as warm doing one route and using a hangboard, and that’s been my routine ever since. I learned that I don’t need to climb hard warm ups to feel worthy of a hard project. I save energy by doing less, and then I’m able to try harder for it.

Sweat the small stuff. In his book “9 Out of 10 Climbers Make the Same Mistakes,” Dave MacLeod wrote, “4% less effort doesn’t get you 4% less results. Often, 4% less effort gets you 90% less results.” Not only are you cheating yourself of physical gains when you give less effort, you’re also missing the opportunity to exercise the skill that is trying hard.

The past few years, I stopped playing around on commercial sets in gyms. In fact, most weeks I don’t climb indoors at all. Instead, when I go to the gym I choose exercises that I know will help me on my weekend project: hangboarding—lots and lots of hangboarding—weighted pull ups, speed-focused drills, and more weighted exercises. These workouts can be boring and tedious and hard because of that, but they’re effective because they’re specific to my needs. It’s the  small stuff, like speed drills and wrist mobility exercises, that have helped me balance out and stay injury free. You simply can’t try hard if you’re injured or on the verge of injury.

I used to coach kids. Some of them you could tell would really go for it. You’d say jump and they wouldn’t ask how high, they’d just jump as high as they could. Others, of course, would whine. They’d say they were trying. Indeed, they were trying, but they weren’t trying hard. The difference is indelible in terms of performance gains.

The Peter Principle typically applies to corporate management and job hierarchies, but let’s apply it to training. The principle states that people will only rise to the level of their incompetence. I.e., you will only exert as hard as you know how to exert, you will only perform as high as you know how to perform. Not until you know more can you progress, and there’s always another level to learn. 

I bring this principle up right at the end to make one thing clear: There is no mastery. You are always incompetent at trying hard, so try harder.

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