Touchstone Blog Archive
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
  Taking the Lead - pt. 1
A clear head helps you take the lead
The first of two articles about how to improve at lead climbing

Lead climbing is a challenge that goes beyond physical obstacles. You may know that you can do the moves, you may already have climbed a grade easily on top rope, but somehow when you lead it's inexplicably hard. You fall off pumped - with swollen, overworked muscles.

The problem is less about muscles, however, and more about what’s in your head. When we lead, we are understandably anxious about falling, about the distance between bolts, about unexpectedly hazards on the wall below. Sometimes you aren’t even conscious of the fear. It's just a vague feeling of unease at the back of your mind. It takes practice to recognize it, much less eliminate it.

That fear takes its toll however: You grip everything a little bit more, you're less willing to take risks, you don't flow through the moves. As you move up the route, all those little things accumulate and bring on a crisis. Suddenly you're worn out on what should be easy moves. But the problem started way back when you were tying in.

There are two things you can do: train your mind and train your body.

Let’s start with the purely mental aspects.

First, you simply need to lead a lot. The more time you spend doing it, the more comfortable you get with it. You develop good habits. Eventually it becomes second nature. Ensure you know the principles of safe lead climbing, have an attentive lead belayer, and that your early attempts to lead have been closely observed by an experienced lead climber. Then when you are at the gym or at the cliff, don't pass up an opportunity to lead, even if the top-rope is already up. If you are outside, pull the rope and lead it for yourself. If you are inside, lead it if it's allowed.

Second, lead routes that are well within your comfort level, especially when you are warming up. Get on routes that you know well, and that you can lead with ease. This gets your thoughts into a good groove. You are telling your stressed-out nervous system, "this isn't so bad." You are establishing confident, strong, relaxed associations with leading and with climbing. If you haven’t developed much confidence yet, fake it. Make your body act like it is strong, comfortable, and relaxed. Act this way long and often enough, and somehow it becomes true. Psychological research has shown that forcing yourself to smile, for example, even when you don't feel like it, actually has a neurological affect on you that makes you feel better.

Confidence and relaxation on a route work the same way. If you have spent enough time doing easy routines that you know well, and developing good mental habits, your body and mind will slip into that familiar groove, even when the route might have completely stressed you out or sent you falling off otherwise.

It's a cliché, but if you focus too much on negative thoughts, you are sure to make the anxiety worse and guarantee a bad time on a route. If you fill your head with thoughts of the dangers, the run-out between bolts, how tired your arms feel, or how hard the route is, they’ll take over your body as well. Pessimistic predictions will fulfill themselves. Repeat affirmations to yourself. Laugh, smile, keep busy (when you are not climbing), or whatever else you can find that works for you.

Being a good lead isn’t entirely mental, however. In Part 2, we’ll look at a few physical tips to keep you at the top of your game.

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