One of the reasons why rock climbing is so darn addicting is because we love to see progression. Whether it’s massive gains in confidence or improvement in technique, there’s nothing quite like gracefully sending your latest climbing project.
But what if you don’t send it, and you find yourself not-so-gracefully peeling off the walls? Congratulations, girlfriend, because you’ve just hit the performance plateau!
A performance plateau in climbing is exactly what it sounds like – a flatline in your climbing performance, where progression slows down or even comes to a complete halt. Suddenly (or slowly – then suddenly) improvement becomes imperceptible, and you find yourself frustrated as heck.
The problem with plateaus is not that they slow our progress or frustrate us beyond belief; it’s that we perceive them as a problem in the first place. When we let performance plateaus hold us back mentally and physically, we treat them as enemies that must be slayed, crushed, or broken through. But when we befriend our plateaus and welcome them with more gratitude and less attitude, then we’ve just found our climbing BFF.
This may all sound cray, but consider this: our performance plateaus help us uncover and confront our climbing weaknesses, and gift us with the opportunity to improve them by training up. This is where true progression happens: by training up our weaknesses rather than our strengths, we gain more power, contact strength, and muscular endurance.
It’s easy to have fun by focusing on what you’re good at; it’s much more difficult to face the fact that you’re not good at certain things, and then go out and turn them into strengths. Below are some common issues I found among the pros when it came to weaknesses.
Bad Footholds. Seek out the worst possible footholds in the gym and practice using them in a variety of ways, moving in all directions. Do the same outside and find problems that are known for glassy, microscopic, terrible feet.
Small Hands, Big Holds. Women tend to be good at crimping the tiniest nubs, but when it comes to large slopers and pinches, the ladies more often struggle. The only way to become proficient with these sizeable holds is by using them. Shannon Forsman is a short but very strong V12 boulderer and climbing coach. She encourages women to at least try difficult climbs that aren’t just crimps: “All I’m asking is for you to try something out of your comfort zone, whether it involves slopers, pinches, or even—gasp—a jump move. Just try! It might be difficult and embarrassing to project a couple of V-grades lower than you’re used to, but over time you’ll come out a much stronger climber.” She says finger strength isn’t the only factor for open-handed holds; success can depend on how well you use the rest of your body. “Slopers require patience, balance, core tension, and very subtle movement; every limb must be engaged. You don’t just grab slopers, you use the rest of your body to position yourself in a way that makes them useable. A general rule of thumb is to stay as far below slopers as possible so that you are pulling down rather than out.”
Power. No matter how many laps you can run on techy moderates, you will inevitably plateau at a more difficult grade if you don’t have power. Try circuits on hard boulder problems instead of just climbing around randomly. The campus board and systems board are also especially useful. Consider adding a few sets of simple box jumps (repeatedly jump on an 18” to 24” sturdy box) after climbing sessions. It will give you the explosive leg power and muscle memory you need for big moves.
In addition to training up our true physical weaknesses, performance plateaus lead us to elevate our mental game. In befriending rather than breaking through our plateaus, we are able to flow with our frustrations, not fight them. It is in these moments that we truly learn to master extraordinary mental focus and bring all our awareness into the present moment:
- Seize control of your inner dialogue. Direct positive, productive self-talk and create mental imagery that will enhance your confidence and help preprogram your ascent. Supplant negative self-talk and imagery with positive statements and images.
- Narrow your thoughts to the present moment. Focus completely on the move at hand and detach yourself from thoughts of possible outcomes. Learn to use meditation to quiet your mind and reduce cognitive chaos.
- Get to know your fears and learn to manage them. Take action to mitigate the risks associated with your legitimate fears, but learn to quickly identify and dismiss imaginary fears. Challenge the fear of falling by taking practice falls (when safe).
- Use mental rehearsal to aid in deciphering route sequences, developing climbing strategy, and risk management planning. Engage in vivid visualization and positive self-talk to program your mind for a success.
- Develop hanging-on power. Progressively subject yourself to greater and greater challenges that safely stretch your mental and physical limits. When pushed to your limit, strive to hang on for one more move, one more pitch, or in training, one more repetition. Each time you do this, you become a better, more mentally strong climber.
As counter-intuitive as it sounds, becoming BFFs with our performance plateaus may just be the key to peak performance.