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The Definition of Insanity
Just as it is possible to be mentally trapped in a physical situation, you can also be physically trapped in a mental situation — why stepping back over mental exhaustion feels invalid but shouldn't.
One of my favorite features about climbing is the dual focus on technique and strength. Getting stronger is great preparation. But without matching technique, you’ll eventually find yourself completely baffled by an obstacle. It won’t be a lack of power stopping you, but a lack of knowledge.
This can also be one of the most frustrating parts of the sport. Leaving the gym or crag when I’m tired feels understandable. We do something, we get tired, we rest, we come back to try again. No big deal.
For some reason, leaving the gym because of mental fatigue feels like giving up. You can be adequately strong enough to finish, but unable to do so because you have no clue what you’re supposed to do.
In cases like these, it can be tempting to throw oneself at the wall over and over. That way you can leave exhausted, feeling like you gave it your all, and the defeat doesn’t feel like a cop-out.
Last week, I talked about the importance of repeated failure in the name of incremental progress. But here I’d like to clarify:
When I wrote Throwing Yourself at the Wall last week, I outlined the need to physically try an option before passing it over. If you haven’t given that one a read, please consider it. I’m building off what I wrote there, so it adds an important nugget of context.
After considering my premise for a few days, I realized my point was missing the second mental half.
Just as it is possible to be mentally trapped in a physical situation — i.e. knowing what hold you need to grab but being unable to commit for fear of falling — you can also be physically trapped in a mental situation. This looks more like attempting the same thing over and over, not because you expect it to work differently, but because you don’t know what else to do.
The other day, I attempted the same problem, the same way, half a dozen times. It was a tricky low-start — so low, I needed to sit down to begin. Even after repeated attempts, I couldn’t even get my butt off the ground.
When I came back later, I had an embarrassing realization: the problemwas an arête, with a full compliment of easy hand holds less than a foot away from me. I just hadn’t seen them from my seated position.
Attacking from the same angle without stopping to consider a different approach, would have been a waste of time and energy.
Keep this in mind next time you encounter a problem: it’s may not be a case of being too weak to solve it. You may just not see the solution from where you’re sitting.
The name boulderers have for a route
In gym context, an arête problem wraps around a vertical edge. In this particular scenario, the handholds I needed to complete the problem were around the corner, just out of my view but within easy reach.