March 9, 2009 George Foster

Fear of Failure and why it’s sometimes best to fail…..

For ages i thought that the reason i felt i couldn’t commit on routes was due to a fairly rational fear of falling and i blindly accepted this as gospel, until recently after a chat with a mate of mine. The overriding theme in this blog, aside from the fact that i’m a total gumby, is that i seem to fall off a lot! I realise that this doesn’t necessarily mean that i have a fear of falling! Duh! This in turn got me to thinking that maybe it was something else, like perhaps a fear of failure?

I’ve been focused on on-sighting for months now and have found that whilst this is perhaps the funnest form of climbing (especially on trad, though sometimes substitute ‘fun’ with ‘pant-wetting’) it doesn’t, for me anyway, correspond well to mileage. I build routes up in my head so much to the point that i’m scared of getting on them. Not necessarily because they’re too hard for me or they’re bold or i don’t like the way their eyes follow me round the room, it’s more that i’m petrified of not doing them clean, first-time. This has been hugely detrimental to my climbing in a whole host of ways. Namely i travel to lots of places round the UK, most recently having back-to-back spells on the grit, and get next to nothing done e.g. my ticklist over that period has shown perhaps 3 routes out of 9 days climbing? That’s poor by anyone’s estimation. I’ve almost forgotten what it’s like to set up a belay at the top of a trad route (don’t tell my seconds!!).

A fear of failure is in turn irrational in the grand scheme of things. There’s SO many routes out there at every grade under the sun that you don’t NEED to get caught up in the pressure and narcissistic massage that is the ethos of ‘on-sight or die’. Failing is possibly the most important part of climbing. Two of the best experiences that i have had climbing in the past 6 months have been failing on routes. I hiked up a bad-ass mountain in Wales to get on a route called Hyndsight (a veritable silk blouse of an E4 by Welsh standards) and failed on it. For the sake of the point i’m trying to make please excuse any arrogance (if you’ve seen me climb you know it’s wholly unfounded!) but i climbed really well. I felt very controlled inspite of having next to no gear (literally) and on territory that was very close to, if not at, my limit. I got to a point where the situation was pretty intimidating and i was lucky to escape into a neighbouring HVS and downclimb. Abbing down to retrieve the gear i found that i was just one smeary move from good holds and welcome gear. Inspite of this i felt very happy with my climbing and decision making and thus its one of my best climbing experiences.

For every E5 that gets onsighted there’s tens, if not hundreds, that get failed on. Everyone starts somewhere and everyone has failed along the line (except the Notorious G….and Jerry Moffatt), it’s how you deal with that failure that enables you to progress (and that doesn’t have to correlate to leaps in grades). There are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ experiences, you just need to think more about what it is you’ve gained from each situation. I’d always thought i’d had a good mental game cos i managed to scrape my way up the odd bold route, when in retrospect it was more the combination of momentum, luck, stupidity and a strong tailwind. Perhaps the most important, and fragile, mental attribute is that of confidence, namely a confidence in your abilities in a range of aspects i.e. your decision making, knowing when to commit and when to back-off, and knowing that when you commit you won’t hold back. Confidence in ‘yourself’. I guess the real point of this is to emphasise the mental side of climbing, you can be as strong as Richie Simpson or big Malc Smith but if you ain’t got the gumption you be fucked. Besides if no-one failed how would we ever get anywhere??

So to sum up, you’re all good because of me. You can thank me later.

Comment (1)

  1. What?!! I can’t beleive noone has posted a comment on this brilliant and succint post about something we all face in our lives whether it is with climbing or not.
    George, as always, lovely writing and I can definitely relate. A funny quote I just heard recently reminded me of this post:
    “Losers are people who are so afraid of winning that they don’t even try to win anymore. You may lose(not send a route/boulder), but if you always try, you’ll always be a winner.”
    Now there is advice you can take to the bank! Does anyone need a hug?

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