Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Redpoint Anxiety in Climbing: What stresses you out? (I)

Versión en español (Original Spanish published in 18 June 2009)

A high and consistent execution level begins with the discovery of those factors and conditions that allow for a higher performance, or that, conversely, lead to an efficacy below our expectations (Harris, D. in Williams, 1991).

Luckily, every problem carries its own solution within.

Then, it’s the case that when we recognize what stimuli and circumstances are more stressing to us, and which emotional states and physical sensations are associated to them; and that if we learn how to reinterpret, get used or even ignore all of them, we’ll be able to tune our anxiety level and reach optimum concentration.

Don’t forget that one of the undesired effects of anxiety is a reduced ability to focus on the task (Nideffer, 1996), because it narrows our attention field (Landers, Wang & Courtet, 1985).
Concentration is in limited supply, and we can’t see the whole picture if we are devoting our attention to a reduced set of aspects.

- If we just think: “oops, almost at the crux… and I’m already pumped…”, while just looking to that dreaded hold, we won’t be preparing ourselves for the movements that precede it, or we’ll fail to give ourselves the proper self-instructions that allow us to recall the correct hand or foot positions and the order of execution, for example. 
- If all that you worry about is in the lines of: “this is my last try of the season…”, you will leave little room to deciding what your strategy will be during the actual climb… 
- During a competition your obsession is “I must send it or I won’t make the cut to the finals”: then your attention will be towards your own thoughts (internal attention) and your visual field (external attention) will be impaired, causing you to miss that hold round the arête… 

- Before starting the actual climb, we can be so nervous that we even forget to refill our chalk bag, or to carry enough quickdraws…
Following the works of Anshel & Weinberg (1995), Buceta (1985), Davis & Cox (2002), Dosil & Caracuel (2003) and Weinberg & Gould (1996), and with the help of my own personal and sports experience, we are going to describe the main sources of stress (stressor stimuli) in our sport, while advancing some reinterpretation strategies for them

Main Sources of Stress

Events that in previous occasions ended in success, or that, alternatively, were unpleasant due to a low self-efficacy or a bad result, can remain in our memory and promote anxiety later, while competing or working a project.

I’m talking here about a situation like this: we have just fallen higher than ever in our last try, and now we want to do it better yet; or we fear that our second try won’t be as good as our nearly successful onsight attempt. Or we have to face that crimp where we got injured last time, or the fear of falling almost at the top… again. It also can happen that we just don’t want to relive the trauma of falling at the crux, or to endure the long lasting agony of an ultra-long endurance route. In these cases we either feel the obligation of doing better, or we anticipate a negative outcome, making ourselves tense before the fact.
In these cases I always say that it would be ideal to ‘reset’ ourselves, because that is precisely what we should do: try to avoid comparing with our past self and start anew, like it was the first time we were doing it.
This is when we think we must succeed, or we elaborate about the consequences of failing to, or that it is very difficult for us to send a route because of its grade or its style; in general, things that haven’t happened yet and we believe or fear are going to happen…

Usually, too high or too low expectations can result in anxiety. So beware what you think: “I must do it, I have to link it”, “If I fall now, it’s three months until I can come back”, or “If I don’t make the top three, I won’t be chosen for the national team”

Fear of the unknown is likely to cause stress. That’s why some people don’t like to try onsight, and when they do, they are tense because they don’t know the holds and the methods for each sequence. In this situation, they should try to change their approach to uncertainty, and look at it as an enjoyable challenge; perhaps they should start practicing this style with easier routes at first, and progress to harder ones as they develop their tolerance to risky decisions and their ability to improvise.
Yuji Hirayama onsighting White Zombie. Photo: desnivelpress.com. Source: www.top30climbingwalls.com
Uncertainty is linked to the subjective likelihood of success, as a result of the confrontation between perceived difficulty and perceived ability (Martens, Vealey & Burton, 1990). In this context, the most anxiety is felt when success and failure are equally probable. And, by the contrary, there’s less stress if one of the possible outcomes is perceived as much more probable. That’s how we can now understand that the least nervous ones are the ones who know they’re going to do well (hence the importance of building self-confidence as a tool to curb anxiety), or the ones who are sure they are going to fall. This also explains some instances of people who are very nervous while trying a route, and then unexpectedly send it while climbing “just to clean it”, or “just for training, because I’m already tired”…

Reinterpretation proposals

When confronted by these four sources of stress, we have to realize that there are no psychics; we can’t be sure of what’s going to happen tomorrow, so let’s not make predictions. The past is already fixed, so we just have the present. We do have control over the here and now. Focus on it! Let’s center our attention on the present.

We have to think just about the climb we are performing or about to perform, one movement at a time; look at the next hold, place the foot on the selected spot, clip, chalk… fill with positive or instructional thoughts the space that otherwise would be occupied by negative ones.
Everything that keeps us from thinking about climbing in this precise moment will be detrimental to our self-confidence.
In those moments I always think: “Who knows? You never know… I’ll stick to my climb, my holds and see what happens.”
Do these sources of anxiety ring a bell? If not, wait for the next post where I will describe some more, I don’t want to tire you more for now…

  • Anshel, M.H. & Weinberg, R.S. (1995). Sources of acute stress in American and Australian baseball referees. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 7, 11-22
  • Buceta, J. M. (1985). Some guidelines for the prevention of excessive stress in athletes. International journal of sport psychology.
  • Davis, J. E., & Cox, R. H. (2002). Interpreting direction of anxiety within Hanin's individual zone of optimal functioning. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 14(1), 43-52.
  • Dosil, J., & Caracuel, J. C. (2003). Psicología aplicada al deporte. Ciencias de la actividad física y del deporte. Madrid. Síntesis.
  • Landers, D. M., Wang, M. Q., & Courtet, P. (1985). Peripheral narrowing among experienced and inexperienced rifle shooters under low-and high-stress conditions. Research quarterly for exercise and sport, 56(2), 122-130.
  • Martens, R., Vealey, R. S., & Burton, D. (1990). Competitive anxiety in sport. Human kinetics.
  • Nideffer, R. M. (1991). Entrenamiento para el control de la atención y la concentración. En J. M. Williams (Ed.), Psicología aplicada al deporte. Madrid. Biblioteca Nueva.
  • Williams, J (1991). Psicología Aplicada al Deporte. Madrid. Biblioteca Nueva


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