Plateaus, valleys and mountains: Silencing the inner critic

I’d first like to say that this is a very reflective post, and part of my goal of looking deeper at what I love from climbing and what my weaknesses are. This follows from my blog post last week (see below).  Secondly, I swear that those over at Crux Crush and I are psychic. While I was drafting up my title for this post and musing over it in my head, Cate posted this about letting go of goals.  Now this blog post is both about letting go, re-framing, and revaluing goals in climbing. It also is about acknowledging that I’m pretty good at identifying my weaknesses but pretty bad at working them – which makes goals kinda hard to achieve!

I had two goals when I first moved to Sheffield. One was to get to the top of a L2 at the Foundry, and I achieved this within the year (yay!). The other still hasn’t been achieved and that was to get to the top of the main lead wall at the Foundry.I spent about an hour on lead after the centre had closed with my OH belaying just trying to get the courage to do the very easy moves on a 6a. I couldn’t do it, and after trying for a summer to make them, I stopped. It was making me hate climbing and question whether this was the sport for me. Trying do so something and setting a goal where trying to achieve it makes me cry isn’t something I want to do – especially because much of my identity is wrapped up in the sport!

I stopped leading about 2 years after. I had almost got to 7a indoors (in fact some of the earliest posts on this blog are about this goal: here, here, and here ) and had been to Orpierre where I managed a 6a outside, but the route was very short and akin to a boulder problem. I came to the realisation that I was topping routes and not feeling fulfilled.

Orpierre. Not the 6a. Photo: R Griffith

Orpierre. Photo: R Griffith

I still felt like I hadn’t achieved my full potential. Even if I topped a 6a or 6c route, where I was scared the whole way up, I felt like I had failed. The goal of getting a 7a route was taking more out of me than I thought it should, and I wasn’t enjoying the challenge.

I have a loud critical voice. I always think I should be climbing harder than I am and find it really difficult to balance training commitments with my PhD and other draws on my time. I push myself, but at times it’s not in a constructive or supportive way and at times I’ve got so frustrated with my lack of progress that I’ve cried. This means that I do push myself and can be quite driven, but coupled with a very loud negative critic, it’s often hard to put my ‘failure’ into perspective. Particularly when all I had to compare myself with were very strong, world class athletes.

The rest of this blog is about my quest to send a boulder problem in Font. In this question, climbing has come on massively. However, not quite the way that I anticipated, and this is where my experience and the experience of Cate starts to become similar.

In 2010, I went to Fontainebleau and had such a fantastic time. On one of the days, I tried Lapin ou Canard, a 7a in Franchard Haute Plains. I didn’t think that I would get anywhere on it, I wasn’t that strong; I had never done a 7a before and it was hot. I did most of the moves in the first session and really wanted the problem – if I got it, I would have beat my OH in getting a 7a in Font.

The skin on my fingers was completely gone. Photo: A Cross

Working the bottom moves. Photo: P Jeffery

Working the bottom moves of Lapin ou Canard. Photo: P Jeffery

We went back on the last day, and I didn’t get it. I lost a lot of skin though!

So, I made a goal. I would properly train for Lapin and, the next trip to Font, I would send it. To begin with, I started to train without really knowing what to do. I ended up climbing right at the peak of my ability all the time. This meant I failed a lot, and plateaued. I felt like I wasn’t improving and that my goal was totally un-achievable. In not improving, I felt that I wasn’t a ‘true’ climber.

Lots of different, negative thoughts were happening and this affected my climbing ability even more. I didn’t want to try harder things because I knew I was going to fail, but I also didn’t really want to try easier things because if I failed on those it would be the end of the world! I didn’t really like climbing at this point.

I decided to get some help in constructing a training programme to get over this plateau, both in terms of my technical ability, and also in looking at my mental strength. Lucinda really understood the conflicting drive between really wanting to achieve, but also being scared to commit. The fact that I kept dropping top moves because of my head was indicative of this fear and she gave some really good techniques in overcoming this. I’ll outline some of them at the end.

So, I had a structured training programme that focused not only on the goal of climbing Lapin, but also on improving my climbing holistically. I felt for the first time in ages that I was finally getting out of the ravine where I’d fallen after Font.

I improved so much in a short space of time, and then plateau’d again. After switching my training around a bit, I improved again. The best bit was that I was really enjoying climbing. I didn’t feel guilty for playing on easy circuits and doing ‘easier’ problems outside. I could claim it was part of my training.

That summer I did a 7a in the Peak District (Saline Drip), in 2 sessions and was so pleased with myself! While the OH had managed to do it before me, I felt like I had achieved something.

However, come around to Font, I was really loath to get back on Lapin. I put it off, I wasn’t climbing very well and it didn’t go. I was gutted. I felt like I was back to square one, and slammed up against a massive wall. Why couldn’t I get this climb?!? Everyone said that I should get it.

Lapin Ou Canard. Photo: G Matthew

The weather didn’t really help with psych. Photo: G Matthew

Franchard Hautes Plaines. Photo: G Matthews

Trying to focus. Photo: G Matthews

So, I revised my training and focused on that. I felt both driven and also like this was the last chance. By this point the OH and everyone in the group had done the bloody thing!

After about 7 months of training, I was back in Font and the butterfly feelings were back. I felt in a better place strength and technique-wise, but also really drained. Work was very demanding, I caught norovirus 2 weeks before heading to Font and my friend had broken her back climbing about 1 month beforehand. Once again, I didn’t want to get on the problem, I was really scared of failing and not achieving it. And guess what? I didn’t get it. I worked on it for an afternoon. Took a day off and came back. I was tired and it didn’t go.

So, I left Font again with mixed feelings. Compared to the last time I was there, I didn’t enjoy my self as much. This is odd because I sent a 6b and 6c easily, and on the first day. I’d worked some moves on a 7b boulder problem and really enjoyed the moves (so much so, I may get on it again this year). However, my head was not in the right place. I was so wrapped up in the fear of failing on Lapin that this extended to other problems and by not getting sending it, I lost sight of the pure enjoyment of being in Font.

Walking out of Franchard that day, I decided not to set any goals for Font for the next couple of trips. While I have definitely got to grips with my inner critic over the two year drive to top Lapin and my climbing has certainly improved, I still have trouble from separating ‘me’, my ego and my critic. I want holidays to be fun, to push myself, but also to recharge my batteries. When a goal turns into a battle that is as mentally exhausting as it is physically exhausting, it’s time to let go.

My quest for Lapin has taught me when to let go. I’m happy climbing right now. I’ve set myself smaller training goals which structure my climbing. I still have my plateaus, where I take stock, maybe drop my grade and improve endurance and I’ve definitely had some massive improvements, but I’ve not been in the ravine of despair for a long time.

I think, like Cate, and other climbers, I’ve realised the people are happy to have me at the crag if I’m happy. If I’m having a massive battle with my inner critic, then I won’t be happy. This means they probably won’t want me around! I also don’t climb as well. All in all, by letting go and revising my goals, I feel like I’m improved significantly in my own well being and in my climbing.

So, like Cate:

I am still climbing and climbing happy. Climbing “happy” has shifted in definition from a few months ago and that’s a good thing. (Cate, Crux Climb)

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3 thoughts on “Plateaus, valleys and mountains: Silencing the inner critic

  1. Pingback: Don’t Jump Out a Window | Real World Climbing

  2. Pingback: Reflections | Climbing My Mountains

  3. Kate – I LOVE what you wrote, especially your honesty – it is all spot on. I have experienced and felt every one of the emotions you described. Thank you for giving words to that inner climber battle that we all face, while still affirming moving forward and wading through the joy that is climbing. – Cate (

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