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Handling Stress in Competition

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In her latest contribution to our Comps Blog, Junior Coach Grace Spence-Green gives her take on what it takes to perform well in (and enjoy) competition. Grace narrowly missed on a place in the finals, finishing 6th in the final round of Blokfest at The Castle. Photo: Molly Thompson-Smith getting ready to let loose on a finals bloc. (photo taken by Rob Russell)

When I’m stressed, I can’t think straight, I feel sick, weak and everything feels difficult. This can happen sometimes when I’m on the wall at a competition. I think it’s particularly in climbing compared to team sports because you are solely deciding your fate, and it can be scary to think it’s all up to you in the end.

First of all I have to recognise the signs of being stressed, so I can fix it early on and not let it get worse. I may become easily agitated or frustrated; I don’t feel in full control of my movement or I feel shaky. I sometimes have difficulty relaxing and calming my mind in a comp or feel a lack of confidence. When I am stressed, I usually feel low in energy, my heartbeat increases and I find it really hard to warm up. It’s interesting to think that something in my mind can affect me on a physical level, but any of these symptoms can hinder my ability and performance at a comp, especially feeling weak and having low self-esteem. Butterflies in my stomach could actually be good as the body is producing more adrenalin, making me more aware of the situation. However, if I let stress take over, my performance will more likely be negatively affected.
 I thought I was the only one who felt this way – other climbers always seem so confident and self-assured.

But then I attended the 2013 Women’s Climbing Symposium, a day of lectures and workshops by and for female climbers sharing their experiences in the sport. The workshop by Mina Lesley-Wujastik on self-efficacy and the obstacles she faced as a professional climber really inspired me. Self-efficacy is belief in oneself and one’s ability, and Mina talked about the lack of confidence she struggled with and how it affected her. She said that she found the pressure of international competitions the worst, and that she always wishes she could transfer her ability in training to her performance in competitions. She found it useful to stop comparing herself to others, because although in training sessions it could help, in competitions it can be a demoralising distraction. If you try your absolute best then at the end of the day you’ll still be happy because you didn’t let yourself down.

Fran Brown talked about the pressures of training and failure. She said that when she did amazingly well in one competition she felt a sense of extreme pressure to do even better in the next, as now others had higher expectations for her. Although it might be added pressure it’s better to think of all the people that want you to succeed as supporters, rooting for you to do well. I told myself to never belittle a competition I care about just because I didn’t succeed in it, or I fear that I won’t succeed.

However scary it may seem to take these risks, it’s important you be honest with yourself. Whenever I am at a comp I make myself acknowledge that it actually means a lot to me, because if it doesn’t, then why am I even trying? It’s reassuring to learn that even the top climbers doubt their abilities some times, it’s just the way they deal with this doubt that makes them the best.  As Lanny Bassham writes in ‘With Winning in Mind’. “winners think they will finish first, the others hope to”. Self-confidence is key…

Don’t ever think or say that you can’t do a problem or achieve a certain level, because then you’ll miss the opportunity to even take on the challenge - you need to take risks to reach your goals.

Before a competition the most helpful thing you can do is prepare a routine. Get a good night’s sleep, pack everything neatly the night before and unpack it carefully on the day at the event. A tidy bag is a tidy mind! Making a playlist of psych songs and then listen to them on the day is also a great way to relax. If I feel myself getting nervous I try to focus on my breathing, seven seconds in and eleven seconds out about five times. Try to absorb yourself into the routes and blocs by reading them carefully. Don’t worry about other competitors. I find that sticking with my Squad is the best approach. It doesn’t matter if you want to be a bit selfish some times, you don’t have to talk to people through comps if you don’t want to, because it’s more important to stay focused. And one of the most important pieces of advice  - eat some food! Those blood glucose levels aren’t going to fix themselves. I recommend brunch bars or honey roasted peanuts, bananas, Jim’s flapjacks or Cameron’s brownies to give you much needed energy.

Get in the zone, concentrate on every move, look after yourself and do your best.