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How to Overcome Excuses to Improve Your Climbing

In this three part series, ambassador, climbing coach and twice Swedish bouldering champion, Daniela Ebler, will cover the science behind the mind’s excuses and how to conquer them.

Part 1. Learning About Excuses

By Daniela Ebler

We all hear excuses, fears and doubts popping into our minds in many different shapes and forms. They come often in three ways: inner thoughts, feelings, or outer observations.

When you’re at the crux-move of your project and as you examine the next difficult holds, your mind might tell you your hands are too sweaty, or that you’re too tired. When you try to move into a handstand and the thought might cross your mind that there’s no way you can balance. These might seem like facts in the moment, but these are excuses.

Examples of excuses:

  • That looks too hard
  • That is too scary
  • I’m too tired
  • I’m too hungry
  • It’s too hot/cold today
  • The friction on the rock is bad today
  • My rock climbing trousers are too tight (never happens with 3RD ROCK though!)

This is something that happens for everyone, it’s a default mode of the brain developed to protect us from danger. In rock climbing and other “extreme sports,” it can be hard to separate an excuse from an actual danger. The brain's default reaction to stress is to trigger you to act according to its priorities: to save energy, eat when there’s food, and to avoid enemies and isolation.

The brain is strategic and very persistent, so if the first excuse doesn’t work, you can make sure it’s going to try to find another one that will.

As a coach that focuses mostly on the mental part of training, I find this topic extremely interesting and I thought I’d share my point of view on it as a rock climber because excuses, fears and doubts are reasons why you don’t achieve your goals. If you can look at excuses, fears and doubts with curiosity and an intention to learn, it will be a lot easier to overcome them and live up to your potential. By changing the way you react to these excuses, and acting on this, you can perform to your expectations. You always have a choice, to give in to the excuses, or battle for your potential!

Tennis champion Rafael Nadal summarizes this perfectly:

The first not to find an excuse on the racket or on the string ... The only truth is that you have to do things better to be able to fight for the point and fight for the match.”

It’s important to understand that your thoughts and excuses will always be there. When you start to identify them and work with your reasons for not doing something, you can conquer them. You can’t avoid them or make them go away, and that’s not what you want.

But before you can conquer your excuses, you’ll need to understand the facts behind this natural habit. Firstly, your brain is not doing this to you in order to make you fail, it’s simply designed this way to make you survive. Your brain mainly prioritizes saving energy and avoiding danger.

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If you’re high up above the ground and might fall, well that’s dangerous. The basic instinct for the brain is to protect you. Your brain is telling you that you should not take any risks at that point. Makes sense right?

As a rock climber, it’s very important to know when it’s safe to keep going and push yourself versus when you might actually fall and hurt yourself. The only problem with this brain reasoning is that now we have ropes and crash pads that make falling less dangerous, so there is no reason to be afraid, especially if we know how to fall, yet our brain continues to send us these false messages.

Also, our brain thinks that we need other people to survive, because back in the days we did! If we were alone we could get eaten by wild animals without any chance of survival. This could be the reason why we fear public speaking or fear trying a climb that we don’t know in front of our friends, in case it will make us look bad.

We are evolutionary beings selected to live together and hunt and protect each other in groups. Meaning that being socially excluded was a danger, risking starvation or being attacked by an animal without being able to protect ourselves. Being alone also meant we couldn’t reproduce, and then our genes would die with us.

The brain is also very fond of trying to predict things or repeat things from the past. If you don’t know if you can do a climb, your brain will try to predict how it will go, based on previous experiences. The default is usually to expect the worst and avoid anything bad from happening by not taking unnecessary risks or wasting energy. So if you had a hard time on a roof in the past, it’ll take that feeling and enhance it, to make it seem like there’s no way you can do a roof now. Which most likely will make you feel like there’s no point in even trying! Consequently, you’ll also never know how it would’ve gone if you tried, and you risk not progressing in your climbing.

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It’s important to be aware of these basic tendencies of the brain when trying to combat excuses. They are always there and the best thing you can do is to accept them instead of letting them take control of you.

Ask yourself why are you scared, why do you doubt yourself or why you don't want to try something a second time. Is it a valid excuse/reason? Or is it simply your brain’s survival instincts.

  • You feel an ache in a finger, is it an actual ache? A warning? Or just a symptom of your mind thinking it may get hurt?
  • Is this fall dangerous or is it just your brain creating that feeling as a default because you’re high above the ground?
  • Are the holds too far apart or did you not even try the big move because you didn’t want to fail?
  • Did you fall because you were too pumped, or did you actually let go instead of fall?

During my sport psychology class our teacher used an analogy that has stuck with me.

“I’m not my thoughts and my feelings, but I am my actions.”

I can verbally say, “I can’t walk.” Then repeat it, trying to convince myself that I cannot walk. But if I start walking while repeating that sentence over and over, as soon as I start moving my feet I’m walking - even if I say “I can’t walk!” Thoughts and feelings can aid us, but they can also be very deceiving.

The more questions we ask ourselves about why we create excuses for not doing (or doing) something the easier it is to leave them behind or take them with and continue doing what we were doing.

In the next post I will write about the most common excuses in rock climbing, what they might tell us, and how we can alter our approach to them and improve our climbing.

Daniela is a professional coach, yoga teacher, rock climber & 3RD ROCK climbing ambassador based in Sweden.

Follow Daniela on Instagram

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