Performance Anxiety

Performance Anxiety

Working on building sites the 'Noughties, was a whirlwind of different jobs.  Not because I was shit and kept getting sacked, although that did happen, but because it was so easy to pick up and drop work.  Didn't like the boss? Fuck him off.  A few phone calls and you would be up for another job interview in the morning - job interview being a yellow van pulling up, and the driver looking you up and down before grunting 'You'll do'.

I had been working in bars and restaurants for a few years before that, so I hadn't one an apprenticeship straight out of school.  This was a plus and a minus. Pluses: I wasn't constrained by looking to solve a problem as a carpenter, bricklayer or plasterer - I could think outside the box rather than try and twist a job into something I was good at.  Negative: I lacked confidence in a base of my abilities.  If I turned up on site, I started every time from zero, not even knowing could I put in a screw into a wall using a rawl plug.

Before you start: of course I COULD do this, I could graft all day, and I had a decent smattering of skills- I'm still pretty handy.  But because I'd never had the formal evaluation of any of this it felt like I couldn't do it.  

This continues on today, with little nagging voices saying 'what are you doing it like that for?' for every job I do.  These days I tell them they can fuck off and do it themselves if they'd prefer.

Some of this carries on into climbing.  It took a long time to think in advance that you would be able to actually climb a trad route.  What if I forget how to hold on, or pump myself out trying to fiddle my eighth piece of gear into the crack?

I don't think a lot of the outdoors culture in the UK helps this.  Firstly, we are kit ob-fucking-sessed.  There's a lot of choice and a lot of gear getting marketed at us.  Oh, we think we are so alternative and free with our outdoor hobbies, but this does not stop us being treated as a market i.e. buying what we are told we need by the person selling it.

Behind this is a - British - culture of thinking we 'have to know what we are doing', and should do things 'properly', which includes getting the 'proper' kit, and always being well equipped for the hills.   This causes much hilarity among the Swiss, who make comments like 'Here, everyone has amazing gear, and only will try a II (Scottish Winter Grade).  In ze Alps we have climbers doing IX in jeans'.  

Listen to people from our climbing and mountain community criticising each other for how they go about things, and listen for phrases like 'I was always taught...' and ' you always need to...'.  I don't trust any statement that includes the word Never or Always.  It is my experience that there is always an exception, and this has never been disproved.

There's an underlying assumption that there is just One Way of Doing It, but we see enough differences between nationalities to know this isn't always true.  Witness US horror at how British climbers set up a belay using their climbing rope instead of a cordelette (you can google this).  US climbers - rightly - point out that it is hard for the belayer to escape the system if the rope is weighted,  that he is locked in and can't get out of it.  Brit climbers might respond that the amount of times this happens is very seldom, especially on shorter, less-likely-to-be-overhanging British pitches.  A recent accident with two of my friends saw the injured leader weight the rope, but then climb to a ledge with a shattered elbow while absolutely full of adrenalin and nailsness.

Believing in very structured and inflexible rules can keep you safe.  But it is like Mark Twain's cat: once you've sat on a hot pan lid, it won't sit on another hot pan lid.  But it won't sit on no cold ones either.  By focussing on rules rather than understanding principles, a lot of us are staying - very - safe, but also staying well well away from the limits of our abilities.
Me, simultaneously tightening my knot AND holding my cock.

My recent trad weekend focussed my thinking on this a bit.  I got on a few routes which were so technically easy it was untrue: even the pitches that might be at or about the national average of climbing ability given as VS/HVS by Dave MacLeod, left me absolutely bemused as to why people don't climb harder.  I'm not that good, I'm not that experienced, I don't feel that bold either.  Maybe the crag was just seriously under graded, but this doesn't fit with the Cumbrian reputation for sandbagging foreigners.

Perhaps the clue is in how I felt about trad routes before I got on the routes.  It was that same nervousness about how I would perform when I got on the climb.  Rationally I can look at the grade and know that I've got the ability, but it doesn't feel like it is in the bag.  But it takes getting on the rock and rubbing your nose on the route to see if you can do it.

Next week: I intend to write about my forthcoming injuries.