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The Psychology of Suffering

I recently attended a webinar presented by Carrie Cheadle, an expert in mental skills training,¬†on the psychology of suffering for endurance athletes. Basically, when all else is equal, its your ability to dig in and keep going, despite feeling like you’ve been hit by a train, which determines who comes out on top, and is often what separates the great from the good. That’s pretty obvious, I know, but its a weak link for a lot of people and effects training as well as performance, so its important to understand it in order to improve it.

Pain is pretty subjective, everyone handles it differently and some people seem to be able to handle suffering better than others. Now, there is a genetic aspect (apparently), so maybe your maximum ‘suffering tolerance’ potential is less than others’, but you might not have reached that yet. It can affect your ability to reach your goals in quite a few ways, and sometimes its hard to tell if it has had an effect on your performance, for example, have you have fallen off a route and wondered whether you actually gave it your all? So what if climbing is a very skill intensive sport and you fell because you got it wrong, you still could have tried harder.

There are a number of reasons pain might affect how hard you try. Firstly, you might actually just be in a lot of pain and can’t actually go on any harder. This is often not the case, even if it feels like it is, because you might be so tired that it might not even occur to you that you have more to give – someone shouting at you to give it beans can solve this. Secondly, the expectation of pain (or failure) is a real limitation for a lot of people. This often comes through previous association with pain in a similar situation, whether that be a grade or style of climb or the same climb – if you expect it to hurt then as soon as it does start hurting you’ll focus in on the pain and make it seem worse than it is, so you’ll give up or fail sooner. Finally, the fear of pain (or failure) can stop you from giving your all. This could be reluctance to leave as rest, or do a certain session, or one of times where you mess up a sequence at the start of an onsight and get pumped earlier than you hoped so give up because you think there’s no chance anymore.

Luckily, there are ways to improve your pain and suffering tolerance. So first, if you want to get better and want your performance to reflect your physical ability, then you’re going to have to accept the pain. Embrace it, enjoy it, revel in it. This involves changing the way you view pain; its not bad most of the time, its good and its productive. To get better at this, having some kind of pre-climb prep or ritual can prepare for the ordeal ahead, or you can immerse yourself in the suffering and see just how far you can go by sticking a bit extra on the end of your last interval. Just to see how much you can take.

Secondly, you have to relax; your suffering tolerance is affected by your physical and mental state, so if you can relax then you’ll find the pain isn’t so bad. Dave Macleod wrote a related blog about how your facial expression can effect performance.

Thirdly, focus on something, whether that be the pain or something to keep your mind off the pain. Focusing on the pain is a funny one, I think this could help you gauge just how bad it is, and it can be quite satisfying to know you’re trying really hard, harder than the other person your training with, for example. There are a few ways to disassociate yourself from the pain, some people use music, you can focus on the moves, grabbing holds correctly, repeating a mantra, counting moves, and pretty much anything else to keep your mind busy. This can also help to keep nerves at bay on an onsight or redpoint because it stops you thinking about success or failure. Another way to keep your mind busy and be better at suffering is to set an end point for that pain. Break it down and set checkpoints along the way to make the overall task seem less daunting. This could be rests on a route or each individual interval in a monster circuit session. You have to be cautious with this on onsights if you’re not sure how good a rest is going to be, because if you get to a checkpoint and its not very restful then you might panic or give up immediately, so its important to have a plan B. Related to this are moments on a climb or in a session which can make or break you. If you handle these well then you will get a confidence boost that could take you to the end. These are points where you might expect it to be hardest or where you didn’t expect it to be hard and it is. You can prepare in advance for this to shorten your reaction time and make it a more positive reaction.

Finally, setting a goal is really important. These can provide a LOT of motivation and give you a good reason to suffer. Be honest with yourself, first about how achievable the goal is otherwise you may end up disheartened or intimidated, and second so you don’t have any secret goals which can lead to disappointment. They can be outcome goals, e.g. doing a certain route or grade, though this can often stack the pressure on which can be a good or a bad thing. Process goals, which you set within the climb, can be very effective and can have a secondary effect of making you climb better i.e. your goal is not to do the climb, but to climb it well or to improve at a certain technique.

If you think you’re not that good at suffering but have the will to improve, then try out a few of these things and hopefully they’ll help you eek a bit more out of each session and each attempt. If you think you’re good at suffering then read Fergus Flemming’s ‘Tales of Endurance’ or Shackletons South for some perspective – I bet your circuit session wasn’t as hard as living in the Antarctic for 2 years, subsisting on seal meat, toe nails and leather before rowing a few hundred miles across the Pacific and crossing South Georgia on foot. Then pull your finger out.