Why We Wobble

Understand, manage, and channel your anger to climb your hardest
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Kyle Elmquist takes his frustration out on his chalk bag at the Rock Shop, WY.

Kyle Elmquist takes his frustration out on his chalk bag at the Rock Shop, WY.

Each spring, my husband, Dustin, and I make a pilgrimage to Moab and visit the Big Bend Boulders. There in May 2019, I aimed to repeat a sandbagged V0 called Upwardly Mobile on the Hueco Traverse Boulder. A group was working the climb, and they happily let us join. I jumped on and, after two hasty, ill-conceived moves, found myself deposited rudely back on the crashpads. I could feel frustration bubbling but managed to stay calm enough to try again. The second time I came off trying to pull over the low lip. That’s when I lost it.

I punched the sandstone, stood up, kicked my crashpad, and stalked away, leaving Dustin to field sideways glances from our new acquaintances. I’d had a classic wobbler, defined in the Climbing Dictionary as “An epic hissy fit pitched upon failure to send.”

Every day at the crag can’t be successful, and sometimes failure causes us to get mad—even destructively so. In order to climb our best, it helps to understand our triggers as well as cultivate methods for calming ourselves. When channeled constructively, anger can also, in measured doses, provide sending energy and motivation.

Understand Your Anger

When expectations don’t match reality

“Anger oftentimes happens in climbing when expectations don’t align with reality,” explains Don McGrath, a Colorado-based climber and public speaker who co-authored the mental training book Vertical Mind. A misalignment of expectations is exactly why I pitched a fit that day in Moab and why I’ve seen partners lose it as well—we climbers often fall prey to the belief that we should be “getting better” or “climbing harder” all the time. However, when we hit a plateau, have a bad day, or lose strength, we “fail” to meet these goals and get frustrated. Yet giving in to our anger only makes us climb worse—so how do we escape this trap?

Both Laur Sabourin and Arno Ilgner, of The Rock Warrior’s Way mental-training program for climbers, agree that most climbing-related anger has more to do with what we think should happen than the reality of what’s going on. Understanding our triggers allows us to shift expectations to be more productive.

“We often get angry when we set an expectation to achieve an outcome in a specified timeframe,” says Sabourin. “When we don’t achieve the outcome, we become frustrated, [and] we express that frustration through anger.” Depending on how you’re inclined to react, anger can then be directed inwardly, as self-criticism, or outwardly, toward the route itself or the people around you. As Ilgner explains, “We get angry because we didn’t perform to our ego’s expectations.”

While identifying expectations is critical to understanding the source of anger, it’s also important to pay attention to your predisposition and underlying emotional state. “Getting angry is our way of reacting to and dealing with events that feel unpleasant, unfair, or blameworthy,” says McGrath. “How angry we get depends on our personality as well as what psychological state we are in when the triggering event happens.” (See “What Makes Wobblers More Likely?” below.)

When you’re deeply invested in the sport

Expectations are established over time, so climbers who have invested more in the sport are often more inclined to anger. Boone Speed, the first American to put up 5.14b (see Faces, p.32), understands this. “I didn’t get angry until I was good enough to have expectations,” says Speed. “At some point, you understand what you’re capable of, and if you’re not able to execute at that level, then you might get pissed.” And Jim Karn, a top climber from the 1980s and 1990s, says, “Any time you invest a lot of effort into something and it doesn’t work out, it is natural to get angry.”

When your body kicks into fight-or-flight mode

As a sport that’s inherently dangerous—and that triggers fear over falling or heights—climbing can be a triggering event itself, setting in motion the fight-or-flight response. According to the Harvard Medical School, in this state, adrenaline, which heightens the senses and increases blood flow, is released, providing the body with a burst of energy. Then, if the stressor persists, cortisol is released, which maintains this heightened state. Although this reaction can be useful in dangerous circumstances, it can also have negative psychological and physiological consequences if it persists (see “Why Manage Anger?” below), including a tendency to produce anger. As a group of people who are constantly exposing ourselves to danger and fear, getting a handle on our anger is thus very important.

Manage Your Anger

You can manage your crag rage in two overlapping ways: 1) Before getting angry, by setting the correct expectations, and 2) after getting angry, by processing the emotion.

Set the correct expectations

Tap into the reasons you began climbing in the first place. Few, if any, of us got into this sport to send the hardest grades right away. Rather, we were driven by the joy of vertical movement and the opportunity to explore. Concentrating on these original motivators can be a powerful tool for staying calm.

Remember that climbing is fun. For the majority of us, climbing is a hobby, not a job. “I climb for fun, and anger isn’t conducive to having fun,” says McGrath. Having fun helps melt anger away and eases pressure, which can actually make it easier to climb well. To start your day on a good note, get on a mellow, high-quality climb, which can allow you to experience the joy of moving on rock while feeling at ease.

Stay curious as you climb. Start each route with the intention to try your best, but don’t have an agenda about what that needs to look like—putting effort into trying your hardest every time makes it easier to accept falling than if you are singlemindedly attached to sending. “Focusing on the process of climbing well and being curious about what each attempt has to teach us can help us climb more effectively,” says Sabourin. “We might even send quicker.”

Cultivate mindfulness. Ilgner encourages climbers to begin a meditation practice as a way to separate the needs of the ego from the needs of the authentic self. Meditation can also mitigate anger, making you less reactive while out climbing.

Process your anger

Even if you set the right intention going into a climb, sometimes you fall and get angry.
In these moments, it’s important to process the emotion.

Breathe. Conscious breathing can help you calm down and refocus, say both Ilgner and Speed. If slow breaths are difficult, try counting to five on each inhale and each exhale, for a total breath count of 10. Continue until your breath becomes natural and even again.

Find a physical outlet. Some folks like to release anger through physical exertion. Sabourin suggests running up and down a hill or doing squats, jumping jacks, or burpees. If you’re still hanging on the rope, try tensing all your muscles and then rapidly releasing them.

Learn from the failure. When we get angry, we tend to start placing blame, whether on ourselves or on outside forces like the conditions, lack of rest, or even our belayer. “Take full responsibility for your failure even if it doesn’t seem like it was your fault,” says Karn. “Slow down and analyze why you failed and figure out what you need to do differently to succeed next time.” Whether you find that you need to work on technique, beta refinement, or resting more strategically, reframing failure as a chance for growth abates the anger and will help you achieve your goals.

Channel Your Anger Constructively

Finally, know that anger isn’t all bad. Physiologically, it increases blood flow and strength, and can therefore be used as a power-up tool, particularly on short, powerful routes.

Both Speed and Karn have used anger this way, especially to mitigate pain and fear (common on difficult climbs). However, both climbers also noted that anger’s utility is short-lived. “I found that anger, if channeled correctly, could give me an advantage on short, powerful problems, but never on long endurance climbs,” says Speed. Meanwhile, Carlo Traversi, a professional boulderer and owner of The Boulder Field gym in Sacramento, California, says that using anger to fuel his sends has never worked for him.

As Ilgner explains, anger “mobilizes us to do something to protect ourselves.” Anger can help stir us to action, but only if we let it out constructively—say by crushing that crux crimp, instead of kicking the wall. “It’s a limited tool,” Ilgner says. “We don’t really enjoy our climbing if we’re using anger to motivate us.” As Karn puts it, “I believe [anger] generally helped me to climb harder, although the cost was probably too high and there were almost certainly other ways to achieve the same outcome.”

The takeaway? Use anger as a motivator only sparingly—and only if you haven’t had any success that day defusing it.

Why Manage Anger?

Massive wobblers are disagreeable for everyone within eye- and earshot, ruining a fun day at the crag. But anger also has impacts on the body, including negative psychological and physiological consequences. That’s why it’s important to not let it fester.

Psychological Impacts

Anger increases cortisol, which attaches to and kills neurons in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. The death of these neurons decreases one’s ability to make decisions/problem-solve and weakens short-term memory, both of which are integral for implementing and remembering beta.

Physiological Impacts

Anger increases heart rate, blood pressure, and arterial tension while decreasing immune function, vision, and bone density. Anger has also been connected to an increase in headaches and migraines, and over the long term leads to greater incidence of cancer, stroke, and heart attack.

What Makes Wobblers More Likely?

According to Jeff Elison, a professor of psychology at Adams State University and co-author of Vertical Mind, a number of underlying psychological factors can trigger wobblers:

  • Narcissism: Those who think of themselves as innately superior to others will feel the impact of failure more acutely, as it challenges their self-perception.
  • Perception of self-worth: If you tie your self-worth to how well you perform, you’ll be quicker to anger when you fail.
  • Shame: Many people feel embarrassed when they fail in front of others, which can elicit anger.
  • Emotional tendencies: Some individuals are simply more prone to anger than others.
  • Fear response: Fear can elicit anger, especially if you are more prone to the fight response under stress than flight.

Other “off the rock” contributing factors can also make you more prone to wobblers. These include:

  • Stress and anxiety
  • Physical or emotional pain
  • Drug and alcohol use
  • Irritants (being tired, getting into a fight with your spouse, etc.) 

Hannah O’Reilly is a Boulder, Colorado–based freelancer. As a climber of six years, her progress in the sport has necessitated as much psychological as physical training. This has led to a keen interest in the ways the mind influences performance.

Citations

1. “How Anger Affects Your Brain and Body,” by the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine, 2017 (https://www.iahe.com/docs/articles/nicabm-anger-infographic-printable-pdf.pdf).

2. “Understanding the stress response,” by Harvard Medical School, 2018 (https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response).

3. “Anger; Its Impact on Human Body,” by Ram Lochan Yadav, 2017, Innovare Journal of Health Sciences, Volume 4 (5), p. 3–5 (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/328065633_ANGER_ITS_IMPACT_ON_HUMAN_BODY).