Climbing confidently: developing a habit of sending

Why do some people seem to pull a send out of the bag when they haven’t done moves, or even looked close to doing them?

Why can some climbers travel to far-flung areas and consistently climb at a high level, while some others are only able to turn in good performances at their local haunt?

How do some climbers continue to progress through plateaus, even when they don’t have a lot of projects at that perfect level to work on – while other climbers stagnate and stutter for years at a time, despite being surrounded by good challenges?

Why do we always read about people sending their project on the last try of the last day of their trip, as the sun went down?

There is no easy answer to these questions. But one certainty is that some climbers are just good at habitually sending. This leads them to be able to execute almost no matter what the scenario – a skill that sits apart from style, difficulty, and environment. It’s the meta-skill of being a confident performer.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

Aristotle

Setting aside that professionals have different rules – like changing their flight to extend a trip – elite performers are usually very good at gauging what routes to try and preparing themselves well to handle the challenge. It’s true that there isn’t usually a lot of fanfare when professional climbers fail on their projects, although sometimes social media can pull the curtain back for us a little bit. On the other hand, there’s also not a lot of fanfare when they’re onsighting routes a few levels below their max – usually several in a day, and usually at a level most of us would consider a life goal. This sort of performance is just normal for them. Normal as in habitual.

Just following some of these outliers on social media is a whiplash-inducing whirlwind – one minute they’re deep water soloing, the next they’re in a different state tying in to redpoint another 5.14+. Before you can say “does this guy take rest days?” they’re putting up another brilliant highball boulder somewhere. I’m 100% certain that everyone has good days and bad days, even good seasons and bad seasons. But there’s no denying that some pros have an impressively consistent habit of sending. Their bad years still produce ticklists of baffling breadth, because they never stop completing climbs.

It would be easy to assume watching this sort of performance that improving at climbing is a question of picking a hard project, (maybe) preparing for it, and slamming your head against it until the season’s over. We all know the guy who’s still trying the same project as last year, and the year before, and the year before. It’s punishing to the ego to accept failure at that point, but from the outside one might conclude that they could have spent those years building up the necessary base to be ready to really try the project.

In this way, building your base and developing a habit of sending are really the same thing. It’s hard to talk about improving at climbing without talking about the habits of high performers. These are athletes who have built their climbing life and their personality around meaning business when it comes to their climbing.

On the flipside, you have climbers who have built their climbing life and external identity around their habit of not finishing climbs. That sounds severe, but it’s not unusual and it’s definitely a solvable problem. Many climbers go through a crisis of identity, where they begin to identify with the failing instead of the trying, without even realizing the distinction. Often getting out of that slump is just a question of finding the right motivation.

Here are some of what I see as indicators of a climber who has a good relationship to trying hard confidently, and some indicators that a climber may want to address some emotional/logistical hangups before progressing to harder projects. Unlike the tropes of “sender” and “non-sender” I just described, most people will find that they can relate to a few things from each list. Keep in mind, everything is contextual. Bad luck, weather, etc. can be removed from the picture, unless those things dampen performance consistently year after year.

Signs of a good sending habit:

  • When you get invested in a project, you generally finish it. Not every time, but maybe 80% of the time
  • Every day you go climbing, you strive to climb some problems or routes to completion
  • You enjoy new challenges and seek them out deliberately instead of staying in your comfort zone
  • You regularly climb for fun (OK, maybe not regularly. But you at least remember what it feels like)
  • You think about and understand the conditions in which you are likely to succeed – both the literal weather conditions, but also things like your mood, people who are around, the environment, etc

A note on first tries: a lot of these indicators and tips are biased towards redpoint-style climbing. But, of course, onsighting and flashing are their own performance modes, with their own ins and outs. Some of these indicators are still sensible, but the send pressure and route-climber relationship that come with first try efforts are much different.

Signs that you might want to work on your sending habit:

  • You leave a lot of projects unfinished
  • You knowingly bite off more than you can chew, more than a few times a season
  • You don’t climb in parts of the gym/crag in order to avoid negative emotions like shame or frustration
  • You talk about your projects as if you’ve already failed on them

If I had to pick one way to guess whether a climber had a good sending habit, it would be by watching what they do when they sit down under a boulder or tie in for a redpoint attempt. There’s a je ne sais quoi of subconscious confidence that oozes out of climbers who have this habit dialed. Confident climbers really believe that this is the try – every try.

So how does one build this? Years of climbing confidently and succeeding, to be blunt.

Tips for developing a good sending habit:

  • Get a lot of climbing under your belt, just below your project level. Think climbs you can do in 3-10 tries. Do this every season, every year, forever
  • Repeat second-tier projects multiple times over days and seasons. Repeating is key for confidence.
  • When you do project, pick wisely – get the style right first, worry about the grade later
  • Recognize that project selection itself is a skill, and a massively understated one
  • Focus internally on climbing well
  • Choose styles of climbing or climbing situations that intrinsically motivate you. This may require exploration and self-analysis
  • Think long-term when assessing whether to “go all in” or move on from a project. Will you still be able to try this project next week / season / year?
  • Pay attention to weak links, and work on performing well at them. You don’t need to climb at the same grade in every style. Try to find a level where you can climb well in a given style. Being confident and doing a good job are key

This reads like a list of “how to get better at climbing” and that’s not a coincidence. The habit of sending is just a bird’s eye view of good climbing habits. It’s not a question of just deciding to be a more confident climber overnight. Each of these is a skill that needs to be nurtured in its own way. Pick one meta-skill. Structure your session or week in a way that will enable you to work on that meta-skill. Do it until it’s habitual, then pick something else to work on.

Leave a Reply