Wednesday, 23 October 2013

I’m rubbish because my mate is sometimes better than me.

This weeks post comes from Ged Mac - gourmand, raconteur, and proprietor of Liverpool's Climbing Hangar.

The heavy bass massaged the dance floor of Chibuku as Nick played a DJ set supporting Disclosure in Liverpool last month. This was his most high profile set ever. I ‘danced’ away to his mix feeling a warm glow of pride. That’s my mate Nick I thought, look at all these people dancing, enjoying themselves, I was happy for him. A dark thought about my climbing life surfaced suddenly, how often am I envious instead of proud of my friends success? How often does a friends’ success actually spoil my climbing session? More often than I would like to admit actually.

I assume we all compare ourselves to other people, in all walks of life. At the wall this means you have put yourself in an ability league relative to other people. I am also assuming that, like me, you expect to outperform some and be outperformed by others. But when this order is upset, unbidden thoughts, presumably made by demons, appear in my mind and interfere with my climbing session. Here are three scenarios:

Scenario 1: I climb a boulder problem first time, I fight hard and get it first try (called a flash). While basking in glory, Dan, who climbs V14 strolls up and attempts to climb it. He struggles and falls! Wow! Dan fell off it? Well ain’t that just the icing on the cake? It must be harder than I thought! I must be on form tonight!

Scenario 1.1: Dan cruises a problem I am working. I am inspired and pay close attention to his movement, looking for tips. I feel indifferent about his ascent as Dan’s is basically a machine anyway with hydraulics for fingers. I expect him to crush it easily.

Scenario 2: I’m climbing with Mark, our finance man, Mark climbs V9ish like me. I climb a boulder problem first time, I fight hard and get it first try. While basking in glory, Mark glides effortlessly to the top. I didn’t find that one too bad actually, he says, looking surprised after my horror show. This triggers dark, envious thoughts. I invent reasons why he found it easy and I didn’t. I find reasons why I’m tired. I mutter, ‘well you’ve always been good at slopers, I’m rubbish at them. I’m climbing terribly– maybe I’ll wrap up and go home early…. I need to train more/eat less/pull my finger out etc

Scenario 2.2: Mark saunters up a problem that I am working, yep I feel bad about that. OMG, I am rubbish, I’m quitting climbing etc… self-esteem/cliff edge/dive dive dive…

Scenario 3: I climb a boulder problem first time, I fight hard and get it first try. N one’s around, I move on. Nice. Next problem Ged….

Hypothetically, the above takes place in five parallel universes, I climb the same boulder problem in the same style in each universe, but each leads into one of the scenarios above and a very different feeling about my performance based on factors beyond my control. Typically the suggested circuit grade is the classic session killer, normally that it’s harder than you think it should be. Amazingly, very few people complain if they think something is too easy (go figure), but anyway.

It’s pretty embarrassing admitting the above. It isn’t like I choose these thoughts. But up they pop, like little bubbles in my mind, often with terrible effects on how much I enjoy my session. What’s worse is the occasional mood swings and stupid comments that follow, yeah I didn’t sleep much last night or I’ve climbed too much or not enough. Crazy. Obviously the problem is internal, Mark and Dan are two climbers I respect and learn huge amounts from. So what is the difference? I don’t know to be sure, but I presume that the proximity of Mark to me in terms of ability/time climbing/training/build/height/age, occasionally triggers a very negative self-analysis that totally ignores logic and obvious objective analysis like style of climb, that Mark and I have different preferences/strengths weaknesses and so on.

Obviously I’m going to climb with my friends so, if Mark continues to cruise stuff I can’t do, well, dry your eyes Ged and get on with it. But the real question here is why and how do certain things get under our skin with enough force to inhibit performance? Listen Mark, it’s not you, it’s me. Maybe there are areas of my motivation and self-esteem that I don’t yet understand, invisible mental currents that wield influence over my climbing.

I know I climb my best when I’m happy. I also know that sometimes I get annoyed when I judge my climbing to be poor and struggle to reverse the feeling, my climbing always worsens when this happens, even if the judgement is wrong or unfair. Yet I think I climb for pleasure, for the challenge, for how good it makes me feel, for time shared with others.
The million dollar question is then, can I (we) improve the climbing experience by altering my emotional response to things beyond our control, to stay happy and motivated? I’m working on the answer, but so far my top three for staying positive is:

Forget ‘I did it’ = / ‘I fell off’ = try, be motivated by making progress no matter how tiny.
Never, ever make an excuse for falling off, analyse why it may have happened, but don’t excuse it.

Spend a session failing on hard stuff – I say in my head after every fall, ‘this one has something to teach you then, best pay attention…’ failing can be fun!
If you have any experiences of other factors influencing your climbing, positive or negative or you have any wisdom to share from climbing or from other disciplines, please do get in touch so I can explore the subject further with case studies other than me!


  1. I used to be saddened/embarrassed about failing on stuff indoors that my stronger peers cruised up...and the looks of surprise on their faces as I got shut down!... then I gave up caring and accepted being shit/better at grinding things into the ground and basked in the satisfaction of the siege (an approach that seems to work outdoors given enough time!)

  2. Bring on the siege, been my main tactic for years! O

  3. I would like to add something from the discipline of Nursing........I spent many years being envious of other Nurses who always seemed to run the ward more efficiently, less stressfully, and more organised than I could ever be. I used to go home after a long shift and be so determined to be more like them the next day, try to do things their way, try to be more like them, so that I would feel 'in control' instead of struggling. Of course this negativity carried into my next day and the next and the next. Until one day (see Ritchie's comment above) I gave up caring about them, because whilst they were being uber organised and efficient, I realised that I was spoiling my patients with care and attention..........and the tidying and organising of the ward could wait......Dust if you must.....