La Sportiva climbing athlete Paige Claassen shares on how to mentally train through fear post injury.
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Last February I was gearing up for a big three weeks in Fontainebleau, with a long list of hard-for-me boulders in mind that I hoped to wrestle. My goal was to build a power base for the spring sport climbing season, during which I planned to tackle a few of my life-list projects. I’d stepped back from projecting for the second half of 2016 after burning out on a route I was working during the summer, but I’d entered the new year feeling refreshed and motivated for the upcoming season. My body and mind felt light and clear after a hard work season in Namibia – 16 hour days on my feet in the grape pack-house provided plenty of time to build up psych and oddly enough, fitness. I was amped and ready to climb.
But one week into the trip, my plan was foiled. Our crew was working a tall arête in the Dame Jouanne sector, and shortly after moved to an even taller face, “Le Mur Plus Que Parfait”. Le Mur looked like just my style of climbing, if only it was on a rope. The face was aesthetic, begging to be climbed – even the dyno at the very top didn’t deter me, so I decided to do something out of character. I told myself that rather than bail out of fear, as I typically do in bouldering, I should go for it and take the fall at the dyno (I was unlikely to stick it first try) to build confidence in bouldering falls. We had lots of pad, lots of capable spotters, and so I set off.
With my feet 15 feet off the deck, I knew spotters couldn’t really do much. But I carried on, jumped at the lip, fell as expected, came down straight onto a flat pad and felt my ankle torque ever so slightly. The impact hurt but I figured it was just the instant pain from a high fall. I sat there for a moment, evaluating what hurt, before realizing that my ankle was not okay. Within minutes it had swelled to the size of a soft ball. My husband and friends carried me and our pads out of the boulders, and we spent the next few days going to various doctors in the area, with the assistance from some very kind local friends. But the prognosis was strangely uncertain. One doctor said no fracture, another said likely fracture, and a third told me it was not safe to fly. Finally, the third doctor relented to my request to travel back to South Africa, insisting that I take blood thinner injections, which I had to administer myself. While this is standard procedure in Europe it is not the case in the US. I was intimidated by the complexity regarding what seemed like a normal ankle sprain.
Back in South Africa, I saw additional doctors who continued to provide inconclusive answers, but the gist was that I had Grade 2 tears in the ligaments of my left ankle. I immobilized the ankle for five weeks before beginning physical therapy to rebuild mobility and strength. During that time, I did my best to stay in shape. I would climb one-footed in circles on the lower half of our Moon board (I know, I know, everyone is moon bored, but it really is an incredible training tool). I hang-boarded to maintain finger strength. I trained on the rings and TRX, and lifted weights to maintain strength in my core along with other key climbing muscle groups. I found creative ways to simulate forearm pump by rolling a Nalgene weighted string around a stick and doing endless forearm curls on the TRX while laying on the couch (pictured).
After ten weeks, I was able to start climbing with two feet again. I couldn’t fall, but I could climb easier routes and boulders. Slowly, I learned which moves I could confidently execute without falling. Despite the time off, I felt strong. I’d prepared for the physical challenges of an injury, but I’d neglected an unanticipated consequence: fear.
I’ve spent years teaching clinics about falling. I have a rule – “No Takes”. In my experience, saying “take” mid route trains my mind to bail, to not commit. When I’m working a route at or above my limit, I must be 100% committed to each move. If I said "take" every time I doubted my ability in a move, I would never complete a project. When we try hard, when we push ourselves to attempt moves that we might not stick, we’re training our bodies to execute. It’s part muscle memory, part building strength, and part learning subtle techniques. “Take” doesn’t do us any favors. Instead, it inhibits our progression. The “No Takes” Rule applies to training as well – when we push ourselves in the gym, we’re training our minds and bodies to fully commit on the rock.
But here I am, 18 years into my climbing career, and I’m afraid to fall. If I can’t fall, I can’t try moves I’m not certain I can stick. And if I can’t try hard moves, I’m not pushing myself. I say "take," and I don’t get those benefits of muscle memory, strength conditioning, and subtle lessons in technique. My progression is hindered because I’m afraid.
Caution after an injury is normal. But once our body is healed, how do we heal the fear that holds us back?
The same way we overcome fear as new climbers.
1. Climb with trustworthy partners.
2. Start with a lighter partner who can give a soft catch.
3. Start on steeper terrain, where the risk of slamming into the wall is minimal.
4. Try hard routes that will force natural falls, rather than the old “1,2,3, let go” from the top of the wall, which I don’t find effective.
5. Build up to bigger falls on lower angle terrain.
Slowly, I’ll re-learn the lessons I painstakingly engrained into my 14-year-old brain, when I learned to fall confidently. My fall in Fontainebleau wasn’t a confidence builder, but I don’t need to let that hinder my sport climbing future. Instead I’ll take my own advice, and train that fear away once again. Because fear should never be what stops us from pushing to the next level.
Photos: ©Arjan de Kock
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Paige Claassen is a member of the La Sportiva Climbing Team.
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