There are countless coaches, programming, and training scripts that will tell you that in order to succeed, stress either needs to be managed or eliminated. When rock climbing, our stress is triggered by our mind thinking of what may happen or what has happened in the past, and we can move forward from this in an actionable and productive way. Stress in your climbing probably sounds something like this:

I’m getting too pumped to send.

I don’t know if I can make it to the next clip.

What if my gear rips?

Will my belayer hold me?

Last time I tried this route I fell on this next move, so I will probably fall again.

Stress manifests in our minds and bodies in all sorts of ways. For some, it instills a debilitating fear and anxiety. For others, it helps them check themselves and stay safe. The typical body response from stress feels like:

  • Elevated heart rate
  • Dry mouth
  • Fast thoughts
  • Deep pump in the arms
  • Worry
  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Fast breathing
  • Shakiness in the body
rock climbing too excited and falling

The author, Paul Roberts, falling after getting too excited about flashing the crux of La Temperatura (5.12c) in Colombia.

It’s a dreaded feeling to have these stressors creep up on you at the moment when you’re pushing your limits and just outside your comfort zone. Whether you’re high above your last bolt or a piece of traditional protection, the mind starts spinning to the “what if…?” Or you’ve cruised that crux move you’ve always wanted to stick, and now find yourself in unknown territory. The feeling can diminish our energy and distract us from the immediate moment, ultimately sapping our attention away from where we need it most: the present moment.

More often than not, it leads us to falling on our goal routes. We’ve all wished we could learn how to de-stress and relax on a route. Fortunately, there are a few quick and easy tactics you can use to help with stress management. But first, we need to compare stress with its counterpart, excitement.

New Excitement

There is another situation that occurs frequently, but is talked about much less. That is: you’ve finally made it through your crux, and are sending! You’ve finally stuck that move you’ve missed and fallen at 100 times, and it felt easy. But this is new. The mind and body didn’t expect this outcome, and what happens? You get excited. Excitement leads to almost the exact same physiological response as stress does. You’ve stuck the move and get so excited that you immediately fall off next one. Or, you’ve made it to your new high point, and after 10 seconds of excitement, you realize you don’t know the rest of the route, and your excitement turns into stress.

The typical body response from excitement feels like:

  • Heart Rate Elevated
  • Dry Mouth
  • Fast Thoughts
  • Fast Breathing
  • Shakiness in the body

Can you see the similarities between getting excited and getting stressed?

rock climbing too stressed

Author, Paul Roberts, stressed after getting through the crux on his project in Arizona.

Take another situation: you didn’t expect to do so well on a route, and you’ve found yourself near the last bolt. Sending is right there within your reach. Your heart rate is elevated and pumping the blood fast through your thickened veins, you are very pumped because you’ve done all this climbing that was unexpected and still unrehearsed. Your mind is a bit scattered and honestly, surprised. The same reaction is happening when you are feeling negative stress, your mind is scattered with worrying, your heart rate is rapid, and your breathing is going fast. Essentially, there’s no difference between getting excited and feeling stress, other than as a society, we’ve placed a positive outlook on one feeling and a negative outlook on the other. We celebrate excitement and dread stress.

So, which one are you? The climber who just got too excited and fell on a move that’s well within your limit, or the climber who just got too stressed and fell on a move that’s well within your limit?

Whichever label you fall under, both the feeling of stress and excitement can be diminished to help you stabilize into equilibrium. The fastest ways to do this on the route are:

  • Find a rest position
  • Consciously rest and take deep breaths
  • Wait at the rest until your actual heart rate has lowered
  • Keep breathing in and out deeply
  • Focus your eyes on targets that will help your next move (i.e. plan where you are going next, not focusing on what you have done)
  • Slap your hands on your legs while resting to tell the body to calm down — this will also help you de-pump
  • When you leave the rest, focus on the move and only the move: present moment thoughts are key
  • Stay with each move, don’t rush into the next movement
relaxing for rock climbing

The author, Paul Roberts, finding equilibrium in the forests of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California.

In the end, both stress and excitement can lead us down a trap of our attention being placed in directions that don’t serve us while rock climbing. So, if we can retrain the brain to delay our reactions to these similar responses, then ultimately we can stay more present with our movement and our minds, allowing us the space to take care of the important thing: sending that route!