Challenges, Threats and Stress in Climbing

One constant across all disciplines of sport is that of stress. Athletes under copious amounts of stress are still expected to perform at a high level.

There are many examples of climbers who have ‘frozen’ or ‘choked’ under pressure, and have not to liven up to the high expectations.

Still, at the same time, there are climbers whose performance is not impaired, who succeed despite the pressure.

Stress is not inherently good nor bad, but how a climber appraises that stress – how they view it, that is what makes the difference.

According to the research, when we encounter a stressful climbing situation, a mental evaluation occurs. The result may determine if we want to avoid the sport altogether or certain aspects of it (lead climbing, competitions, very long routes)

It is what is known as a demand resource evaluation, where the task at hand (the demand) is weighed against what we perceive we possess (our resources).

To take an example, the demand might be a climber clipping a far-high quickdraw under the heavy pump, and the resources is his own skill.

If resources outweigh demands, we enter what is known as a challenge state, whereas if demands outweigh resources we enter a threat state. But what do these actually entail?

When we enter a challenge state, we feel that we have the resources capable to get the job done, no matter how stressful it is. As a result, we enter into a much more efficient cardiovascular state (ensuring greater blood flow to the brain for decision making, and the muscles for work), we interpret our anxiety much more positively and we also have boosted self-confidence, all of which help our performance.

However a threat state is the opposite, we end up with a much less efficient cardiovascular state, we interpret anxiety as worse than it potentially is and we also often have decreased self-confidence and performance.

Obviously then, climbers and coaches want to ensure that they are in a challenge state as much as possible, but there a few things worth considering as well. Firstly, challenge and threat states are not long-lasting, that evaluation mentioned previously is constantly occurring as new information arises.

This means that although a climber may adopt a threat state in one aspect of performance (solving a crux under fatigue), they may enter a challenge state in a different one (when solving a boulder problem fresh). It is so viewing challenge and threat not as two separate states, but instead opposite ends of a spectrum.

So how then we promote challenge states as much as possible? If we go back slightly, it is all about the demand resource evaluation. Therefore we can attempt to do two things, try to reduce the demands of the task or increase the perceived resources.

It is going to be very difficult in attempting to reduce the demands of a climbing challenge, so instead, the best course would be through enhancing the resources.

One way could be through increased skill practice so that the climber is more confident of their own abilities.

Challenge and threat states allow us to explain the differences we see in climbers performing under pressure. More importantly, by having an understanding of the mechanics behind it – means we can begin to design and test training programs that will enable climbers to succeed.

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