The Crux: Managing Mental Health in Life & Climbing
By Cyrenah Smith
As my toe popped off a microscopic edge, I hurtled off the boulder and onto the crash pads scattered below. My project wasn’t going well, and it looked like I might not send before having to call the day’s session quits.
My spotters lowered their arms for what felt like the hundredth time, and I felt the familiar heat of embarrassment wash over my body. It emanated from my mind, lingering for far too long on my flushed cheeks and ears.
The voice in my head mocked me. “You should’ve sent this problem ages ago.”
Gee, thanks. Very helpful.
“You know why you’re struggling? It’s because you’re weak. And scared. And not committing.”
There’s got to be a better way to talk to you. This isn’t productive or healthy.
The Pitfalls of Perfectionism
In my experience, being a perfectionist is a double-edged sword in climbing. On the one hand, it can be motivating to rehearse and ace microbeta until climbs are dialed. On the other, it can be debilitating as you repeatedly get in your own way.
Typical climbing seasons aside, this past year has been particularly challenging in terms of managing mental health. So many of us have been called to look inward while developing tremendous outward resilience. From navigating grief and loss, to being apart from loved ones strewn across the globe, to juggling demanding career changes and climbing goals, and to feeling increased anxiety throughout this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, there have been moments where I’ve felt at the end of my rope.
Fortunately, I’ve since realized that my negative self-talk habit could no longer continue. Better methods for motivating myself did exist.
While we may not achieve “perfection” or even “good” balance in our lives without struggle, one can still cultivate healthy habits to encourage more mindfulness in times of stress. Think of adopting these habits as injury prevention for your headspace!
Today, I’d like to share some helpful strategies with the Women’s Bouldering community to help make your wellbeing a priority in and out of climbing. Here are some of my favorite ways to emotionally replenish and recover, so I can give my all—on and off the wall.
Tip 1: Remember That A Little is Better Than None
A lot of the time, we go into situations with an all-or-nothing mentality. Does this scenario sound familiar?
If I don’t send everything I’ve set out to do, or complete my entire workout as planned, then the session is a waste!
Believing in all-or-nothing is a flawed approach in many ways, but it’s particularly detrimental for climbing training. Sure, mileage counts and it is, in fact, crucial to stick to a training routine to see gains. But the idea that even a little progress—or time/effort spent towards making progress—isn’t worth celebrating is not “discipline.” On the contrary, it’s a disservice.
In my climbing journey, I’ve found that consistency is key—however, sometimes my plans need to be adjusted to fit into a hectic schedule. This may mean squeezing in shorter training sessions per week (e.g. 10 minutes of hangboarding after work every day) instead of procrastinating, beating myself up, and getting stuck doing erratic sessions that may be longer but not as beneficial in the long run.
Climbers may also consider incorporating periodization into their schedules, which accounts for their particular goals throughout different parts of the year. Even if your training is not focused on specific intervals, you may still find yourself prioritizing different things during different times of the year. This may look like dedicating certain seasons to performance (such as crisp, cool fall) and others to training indoors, cross-training, or enjoying a new sport altogether (such as winter, which lends itself well to ice climbing, skiing, and sipping hot cocoa on the couch).
All in all, it’s key to remember that you’ll never be operating at peak performance 100% of the time, nor is that expected or required to feel good. So relax, celebrate the little wins, and remember: climbing is a marathon, not a sprint. Treat it as such, and enjoy the journey rather than the destination.
Tip 2: Keep Your Cup Full
Ensuring that you have enough energy to “pour” from is crucial. Plus, keeping your cup full not only benefits you but also those around you.
One way you can top up your cup is by setting boundaries and sticking to them. Healthy examples of boundary-setting include:
Leaving school or work at an appropriate time, or logging off and staying off when the day is done
Not checking text messages, email, or social media before you’ve had time to check in with yourself that morning
Not comparing yourself to others, especially on social media
Staying consistent with a training regimen and declining invitations to events that conflict with your routine. Although it can be healthy to take a break from your routine if that’s what your head and heart truly desire.
Putting your needs first. For example, you may need to plan your meals ahead of time or set a consistent bedtime to feel your best. No matter what others may say or feel the need to comment on, do what you need to do to keep being awesome!
All in all, it’s better to set boundaries and live by them than to please everyone other than yourself.
Another way to fill your cup is to turn to restorative activities. These vary from person to person—especially between introverts vs. extroverts vs. ambiverts—but should help restore your energy levels after they’ve been drained. Maybe you’ll opt for:
Enjoying nature, whether that's through gardening, trail running, walking your dog, or even forest bathing.
Practicing mindfulness with yoga or meditation (I’m a big fan of bite-sized videos that can be done anytime during the day, like this 10-minute self-care practice from Yoga with Adriene. You could also check out WBF’s own Tiffany Soi’s programs developed specifically for climbers.)
Pick up a sport that complements climbing and potentially works common climbing weak areas, such as pushing, lower body strength, back strength, and mobility. Some examples include circus arts, parkour (WBF offers a taster every year!), gymnastics, calisthenics, etc.
Meeting up with friends in person or having a virtual “tea time” to catch up.
Practicing self-care activities, like watching episodes of your favorite shows, curling up with a satisfying book, indulging in a relaxing creative hobby like knitting or painting, or treating yourself to a delicious home-cooking or takeout.
Tip 3: Switch It Up
When in doubt, try something new! Constantly throwing yourself at the same thing, such as ambitious climbing goals and a demanding training routine, can be exhausting after weeks on end. Switching it up serves as preventive maintenance before you hit a rut and burn out.
You can still maintain a healthy fitness routine and reap the wellness benefits of whatever new activity you try. And remember: most climbers aren’t machines programmed to do the same thing day in and day out. Even legendary climbers in Yosemite developed slack-lining as a way to enjoy the moments they weren’t climbing while pushing themselves to new limits.
Another benefit of changing up your routine is that you may just have more fun. There’s something to be said about “beginner’s mind,” a concept of Zen Buddhism addressed by Zen teacher and monk Shunryu Suzuki in his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:
"In the beginner's mind, there are many possibilities. In the expert's mind, there are few."
Think about the last time you saw a new climber, whether they were cragging outside for the first time or just getting their rental shoes fitted at the gym. How excited they must’ve been, and how many new possibilities lay before them!
Now, what if you felt the same sense of joy, evocative of “play” rather than “perfectionism,” as you pulled on your climbing shoes for the thousandth time?
Putting It Into Practice
On top of these tips, if I could share one thing that’s helped me the most on my climbing journey so far, it would be this:
Even the most accomplished athletes, creatives, and human beings are just that—human beings. No one lives flawlessly, despite what their social media posts may be trying to convince you. At the end of the day, you can only compare yourself to yourself, and attempt to bridge the gap between who you were the day before and who you want to become tomorrow.
It’s ok to not be perfect—1% of the time or 100% of the time. What’s more, understanding that “perfect” doesn’t exist at all might just free you up altogether. As soon as you drop this made-up concept, I can guarantee you’ll feel lighter. Weightless, even.
Ready to fly.
Cyrenah Smith is a climber, writer, and creative living in northern New Jersey in the USA–a stone’s throw from bothNew York City and the Gunks. Beyond climbing, she is also an avid hiker and volunteer trail maintainer. Through her work, Cyrenah aims to connect outdoor pursuits to conservation and stewardship initiatives, as well as shine a light on how sport can be a force for good.