Headspace in Sport

In high school, my rock climbing coach told me that “Climbing is 10% physical, and 90% mental”.

After taking quite a large break from climbing, now in pushing into my mid-20s, I’m beginning to get back into it again. I was recently reminded of this saying during a climbing trip with my bad ass co-workers in Takaka, almost two hours East of Nelson, New Zealand. We drove to Pohara; a beautiful section of rock overlooking the road and out into the ocean. I did a warm-up top rope, then a warm-up lead climb on an easy grade. Everything felt good. I got on a more challenging route that I hadn’t seen anyone climb previously. The hands and feet were good, and I felt strong and capable of the moves. After the second clip, my mind started to shut down; I doubted my abilities, I was terrified of falling.

“Take!” I asked my belayer Anne, to take up the slack so I could rest on 2nd bolt. After calming my breathing, but still feeling embarrassed for having a freak-out so early, I got back on the wall and sailed up to the 3rd. It was like I just turned off my brain; no fear - just me and the rock. I continued past until the 3rd bolt was at my knees. The rock became flatter and hand holds smaller. Again, my mind froze up my body. I made myself ‘pumped’ by over-gripping the rock, and not resting on straight arms. I down -climbed until it was safe for Anne to “take” me again. A few tears of frustration hit me here, but I managed to pull it together. I told myself I could do it, and I made it smoothly to the next clip, then stalled again. This happened until the 5th bolt, where I was just completely mentally exhausted from the effort it took to get that far. I came down from there in tears, but into the hug of an awesome, patient belayer who understood what the struggle was like (thank you Anne).

We are all at the mercy of our minds. How we speak to ourselves internally, creates our external world. It shapes our perspective, it moulds our reality and how we make choices; and we make a new decision every 6 seconds. Many of these decisions come unconsciously, many are obvious and easy, but when it comes to doing or trying something different, it can be extremely hard.

Sport, of course, requires physical strength, reaction time, and coordination, but what is any of it without the commitment to execute it? All of that is virtually useless unless we believe that we can do it. This transfers to basically every area in life, but I have found it most obvious and striking in a sport setting.

Throughout school I went through many different sports: soccer, softball, volleyball, and then rock climbing. Rock climbing became my addiction, my life source, for 4 years. I worked at the climbing gym, studied and did my college homework at the climbing gym, and my boyfriend and friends were all climbers. As I kept climbing, the grades I was able to climb got harder, and I began climbing outside. I always had a fear of falling while lead climbing, but outdoor climbing was a whole new world for me. The fear and mental blocks I experienced in outdoor rock climbing was unlike anything I’d dealt with before. Irrational fear of falling and of not being able to see the coloured holds sucked away my strength. I over-gripped, lost my technique, and started panicking and crying on the wall. I was so embarrassed and angry at myself. Each time the fear came back, I would get more and more frustrated, I would call myself all sorts of awful names in my head, I would get mad at the people I climbed with (mostly my boyfriend at the time, which would result in us having a fight and so on). After a break up with my boyfriend, and a transition into a new way of life, as I had just started a new job in a fitness gym as a personal trainer, I took a BIG break from climbing.

During the next couple years, my fitness goals shifted as I ran my first half marathon, bought a road bike and started training for triathlons. Very quickly, I discovered that running was my favourite discipline out of the three, riding was alright, and swimming was my nemesis. I disliked indoor lane swimming, but absolutely loathed open water swimming. My first time open water swimming was in April of 2016, I had on my tri suit and two swim caps, but still got actual brain-freeze when I dipped my head in the water. That was my first shock. The second was that I was staring down into the blackest black I’d ever seen. Fear took hold again, and I couldn’t breathe. I ended up breast-stroking for the rest of the swim, with my head way above the water and my eyes up and looking ahead. The lake-weed that touched my toes made my muscles cramp as I frantically tried to swim away, a scream building in the back of my throat. Each week, when it was time for the open water swim, I had to prepare myself. I would breathe and try to focus on singing a song while my head was underwater, then I would try to translate that song to French…anything to distract me. I knew it was completely irrational - I was swimming in a lake that had nothing but some fish - yet I was terrified. What ended up really helping was watching a TedTalk by Diana Nyad, who swam from Florida to Cuba. It took her 5 tries and some crazy stories about overcoming adversity from each attempt (including getting severely stung by a swarm of box jellyfish). I thought, if she can do that, I can swim the 1500m for my tri. During my first triathlon, I was so proud of myself for keeping my head underwater for the full distance, even while having to swim through giant lake-weed twice in the course. It took a huge amount of mental energy though. I went on to complete a Half Iron Man later in the season.

My next sport became mountain biking. My brother had taken me to Whistler a few times in my late teens but I never got into it (mostly because a good mountain bike costs thousands of dollars, which I didn’t have). But as climbing took a back-seat and my triathlons had come and gone, I saved up and bought myself a bike. Funny enough, the fear found me there too. Mountain biking certainly had a higher risk factor than the other sports in which I had been involved. If you mountain bike, you’re going to fall sometimes, and you’re going to get scrapes and bruises. What I say to people who ask about the risk mountain bikers put themselves in, is this: “We are all going to die, and that’s okay. What we can control is how we live our life. We put ourselves at risk by getting in a car and driving on the highway. I chose this sport because it makes me a better person. I get to experience nature in a unique way and because I love the feeling and the challenge.” There are ways of minimising the risk - riding a newer, more reliable bike is part of it, having some coaching lessons is very helpful, and of course less speed, less harm.

With all that being said, we all have our good and bad days. My headspace has gotten a lot better over the past couple years of riding. I learned to take pressure off myself when I am not feeling confident enough to ride something. I still get frustrated when I know I have the skills to do something, yet my mind just freaks out and doesn’t let me do it. On some rare occasions, I can just turn my brain off, and I complete the trail or feature without even realising it. Tracy Hannah gave Paul the Punter some excellent advice in a recent youtube video. Her advice to make Paul go faster was to “sing a song”. And guess what? It worked. As soon as his mind wasn’t analysing and processing every little piece of the trail, and every little move he was doing on the bike, he just flew down the trail.

Don’t get me wrong, the fear is there for a reason, but it also holds us back so much from what we are actually capable of. And as I said at the start, this is totally relevant in every aspect in life. Change and commitment to new things is hard and uncomfortable. It takes energy and courage, but it is how we grow. I know that I am so much stronger than my mind lets me think sometimes. We have so much more power than we think.

Positive affirmations and visualisations are two things that have helped me, and continue to help a lot. Bringing more positive thoughts into our minds has a huge impact. And visualisation has immense effects on our day-to-day lives, and our performance in sport. We need to believe in ourselves, believe in our abilities and strengths and power. We are all human, and this is part of the beautiful struggle.

Skye IrwinComment