Overcoming the Fear of Failure

The author sending at the Kaymoor Hole, New River Gorge, WV.

The author sending at the Kaymoor Hole, New River Gorge, WV.

Fear of failure wields tremendous power over climbers who possess an unbending need for success. Ironically, the fear of failure tends to produce failure because it leads to a tight, timid approach of trying not to blow it. A good example of this in mainstream sports is how often a football team gives up the winning score when, late in the game, they shift into a so-called prevent defense.

In climbing, a try-not-to-fail “prevent defense” results in tentative movement and a trepidation in making tenuous or dynamic moves. Furthermore, the fear of failure leads to second-guessing sequences, doubting your ability, and focusing on the possibility of failure. This mental tension manifests itself as shallow breathing, overgripping of holds, jitters, and tense, inefficient movement. Before long, the very thing you are trying to avoid finds you.

Since this fear is completely self-imposed, however, it can be eliminated. Following are three strategies for killing this fear at its roots.

1. Acknowledge Your Preparedness and Experience
Whereas novice climbers, enamored of the process of learning to climb, possess scant fear of failure, more experienced climbers often assume a more outcome-oriented mindset and thus empower the fear of failure to strike at their soul. Fortunately, by consciously reviewing your preparedness, training, and experience, you can largely extinguish this fear.

Apply this coping strategy when you are scoping and roping up for a climb. Begin by taking a mental inventory of your recent training as well as your many climbing successes. Next relive in your mind’s eye a few similar routes that you have prevailed on in the past. Finally, return your thoughts to the comfort of your preclimb rituals that have proven many times to be a precursor of a successful ascent.

Just as importantly, you must banish any thoughts of previous failures (on this or other routes) and wash from your consciousness the what-if adversities and worst-case scenarios that you imagined as part of your risk-management preparations. If necessary, counter these worrisome images with a few crisp, confident thoughts of what is probable and realistic based on past experiences and your investment in training. Then, as you step up to engage the rock, narrow your focus to the holds before you and dwell only on process-oriented thoughts.

2. Focus on Process as You Climb
Fear of failure is born from an outcome-oriented mindset that constantly ponders the odds and consequences of success versus failure. Therefore, you can defeat this fear by focusing single-mindedly on the process of climbing and never letting your mind wander to possible outcomes.

Concentrate on the things immediate to your performance, such as precise foot placements, relaxing your grip, moving quickly onto the next rest position, and such. You can accentuate this laser-like focus by sharpening your visual awareness of the holds and wall features before you. Notice the slight variations and imperfections that make each hold unique, and strive for optimal placement of every hand and foot. If you capture your attention in this way, there will be little room in your consciousness to think about success or failure.

Anytime your thoughts begin to shift away from process orientation, immediately respond by redirecting your thoughts to your breathing. If possible, pause and take a deep breath or two—feel the air rushing in and out of your chest, and your focus will immediately return to the present moment. Once accomplished, return your focus to climbing with a quick study of your current hand- and footholds. This will get you back into the optimal process-oriented mindset.

3. Accept All Possible Outcomes Before You Begin Climbing
A more global approach to permanently eradicate the fear of failure is to simply adopt the attitude that it’s okay to fail. By willingly accepting this fate (if it should even happen), you totally eliminate the fear and become empowered to climb unhindered and with full commitment. Embracing the potential of a negative outcome doesn’t mean you aren’t going to try your best or that you want to fail. Instead this position simply places you in a frame of mind from which you can give it your all without reservation.

Of course, gracefully accepting failure is easier said than done for some people. You can only assume this mindset by consciously detaching your self-image from your performance. This can be difficult in the setting of a well-populated crag, since strangers tend to make first judgments on others based on what they see on the outside (appearance and performance).

Your goal, then, must be to recognize that your true friends will like you regardless of your performance, and that the opinions of strangers are not relevant. Whether or not you can completely embrace this mindset is a measure of maturity and self-confidence–make developing this attitude part of your maximum climbing program. Given a long-term effort at assimilating this way of thinking, you will gain mental prowess and free yourself from the chains of needing to perform for others. Ultimately, it’s in climbing for yourself–win, lose, or hanging from a quickdraw–that you will feel most happy and indeed climb your very best!

NOTE: This article contains excerpts from my book, Maximum Climbing: Mental Training for Peak Performance. Learn more strategies for climbing your best at