How unrealistic goal setting saved my 2020
Madeleine Crane (Sport psychologist and coach) distinguishes in her “Climbing Psychology” blog three types of goals:
“[…] if we want to win a certain competition, want to be ranked top 3 in this ranking or top 10 in another, if we want to reach finals at the World Cup or reach semis for the first time – we call these types of goals outcome goals. They focus on the results, the outcome of a competition or a specific situation.
When formulating a goal, we can also focus on our own performance and how we can relatively improve compared to our previous performance. For example, compared to last time you want to top out 8 instead of 6 boulders in a qualification. Your goal is to on-sight an 8a which you have so far only red-pointed. […] This type of goal setting is called performance goals.
The third main type of goals is called process goals. This type of goals include psychological goals. For example, if you noticed a lack of concentration during competition due to nervousness or other distracting factors, you write this down as a goal to improve. […] If you find it hard to motivate yourself during trainings, getting motivated might be a good goal to have.”
Madeleine explains how outcome and performance goals are very important for us to keep us motivated as there is something very specific to work towards. But this can at the same time mean tension, pressure and a possibility to fail. In comparison focussing on process goals can often help to take that pressure away as they typically are about progress and tend not to have a clear win-fail dynamic. They are often also transferrable and will help us in different scenarios and can work towards different outcome or performance goals.
Now having learned this about goals, let’s get to the story!
One of my bad habits is to chronically sell myself short and underestimate myself. “I am not good enough for this!” “I am not strong enough for that!” “I am not important enough for this!” I can assure you, sometimes this habit is quite tiring.
I started climbing outdoors at the beginning of 2019. At first it was mostly bouldering later joined by a bit of sport climbing. I loved it from the start and being lucky enough to have found a great group of friends, loads of outdoor trips started happening. Despite all the love and excitement for the climbing in the outdoors, I never recorded a single climb I did, let alone could even remember the name of a climb, the grade, most of the time not even the area. Towards myself and others, I brushed it off with a swift justification: “It doesn’t matter! It’s all about the climbing.”
But even when I WAS climbing, it wasn’t. I can remember countless climbs that I never finished because the people that I climbed with topped out before me. And while I might have only needed another two or three attempts to get the climb as well, I would walk away. In my mind I would always do it for the “greater good”: “I don’t want to hold the others up! They have more important climbs to get on with. They would just get bored watching me.”
In December 2019, I went to Portland for a sport climbing day trip with a friend. The next day back at RCC another friend asked me where exactly we had climbed. “Ehm… no idea…” “Yeah, I thought you would say that but I thought I’d ask anyway!” What did he mean?! How dare he?! I was appalled. For easily an hour I ran around the centre with – what I felt – completely justified rage. But once I had calmed down it got me thinking: Why is it that it’s so completely normal for me to not know where I climb and what I climb? Why am I so completely apathetic when it comes to my outdoor climbs?
And there and then it all came to me: If you don’t record your climbs, there is no way to prove how bad you are. No one can see the low (in my head meaning bad) grades you are climbing, including yourself. But the problem with that is: If you don’t record your climbs, no one can see how well you are climbing either, or how much progress you are making over time, whether you are climbing harder things now in comparison to a few months ago. There was only that blur in your mind tinged with the prejudice of low self-esteem that says: “I can’t be sure but you are probably not good enough!”
In that moment I decided that things had to change: I had to take responsibility for my climbs, choose them and stick with them. (process goals) And I even went a step further. I decided to set myself a very specific new year’s resolution which was to climb 6a outdoors in 2020 (performance goal).
On the 1st of February 2020 a group of friends and me went down to Portland for a day of bouldering. It was the weekend of my and my friend Jes’ 1-year anniversary of climbing outdoors. The sun was out. Blue sky. Perfect day. On the way down Jes asked: “So, what are everyone’s goals for today?” I answered without much thinking. “I want to really stick with a climb. I don’t care if I don’t top it out, but I want to know that if I leave it, I have given it all I got.” (process goal)
We warmed up on some easier climbs and when the group broke up into little groups to each try their projects, Dani recommended her first ever 6a, “Non-Stick”, to Jes, Jo and me. We had nothing specific we otherwise wanted to work on and I was ready to start my 2020 6a hunt, thinking at that point if I got to project some 6a moves that would be a good way to start working on my new year’s resolution.
When we walked up to the face of the boulder that Dani had pointed us to, our initial reaction was: She must be wrong. This was a blank rock face. Never was there a climb on there, definitely not a 6a.
But eventually we discovered the tiny undercut start hold and we were off. We worked the problem for a good 2 hours. It’s the longest I have ever spent on a climb. It was also the first time climbing something on my limit and having to develop the beta ground up completely by ourselves. Usually the more experienced climbers of our group are around to climb it for us to see or give advice. But as they were all busy on their own projects, it was on us to figure out every move and string them together.
Dani joined us halfway through. The unfolding of the process was what kept us motivated. A climb that we first couldn’t even see, slowly went from “Oh, that first move is so hard!” to a body tension climb on fine crimps and little footholds up to a last committing move that obviously gave the whole thing its name. In the end we could even cut out moves and holds that at the start seemed essential to be able to do the climb.
I can remember going up on my penultimate attempt. It all felt solid. All that was left was the last committing move. I looked up and everything in my mind and body said NO! and I let go. Sitting on the matts, the usual thoughts started: “I mean if I don’t get it today, it wouldn’t be a problem. I could leave it now. Maybe I feel braver next time. I said to climb a 6a in 2020. It’s only February…”
Then Jes went up and topped out. It was inspiring to actually see it get done: The slap to the top. How she got pulled backwards but held on and went over the top. And while I watched her, I thought: “And even if I miss the top, I wouldn’t fall any further than from where I jumped off just now. So, I might as well go for it!” And that’s what I did. Again, I did everything without problems up to the last move, I got ready and went for it. My fingers slapped onto the top edge. I got pulled backwards but they pressed down enough to stick and let me stay on. I took a deep breath and got the top out done. 6a on 1st February 2020.
Looking back, my 6a goal was probably a bit unrealistic if I was able to achieve it with one proper try. That being said, what was unrealistic was my perception of my own ability when I set it, having no idea or evidence of what I had climbed in 2019 or how much I had improved and having never really committed to trying hard on an outdoor climb.
From where I am sitting now – sofa, lockdown week 3 – I am glad that I set myself such a soft performance goal. Back then I didn’t know the next thing about goals, but it did what it was supposed to do: it motivated me. Plus, the feeling of being able to tick it off was and is incredible and makes it now easier to sit inside while remembering that great things have already happened outdoors this year. But what made this 6a so outstandingly satisfying was actually the process: working a problem hard from bottom to top with my closest friends, supporting each other, every step of the way being our own, not giving up, committing.
With a bigger focus on those process goals maybe more than a 6a would have been possible this year. Or maybe it still is?
Blog written by Clara Doebler aka @baumstern.art RCC Climbing Instructor and Designer of this year RCF t-shirt.
Madeleine Crane, (2019) “Setting Goals for 2020”, www.climbingpsychlogy.com[https://www.climbingpsychology.com/blog/setting-goals-for-2020