Words and photos by Martha Jane Peters
Alex Honnold and Chris Sharma can climb for a living, but most of us have to do something else to put food on the table. And most of our employers would rather us spend more time in the office and less time rock climbing. What they don’t know is that climbing is a great way to develop the soft skills needed to succeed in the workplace. Here are 3 (of the many) reasons to hire a climber:
Climbers know that succeeding means facing your fear of failure
Recently, I saw a Facebook job listing that read “We are looking for a slightly impatient individual willing to face down their fear of failure to accomplish bold things.” If I were to apply for the position, I could probably come up with some examples of my willingness to face down fear of failure from my cubicle. But they wouldn’t be as compelling as the lessons that I’ve learned through climbing.
Every person who makes a habit of climbing has probably faced their fear of failure at one point or another. When you first start climbing, you may be afraid of being unable to finish any difficult grades. On your first day, you might not make it up anything at all. To progress, you have to be persistent and consistent. You have to be willing to walk up to the bottom of that project you’ve failed at every day for 6 weeks and give it your all one more time. Because who knows? Today may be the day you send your project, climbing or career-wise. Climbers know that the sweetest success is preceded by failure.
Climbers perform under pressure
The University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business recently pioneered a new program called The Performance Science Institute (PSI). PSI’s mission is to “teach, train, and research the science, best practices, and applied principles for high performance in any domain.”
One of the focus areas for the PSI is understanding performance under pressure. Dr. Glenn Fox, who heads the program, studies neuroscience and teaches “The Science of Peak Performance.” When asked if he could have anyone in the world come speak at USC, his response was Alex Honnold. In Fox’s mind, Honnold’s free solo ascent of El Capitan is the ultimate lesson in performance under pressure. In fact, on February 1, 2018, USC hosted Alex Honnold at a special event for business students and the public.
Climbers like Honnold develop strategies for coping under pressure that allows them to succeed in high-stress environments. It says a lot about the sport that USC’s business school is studying those strategies to share with business students and leaders.
Face your fears! Failure is not getting back up after you fall.
Multi-pitch in Tahquitz
Climbers plan ahead and communicate
Ok, smart climbers plan ahead and communicate. If you’re on a multi-pitch climb and your partner is going to link the last 2 pitches so that you can finish before sunset, there could be 150 feet between the two of you when he/she finishes the second pitch. You need to plan for that. What if you can’t hear them yell “off belay?” What’s the signal to start climbing?
Smart climbers plan ahead and prepare. They know about the route they’re climbing, and they’re ready for contingencies. Sometimes – in climbing and at work - you have to improvise in the moment. Solid preparation and communication are the skills you need to do that effectively.
At first glance, scaling 600 foot walls for fun doesn’t seem like good cross training for a career in investment banking or engineering. But take a look around Sender One LAX on a weeknight and the number of SpaceX t-shirts suggests otherwise. Maybe Elon Musk is on to something.
I want to address an often-ignored aspect in kids participating in competitive sports: young athletes' emotional and mental health. As with many sports, a major factor in climbing performance is the athlete’s mentality. Too much pressure, and the climber may crack. Too little, and the climber may lose focus and motivation.
As a parent of a young climber, I struggle between encouraging my son, Jaden, to his potential versus pushing him too hard. Given that my husband and I also climb, we easily fall into the trap of fixating on grades.The sentence, "You have to start climbing V5 problems to be competitive" has actually come out of my mouth, when I could have identified specific skills in a difficult problem and encouraged Jaden to practice those skills. I want Jaden to "have fun and relax" at a competition, but alternatively, I want him to "take this seriously" so he will perform his best.
Udo Neumann wrote about training children who climb in his Art of Bouldering. Udo is the coach of the German Bouldering Team and shares training videos of the national team that includes Julie Wurm, Jan Jojer, and Monika Retschy. In a section on child development, Udo discouraged "grade-oriented climbing" because this puts children under pressure that can impact their overall well-being. For those parents and coaches who encourage children into climbing as a serious sport, Udo's approach is "a way that doesn't leave them either injured or disillusioned and out of sport for good at 13 or 14." Instead of fixating on immediate results, parents and coaches can focus on what actually matters: intention and consistency. Udo states that training is a long term commitment: "Ultimately, sustained success comes from training and performing well over the long term rather than winning in the short term."
Jordan Terry, Sender One LAX's youth competitive team head coach, teaches young climbers that falling and "feeling like a failure" are the most important parts of progressing. Young athletes may find it difficult to see that something that feels so negative is something positive. This process of mental growth takes a lot of time to for young kids, especially young motivated athletes, to cultivate. Jordan makes sure to tell youth competitive climbers about the times that she has fallen or failed, in climbing or in life. Jordan is honest about mistakes and ask for forgiveness when she missteps, and asks her youth athletes to do the same with their team. By asking others to be accepting of their "off" days, it becomes easier for young competitors to forgive themselves. This mindset then leads to more opportunities for success. Learning to accept falling off a project, saying "I can't", and being supportive for teammate creates an environment of trust for young competitors while also holding each other accountable to reaching climbing goals.
Climbing competitions are a challenging aspect of USA Climbing (USAC), because the pressure is high and there is temptation to compare oneself to others. Jordan cautions parents against entering into a competition space with any discussion of how their young athletes will do compared to other young climbers. Although Sender One youth athletes train as a team, climbing is an individual sport. It may be easier for parents and coaches to talk about "focusing on your personal climbing goals" than consistently creating a fun and constructive climbing environment. Jordan believes that as long as parents and coaches stay calm and maintains a casual and high-spirited energy, youth athletes will get the sense that "comp day can be equal parts high-pressure excitement and simply a good time."
Jordan's advice for parents of youth competitive climbers is to praise young athletes for a job well done or trying hard AND talking about how their young athletes felt when they weren't climbing their best. "Kids don't want to be told that they did great when they feel like they didn't, it doesn't feel genuine," says Jordan. Parents are more helpful by by working with young climbers to identify what specifically bothered their athletes about their climbing, put some thought into what could go better next time, and then move on with their day.
Injuries and accidents can lead to a plateau or recession in progress, both physically and mentally. Check out another blog post to help you overcome mental blocks on the wall. Especially in younger athletes, it is important to give them the push they need to discipline their training, but allow them the freedom and fun of the sport to truly maximize their potential.