This may seem like an odd topic for a blog post given the current circumstances. England has recently gone back into lockdown, meaning all the climbing gyms are closed and there’s significantly less opportunity to climb in front of other people. However, isolation and how we interact (or don’t interact) with our fellow humans have obviously been huge points of interest in this cluster-fuck of a year, which has seen us mostly confined to our homes. I’ve also been reading about self-esteem for my Open University psychology degree this week and my own self-esteem certainly plays a role in how I feel about climbing in front of other people. So, now I’ve explained my logical leaps and tenuous links, let’s get into the meat of the matter.
Why I Dislike Climbing In Front Of People
My gut reaction to this topic is ‘I hate climbing in front of people’, which will surprise nobody who has previously heard me refer to myself as an anti-social introvert. But I’m not sure this is true anymore. Not all the time at least.
It was definitely true when I started climbing. Luckily, I’m generally able to climb when gyms are quiet. My usual slot when I first started climbing was 9am on a Thursday, which gave me the opportunity to make a lot of mistakes and learn the basics with very few people watching. The people that were there tended to be fellow regulars of the timeslot, so I got quite used to seeing the same small group of people. I also had the human shield that is my husband around to act as a motivating coach and a helpful distraction. He always liked jumping around on dynos and was far more entertaining to watch than me slowly crawling my way up mostly vertical walls in varying states of panic.
Once I’d settled into the basics of climbing and my panic dropped to a more manageable level, I had enough headspace to realise that there were other people in the room. They might even be looking at what I was doing.
With fellow newbies this was not such a big deal as it felt like we were very much in this mess together or were too nervous to exchange more than a sheepish sideways glance. But people who knew what they were doing were more frightening. They might actually talk to me. They might try to help me improve my climbing. The horror.
I’m a petty so-and-so when it comes to people offering me advice or help when I haven’t asked for it. This is most alarmingly obvious when I play boardgames. There’s an admittedly unreasonable level of rage that bubbles up inside me when it comes to my turn in a game if, before I’ve even picked up the dice or reached for the stack of cards, my fellow players all start suggesting what I should do. I know it’s meant to be a fun communal activity, but it honestly feels like there’s no point me being there if everyone else just wants to take my go for me. What’s the point in me bothering to think about my move if everyone else is just telling me what to do? They will probably do it better than me anyway because, try as I might, I just don’t care that much about boardgames. There, I’ve said it. I know, it’s petty and overly dramatic considering the extremely trivial nature of this particular social interaction but apparently this is just one of my buttons that sets off a nuclear grade pettiness explosion even if you just accidentally lean on it. Press this particular big red button at your peril.
And, it turns out, this annoyance transfers to the climbing wall. One of things I enjoy most about climbing is solving the puzzle. I don’t mind trying a boulder over and over again, repeatedly falling off moves and landing in different shaped heaps of JoJo on the floor. It’s all part of the fun. And I’ve always been perfectly happy to ask for help when I need and want it. One of the hazards of climbing in front of other people is that they will shower you with unsolicited advice. This is known as beta-spraying and basically involves someone telling you how to climb a boulder when you didn’t ask them to. In my experience, men do this a lot more than women. I don’t think I tend to give off the ‘damsel in distress’ vibe but apparently some men just love riding in on a white horse and offering the lifesaving advice of ‘have you considered a heel hook on that hold there, tiny woman?’. OK, that’s not a direct quote, but you get the idea.
An especially badly timed beta-spraying occurred early on in my climbing life, when I was taking advice from one of my first and best climbing mentors. Her name is Sophie, and she was one of the people who got Husband into climbing and, by extension, me as well. She was about my height and stronger than me but not terrifyingly so. She taught me the value of technique over power and helped me to see that us girls could climb as well as the boys. Sophie was talking me through a boulder as I climbed it, which I had asked her to do, when a bloke came over and started issuing his own instructions to me, drowning out the advice of the person who was actually helping me. We’d seen this guy at the gym a bit and exchanged polite greetings with him, but this was way above his paygrade as a casual associate. Yet here he was, assuming he knew better than both of us. He didn’t just lean on the big red button of annoyance, he planted his whole arse on it and jammed it in the ‘ON’ position. I hung there for a while with the pump gradually increasing in my forearms, trying to pick out the useful advice from the bullshit but eventually gave up and crashed to the floor.
Traditionally, I’m not a huge fan of confrontation and always struggle to come up with the perfect scathing remark in the heat of the moment. In this instance, I managed to firmly inform this bloke that his timing was appalling, his advice was useless and unwanted, and that Sophie and I were just fine on our own, thank you very much. I later discovered that this guy wanted to be a climbing instructor. I wish him all the best with that endeavor.
I also just do some weird shit on the wall sometimes, which apparently invites people to ask what I’m up to.
The obvious goal in bouldering is to get from the bottom of a boulder to the top then congratulate yourself on a job well done. And for some people, this is enough and all they aim to do in every session. I also like to try some admittedly strange looking training games especially in smaller gyms with fewer boulders. I’m not alone in this and if you’re looking for a training plan with an excellent selection of games, exercises, and drills to help you improve your climbing I heartily recommend checking out Catalyst Climbing for all your on and off the wall climbing training needs.
This means I often climb boulders over and over to explore different methods. Or I try to touch each hold with my foot before I touch it with my hand. Or I deliberately cut-loose with my feet and crunch my knees up to my chest in between moves to work on core strength. If I’m climbing with Husband, I try his method of climbing a boulder if it is significantly different to mine and encourage him, sometimes successfully, to try my method too.
There are loads of fun ways to practice your movement and improve your technique for climbing but they often attract attention and make you look like a bit of a tit. This is less of a problem when I climb in the UK. But we lived in Spain for three years and my grasp of Spanish was pretty piss poor. Explaining that you’re deliberately trying to do a move with more bounce, even though you’re totally capable of doing it statically, because you’re trying to improve your dynamic climbing technique is next to impossible when you know less than half the vocabulary required for the conversation or whether you should be using the subjunctive or not. Fuck off subjunctive, nobody likes you anyway. The whole thing is awkward at best and tragic at worst.
For me, these unwanted, and sometimes incomprehensible, conversations with strangers are the main downside of climbing in front of other people.
Another downside is that having an audience makes me more nervous in general, not just on the climbing wall. I know it shouldn’t matter and, when I engage the logical part of my brain, I know that it doesn’t matter. But so many questions start firing around my head when I know people are watching me. Do they think I’m shit at this? Am I doing this wrong? Am I missing something obvious? Am I going too slowly? Am I in the way? Is my arse hanging out in these new climbing jeans? (yes, sometimes). All this doubt and worry takes away from my ability to climb my best and that’s just shit. I’ve made vast amounts of progress with this over the years and I now feel a lot more comfortable in busy gyms but there’s still moments where the anxiety sets in and I wish everyone would just go away. There’s a reason I worked backstage in theatre. I’m much happier quietly going about my business behind the curtain, not in the spotlight.
Gaining Confidence By Joining A Training Group
So, it was totally out of character when I joined a training group in our local gym in Spain. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how it happened. One minute I was climbing on my own, minding my own business, then a very kind lady who worked there and spoke excellent English came up to me and asked if I’d like to join her training group. My brain screamed ‘NOOOOOOO!’ but my British genes kicked in and, not wanting to appear rude, I politely accepted her offer then stumbled home wondering what the heck I’d gotten myself into. I remember very little other than blinding fear, excessive sweating, and previously undiscovered levels of pump in my forearms from my first month or so of sessions with this group. I was absolutely terrified the majority of the time. I had (and still have) a little mantra that I repeat to myself before every non-solo climbing session. ‘You are a good climber. You are strong. You have good technique, and everyone here is your friend.’ Repeat three times while standing in tree pose on each leg and breathing deeply.
I have to give this group of people and the coach a huge chunk of the credit for the progress I made not only in my climbing skills but also in my ability and willingness to let other people watch me climb. They were all extremely supportive and kind to the funny English woman who invaded their group and butchered their language twice a week. I never felt as relaxed with them as I felt when I climbed on my own or with Husband, but I got closer to that level of Zen than I ever expected to in a group and even managed to have some fun in between the fear and discomfort. I made some friends, learned some new Spanish words (climbing and non-climbing related) and greatly improved my confidence in my climbing abilities, which felt just as important as improving the climbing abilities themselves.
Since we’ve returned to the UK, I’ve gone back to exclusively climbing alone on our home wall or in the gym with Husband. I won’t lie to you folks, I’m generally happiest climbing like this. I’m aware that this attitude may limit my progress sometimes and I’m possibly going against the grain, as I know many climbers love the sociable side of climbing as much as the climbing itself. I still do enjoy climbing with a group of friends occasionally, but I feel most at ease and like I climb my best with Husband or on my own without worrying what the rest of the group is thinking about my sometimes-unusual choice of beta or ill-fitting jeans.
I would certainly say that my attitude towards other people watching me climb has definitely changed for the better since joining the training group and growing more confident on the wall. I’m never going to be the kind of person that wants or needs an audience to climb well and try hard, but it doesn’t freak me out like it used to. During my last climbing session before the lockdown kicked in, I was trying a boulder that I absolutely knew I could do but was struggling to push through a scary move to the top hold. This move involved stepping onto a high right foot hold that wasn’t terrible but wasn’t as nice as I’d like it to be, then pressing onto the left hand and bringing the left foot to meet it. It required a decent amount of flexibility and a lot of trust in the right foot, which was where I was struggling. I’d tried the move a few times and either chickened out or didn’t really give it everything I had.
I sat quietly on the crashmat and tried to convince myself it wasn’t that scary, while casually watching a couple of guys in the edge of my peripheral vision to see what they were climbing. I realised they weren’t as good as I was and, in a very out of character moment, decided to change the situation from one of fear into a chance to show off. They knew I was watching them (subtlety has never been one of my strengths) so I expected that they would also watch me when I got back on the wall. It’s only fair and there was hardly anyone else in the gym, so their viewing options were pretty limited. I waited until they’d finished trying their boulder and sat down for a rest before I hopped back on the wall, determined to finish this darn boulder. I knew the pressure of having this small but captivate audience was enough to push me through the fear and finish the scary move. And it worked! I was still nervous and frightened, but I did it anyway.
In the past, the presence of other people would have made this move even scarier but, in this instance, I’d managed to use it to my advantage.
It may not have seemed like a big moment to the casual observer, but for me that was quite a significant victory. I’d managed to take something that I would generally regard as a weakness and turn it into a strength. You’ve really got to milk all the positives you can find, especially in 2020, so I’m going to grab this one by the udders and squeeze like hell. Maybe other people aren’t so frightening after all. Sometimes.