To climb or not to climb, motivation and achievement

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Mark Cobb to climb or not COVER

What makes us achieve our goals?

To Climb or not to climb; Dude, where’s my motivation?

‘Motivation, a desire or willingness to do something. A reason for acting or behaving in a particular way.’

I’ll admit it, I’m obsessed. Not in an unhealthy way. At least, I don’t think so… Anyway, my obsession is climbing, or more specifically, bouldering. It goes way beyond desire or willingness, but the reasons I act or behave in this way are sometimes easy to explain and sometimes a bit more scrambled.

I was in Farleton, bouldering on the Whiteout boulder at Newbiggin, a beautiful, wild, untouched limestone area. I’ve been there many times, mainly with my family and every time I’ve gone there I’ve tried to solve the problem of Whiteout Roof, a 7A or 7A+ roof problem that starts very low and is pretty powerful. Too powerful for me for the last few years anyway. Each time I’ve pulled on to the starting holds wondering if this time I’ll be able to make the tough pull up to the tiny pocket which will enable me to make the next move. But each time I’ve come up woefully short and each time I’ve resigned myself to not being quite good enough.

It’s too far.

It’s too powerful.

I’m not strong enough.

I’m not tall enough.

However, this time something had changed. I had a different mind-set. Subtly different, but different.

This time, I knew I could do it.

Now, without measuring my strength or power over the last few years, I can’t say that I’d experienced huge changes in those areas. I certainly haven’t got any taller and hadn’t seen any new, explosive beta to help me climb the problem. So why the increase in confidence? Why this feeling in my head that I was going to make every move?

I’d visualised every potential move on this problem for a very long time, many times, but this hadn’t done me a lot of good so far. I’d practised my Jerry Moffatt style pre climb routine and this hadn’t worked either,(Sorry Jerry).

But this time, I believed.

I was so motivated that I just knew I was going to climb it! I got the mat in position, new mat too, pulled on and promptly fell straight off. Hmmm!

Marks at it again

Next go, felt strong, through the first couple of moves, reach the pocket, OH MY GOD, it’s so small, I can just get two fingertips in there.

First time though. Never made it this far.

Big move up to the left hand, good hold. Got it, but in a shower of feet and toes, I can’t get my foot on the hold and I come off. Instant irritation, but now I know I can do this. So, go through the moves again, get the pocket again, but don’t feel so strong this time and have to throw for the next hold. Get it. Foot on the hold (so bunched now). Right hand up, foot stays on, clinging on with the inside of my left knee and seemingly the skin of my ankles.

And I’m up, mantle up and over and I’ve done it. Wow. How many years? Five, six? I’m not better, in fact I’m two years older than when I last tried it.

But... I-was-so-motivated…

I knew.

I believed.

Everything came together exactly as it needed to, technique, finger strength, a good sleep, hydrated, happy, and relaxed. Confidence was pouring through my body, a rare thing indeed!

Two days later, on the other side of the hill, I was flooded with the same motivation for another boulder problem, New Rose. Again 7A+, at least. I’d never seen it up close, but I’d seen it on videos of the climb and it looked doable. Crimps. I like them. I can do that.

On rounding the corner to see the actual route in front of me, I think I actually shivered. So high. Terrible landing. Slightly overhanging. And again, awful, awful landing. Motivation drained out of me. I could almost see it disappearing over the M6.

And that was it. I believed that I couldn’t climb it. Didn’t even attempt it. Talked myself out of it. My wife was pleased, no broken ankles today!

Really weird how I was so motivated on both occasions, but small variations in my perception either enhanced my motivation or completely destroyed it. Where did that all come from?

Whenever I’m successful I ask myself why? Sometimes, it’s been the type of rock, the amount of friction, the weather. Other times, the environment is just right. Climbing inside, my friends are there, or my wife and kids. Outside, we’ve been at an outstandingly beautiful place, in good weather. All day ahead of us, just for climbing! Inside, there may be new routes, which is beyond exciting. The thrill of unlocking the moves in my head. Just looking at the vibrant holds scattered, map like, across the wall. The feeling is overwhelming, euphoric even. Outside, approaching a place I know well, The Cuttings on Portland, Burbage boulders, the Roaches. Walking in to the first boulders, there’s a surge in adrenalin, the drip, drip of excitement. Routes, problems, crimps, slopers, minute footholds, rough rock, smooth topouts. They all cascade through my subconscious, erupting into my conscious mind, filling it to the brim with memories of exciting days on the rock, laughter with friends, little victories and immense battles with famous problems, smiles and pleasure, agony and ecstasy, my kids, my wife, loving every second that we’re all together, solving the puzzles before us.

They all cascade through my subconscious, erupting into my conscious mind, filling it to the brim with memories of exciting days on the rock, laughter with friends, little victories and immense battles with famous problems, smiles and pleasure, agony and ecstasy, my kids, my wife, loving every second that we’re all together, solving the puzzles before us.

The way that memories mix with knowledge, the history of the route, the temptation of an achievable high grade, the expectation of fulfilment, the buzz of exhaustion, the collapse at the end of the day, fingers sore, ankles bloodied, shins bruised, happiness! Rewarded by success. The success of achievement, the success of the journey. It’s brilliant climbing a great problem, but it’s also brilliant just being there, trying the moves.

And on those days when the rock helps me to write its song, to flow through the poetry of its moves, to harmonise with the rhythm of each hold, each ripple, each subtle roll across the landscape of the rock, that’s when those motivations are buoyed up, rebuilt, strengthened. The motivational work out, breeding even more motivation for next time. Success breeds success, but in bouldering, failure also breeds success and when I’m bouldering, just being on the rock is success in itself.

But is it all really this simple. Does it just all happen, effortlessly?

There are times when my motivation has dried up or has receded like a frightened tortoise, back into its shell.

I’m not climbing that.

No way.

When that happens, it seems like it’s gone forever.

No sorry, all my motivation has gone. I can’t do it today.

Last night was a case in point. Brookes Climb, my local wall. Last week of this set of problems. Nothing to climb, or at least, nothing else that I think I can climb.

No, I’m just not motivated, I need a new set, no point climbing them again!

Do I believe I can actually do this?!

Then, 20 minutes in, I see someone climbing a problem I couldn’t do the previous week. Ok, that looks interesting. For the next hour, I spent most of the time working this route and another that I’d seen someone climbing, making it look almost doable. Suddenly the motivation is back, energy is up. Where there was nothing, now there are possibilities. I managed to climb one of the problems and progressed to the penultimate hold on the other. Amazing how a slight change, a tiny difference can lead to a complete change in mental state. Just as progress on a boulder can improve through minute adjustments in body position or footwork, so progress can also be determined by minute adjustments in one’s perception, confidence, positivity, motivation.

A month ago, I somehow managed to injure my knee falling off my own climbing wall and landing awkwardly. Consequently, my knee was feeling really fragile which stopped me from jumping down and falling off any routes. This fragility seemed to manifest itself even more strongly in my head and by the time it had been processed through all manner of negative trails, somehow I felt unable to even attempt anything remotely tricky, just in case I fell off. Strange.

My body wanted to attempt certain moves, but my mind wouldn’t let it try. This physical/mental battle rampaged on for a couple of weeks, playing havoc with any level of motivation. All I could see was how to fall off something. Fortunately, we were able to climb outside on good rock, on boulders of reasonable height and somehow my body and mind began to equalise. The turning point was when my son and I were climbing a problem with a terrible last two moves and an awful top out. Part of me was thinking, ‘no, I might fall off that’, so creating this growing sense of unease. Another part of me was thinking, ‘get on it. Trust yourself. Go for it!’.

I thought I’d try and climb up to halfway and see what it was like. I could visualise the next two or three moves and imagine what to do at the top.

Oh. Come on, just do it.

There was slight terror as I went for the last two moves and hunted for a way to top out without falling off and careering desperately down the hillside and over the crag edge. Relief, when my fingers found a slight dish to help me over the downward sloping lip and up and over. Then I was on top, standing, shaking, the adrenalin coursing through my veins, at once euphoric and terrified as I realised what I’d tried and somehow managed to do.

It must have been horrible, my son didn’t even try it.

A corner had been turned.

The motivation to climb the problem had negated the rising sense of panic that was banging through my temples threatening to explode my skull. After that the whole sense of not wanting to fall off gradually waned. A positive perception, brought about by such a strong motivation to just get it climbed had won out. Fortunately, it has helped to improve my whole sense of how I’m recovering from the original injury. Taking back control from my rebellious mind perhaps. The physical vs the mental. The joy of adventure had won. Focus had returned. The whole essence of climbing purely for climbing’s sake had flooded back. There is no ground, no noise, no single other factor that seeps in when one is climbing well again. One to one with the rock. The only sound the buzz of excitement between my ears, the flow of the rock the only thing that matters. Mindful or mind-less. Not thinking, just moving, reacting, following the lead of the subtle variations beneath my fingers and toes. How much was fear an element of that motivation. How much was it the need to prove to myself that I’m still physically able. How much was I trying to be the strong father to my son. How much the ‘brave’ husband to my wife, how much the strong climber that I try so hard to be, amongst my brilliant climbing friends.

Or was it purely all down to the joy of movement. The indescribable feeling of energy and harmony that climbing brings. Where the physical meets the mental and both merge to enable the motivation, the need for more joy, more energy, more escapism, to a place where we don’t have to explain, don’t have to justify, or reason or worry. But merely be.

The more I think, the more I climb, the better I feel, the more difficult it is to decide where and how the motivation fits in. What I do know is that when the motivation is there, anything seems possible. When it’s not, everything seems impossible. The saving grace is, though, that so far, the positive face of motivation seems able to banish the negative and turn things around really quickly. From nothing, suddenly there’s something. Once on that tiny foothold, the only way is forward, upward, following the route.

Maybe the only real motivation is to be.

And to climb.

Written by Mark Cobb, Climbing Ambassador for Brookes Climbing Wall. Thanks to all the fab people who climb with Mark. Special thanks to Johnny Dawes Johnny Dawes, for his thoughts and creativity,John Gill-the Art of Bouldering,Jerry Moffatt-Mastermind. If you would like to have a go at climbing, why not visit our climbing wall at Oxford Brookes University Centre for Sport in Headington. For more information about climbing, email or visit the centre for a chat.

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