Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Comp Season: Understanding the Importance of Failure

With ABS Nationals just having come to a close, I want to address a subject most people are keen to avoid: failure. Failure is something that we avoid at all costs in all aspects of life, let alone competition climbing. However, I believe there are many important lessons to be learned from failure, especially when it comes to dealing with high-pressure situations such as in climbing competitions.

This past month and a half, I have had the opportunity to compete in a major pro-level bouldering competition on east coast 6 weekends out of 7. So far, almost every one of these comps have been in a different state, (and sometimes country) and it has been a ton of fun to travel to these different locations to climb. Looking back on it, the process was mentally and physically taxing, but overall a great chance to test myself before competing at Nationals.

Dark Horse Finals!
Photo: Vince Schaefer
However, instead of doing well under pressure like I have been able to do in the past, I did extremely poorly at most of the events, placing near the bottom in finals for multiple comps in a row. This came as a combination of preparing poorly, screwing up sequences, and letting mistakes get to my head. I felt dejected, frustrated, and largely dissatisfied with my performances. I experienced what no athlete wants to experience: Failure.

Coming into the season, I’d just come off a successful trip to Hueco Tanks, so I felt physically strong and was psyched to start training for comps. I also started an engineering internship in Boston instead of taking classes, so rather than the regular college problem sets, midterms, and labs to prepare for, I found myself heading straight to the gym right after work, stress-free. I immediately jumped into a training program I devised for myself, five days per week with a comp every Saturday. It was great to focus primarily on fine-tuning my climbing and not have to worry about school for a change.

Sending Rumble in the Jungle (V12), Hueco Tanks
Photo: Colin Barnes
One of the best things about living on the east coast is that there are comps. A lot of them. ALL. THE. TIME. It got to a point where I had to decide which comp out of several to go to on the same weekend for multiple weekends in a row. The final schedule I decided upon was:

January 11th: Power Struggle (Connecticut)
January 18th: Winter Burn (Phildelphia)
January 25th: Tour de Bloc (Montreal, Canada)
February 1st: Dark Horse (Boston)
February 15th: Heart Burn (Philadelphia)
February 21st: ABS Nationals (Colorado Springs)

Competing at Tour de Bloc in Montreal
Photo: Guy Pomerleau
The season started off decently well with a second-place finish at Power Struggle, but Winter Burn and Tour de Bloc went extremely poorly. I decided to try to prepare differently for Dark Horse, and even though I felt I did better, it didn’t stop me from bombing the last climb in finals and placing last. After three disappointing results in a row, I decided to take a break for a weekend and came back with a solid fourth-place finish at Heart Burn. Now that I finally have the chance to reflect on the past month, I came to a couple different conclusions on what I learned. These were all pretty obvious once I thought of them, but it helped thinking each one through and attempting to understand how they affected my climbing.

1: Don’t base your success (or failure) on how other people do.

As hard as it may be, trying not to base your own performance on how other people do is absolutely key in order to succeed. If you lay down the absolute best performance of your life, but still do not come out on top, those people deserved to beat you that day. The results may not reflect your personal desire to do well, but it is important that you realize the true value of your efforts. Conversely, if you win a comp but you know didn't perform at your absolute best, you should still be openly happy with your performance, but reflect on what you could've done better for future events. I've found that the true victories are the ones that don't come easy. I experienced both sides of this scenario recently, as I felt I could have climbed better at Power Struggle, but I know that my absolute best effort at Dark Horse Round 3 still wasn't enough to see me through to the finals.

Qualifiers at Dark Horse Round 3
Photo: Garrick Kwan
2: Always give yourself every possible opportunity to succeed.

Competitions can be broken down into three parts: training, competing, and performing. The critical part of these three things is that you do everything within your power to physically and mentally prepare for each one. In training for climbing comps, it's crucial to train for any scenario (slabs, overhangs, pinches, dynos, crimps, dropdowns, etc). Avoiding one of these simply because you don't like it or believe you don't need to train it is a recipe for disaster in the heat of competition. The best climber is the most well-rounded climber. While competing, only focus on the aspects you can control: getting a good amount of sleep, warming up properly, making sure you have enough water, and so on. If you find yourself differing this process between competitions, create a routine and stick with it. Everything else, such as where you fall in the running order, the style of climbs, and how other people do on them is beyond your control and therefore you should try to put them out of your mind. As for the performing aspect, letting go of mistakes between climbs, rounds, or competitions is easily the hardest and most valuable thing you can do. At recent comps, I found myself criticizing myself for mistakes I had made on previous climbs, so I was unable to progress much further on the next one without doubting my abilities. Perceiving failure as but a dip in forward progression is essential for success in the long run.

Figuring out the beta at Winter Burn
Photo: Sean Aronow
The final and by far most important thing I learned was:

3: Have fun!

This one should totally be a no-brainer, but it's often difficult to focus on having fun when the heat of the competition is turned up. I realized at one of the earlier comps this season that I was so focused on doing well during the event that I legitimately forgot to have fun. This is the one true failure you can have as an athlete. If you don't love what you're doing, why do it? Luckily, I came to my senses and realized that even if I climb badly, I still am having fun by pursuing my true passion in life. And isn't that what life's all about?

Having fun while finishing last at Dark Horse.
Photo: Garrick Kwan
To conclude, I thought it would be appropriate to include a quote I found from one of the greatest basketball players in history, Michael Jordan. He sums up the point of overcoming failure much better than I ever could, and it has definitely helped me define my perception of failure and success.

"I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."