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Fearless Fridays: Ten tips for nervous climbers

Fearless Fridays: Ten tips for nervous climbers

It being winter here in the northern hemisphere, my social media feed is full of news and images of the white stuff – people climbing it, hiking across it, skiing down it (me, jealous much?!). I came across one such article (link at the end) dealing with nerves when skiing – and although I don’t ski (unless you count the time I pretty much continuously fell down the entire slope at The Snow Centre in Hemel Hempstead) the advice in the article can translate quite neatly to climbing.

1 – Make friends with fear

“The more you face your fear in your mind, the easier it is to deal with in real life”. Imagine you’re at the crux of a climb, far above the boulder mat/last bolt/piece of gear. Intensify that feeling of fear in your mind, and keep it there. Know how it feels, make friends with that feeling. When you then experience that fear in situ on the wall or rock, your nerves should be calmer.

2 – Get ready to fall

For those just starting out climbing, or learning to lead indoors, force yourself to fall. Once you’ve done this a few times, you’ll realise it isn’t so bad! I would add that having a belay partner you really trust is of paramount importance when doing fall practice. Make sure you discuss how you’ll fall (do you shout out ‘falling’ first or just fall?) and ensure your partner has eyes on you 100%. Even experienced climbers regularly practice falling, so it becomes a normal part of climbing and not something to be scared of.

Focus. Breathe. Ready.
Natasha Hirst Photography

3 – Breathe

“The single fastest way to zap fear? Breathe”. When you’re tense and panic-breathing, your muscles don’t work properly. Focusing on slow, deep breaths sends a message to your brain that you’re ok actually, and that you can relax. Concentrating on breathing *out* can be an effective way of getting your heartbeat back under control.

4 – Trigger your superpowers

Train your brain to associate a clenched fist with a boost of confidence. Reinforcing this response will lead to it becoming a reflex action, so you can summon it when you need it most. It’s known as anchoring, a process in neuro-linguistic programming by which a memory recall/touch/word (the anchor) becomes associated with a particular response (eg a confidence boost). Think of a time you climbed really well – how you felt, what you saw. Now anchor these feelings by clenching your fist (or similar action or word); after a bit of practice you should be able to trigger these confident feelings when you’re on the wall, simply by clenching your fist again.

WomenClimb trip to Catalonia, Spain. November 2018, Natasha Hirst Photography.

5 – Shift your focus

“Forget what you can’t control and focus on what you can”. Instead of worrying about how high above the clip/ground you are, shift your focus to how good that next hand/foothold looks, or how solid the rock is. Changing perspective can help clear the mind’s path ready for the next move.

6 – You the woman!

Think positive and you’ll feel it. Saying a few simple positive words before setting off on a route will put your mind and body in the best possible shape (even if you don’t 100% believe it at first). Engage your mind, repeating the words, and your brain will hang on to them as you climb.

7 – Drop a grade, no biggie

If you’re having a bad day, don’t get hung up on it. Drop a grade or two and build your confidence back up on easier routes. Get your flow back.

8 – Wipe out whipper memories

The first time back on the wall after an injury can be tough on the mind. But research suggests you can neutralise a bad memory, by changing your reaction to it. Take an objective look back at the accident or injury, and ask yourself how you could prevent this happening again. What needs to change? Better foot placement? Improved mat landings? Building finger strength?

WomenClimb/Inversion trip to Catalonia, Spain. November 2018. Natasha Hirst Photography

9 – Leave your comfort zone

Taking small steps out of our comfort zone will help stretch our limits, and still keep us feeling in control. Taking a course to tackle your weaknesses can give you the skills you lack and confidence you need to inch your way up that hard route you’ve got your eye on. Try watching others climb harder routes – how do they move their body, find balance, etc? Can you copy their moves?

10 – Distraction

Distract yourself from the fear by singing. Or laughing. Or wiggling. Or just hanging on the rope doing all three. After all, there’s not much point to climbing if you’re not having fun!


The original skiing version of this article appeared in the Telegraph.

Read more on fear from Womenclimb:

Emily Harrington’s TedX talk on fear

The climbing FEAR!

Gemma’s story of overcoming fear


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