Performance Anxiety and Competition

[Ed: too many words and not enough pictures in this post. I’ll try to improve that in future.]

Yesterday I competed in the Dark Horse Bouldering Series at MetroRock. This was my first climbing competition ever, and really my first competition of any kind in many years (unless you count job interviews).

After the disaster that was the solo performance requirement during my brief stint as a music composition major in college, I really worked to avoid anything that involved people watching me. Co-workers at Amazon may recall shaky, stuttering presentations – even when the only audience was my own team, who were friends I spent all my time with.

I’m not sure where my performance anxiety started, but I remember when I was a high school intern where my Dad worked, I would watch him give talks in front of hundreds of people. He seemed so relaxed and confident and capable up there. I was waiting for the point when I would be like that. I wondered when the transition would happen, when I would suddenly no longer be nervous to have people paying attention to me. Of course, the magic transition never happened, and at some point it became apparent that I might have to actually work to overcome my insecurities. Well, that didn’t sound very appealing, so I avoided anything that involved attention being placed on me. Sometimes I’d use my performance anxiety as an excuse to try to get someone else to take over (this didn’t usually work, as it turns out not many people are actually enthusiastic about public speaking).

My panic about these things usually starts weeks in advance. I think I managed to avoid some of the panic build-up in this case since I really only considered doing the bouldering comp about a week before it started, when – flush from my recent NaNoWriMo success – I blogged that I was going to do it. Now, blogging about something you’re working on will have one of two effects. If it’s something vague with no timeline, your brain will equate the talking about it with the doing of it, and you won’t do it. If it’s something short-term and well-defined, the people you tell will ask you about it and the motivation to not have to say “I gave up,” will push you through.

I’ve tried to take both angles on this in various parts of my life. I have big open-ended projects, and I’ve started to be more close-mouthed about them – not through any attempt at secrecy, but just to avoid sabotaging myself. And I’ve become more public about things like NaNoWriMo and the bouldering comp, which I would have kept to myself previously, so I wouldn’t be too embarrassed if I fell short. The next step is to come up with more definite small steps within the open-ended projects, so I can be public about those steps in order to be motivated to complete them.

In both NaNoWriMo and the bouldering comp, there were various points at which I would have given up had I not told anyone of my plans. With the bouldering comp, I even avoided registering until I showed up at the gym in the morning – convinced I would find some excuse not to compete by then. It was only through the support and encouragement of people I told that I managed to stay in the game.

The bouldering competition didn’t exactly have a ton of public performance (at least not the part I did – the dyno comp and pro competitors are another story), but for each problem you climbed, you needed to get two other competitors to sign off that you completed it. So you not only needed to make sure a couple people were watching, but afterward have to ask them, “did you see me climb that?” without seeming self-congratulatory about climbing one of the easiest problems in the gym. That was kind of hard for me. Thankfully, everyone there was super-nice, and after my first three sends my anxiety about the whole thing was more-or-less gone (although it was more and more difficult to not sound self-congratulatory as I started climbing harder routes).

The way the competition works is like this: there are about 70 problems, each has a point value (from 25 to 1160) that relates to its difficulty (for the climbers out there, divide by 100 to get the Vermin grade – so from V0 to V11). You get unlimited attempts on each problem, and your 5 hardest problems get added up for your total score. There are some common strategies – since you only need five sends in the four hour competition, that’s one every 48 minutes, so take your time and work the problems (taking a few falls) so you can pull out some hard sends by the end. Some people really follow this, and head into the last thirty minutes with only four sends on their scorecard. I, on the other hand, had fifteen by that point. Dark Horse Series scorecard That is not bragging – it’s the result of not having any idea how I was going to perform. While I’ve been climbing a ton, I hadn’t been on a bouldering wall in four months and there’s definitely a different skill set than with roped climbing. So I started with the easy problems, and quickly realized I had underestimated what I should be climbing. I pushed a bit harder, and then a bit harder – it took a while to figure out exactly where my limit was. In the end I had 1910 points with three V3s and two V4s under my belt. All of my final five routes were harder than any bouldering problem I’d done before the competition – apparently roped climbing translates pretty well.

I was ecstatic for the rest of the event. I had far exceeded my expected score of ~700, averaging hard V3 rather than middling V1 – pushing past the performance anxiety that almost prevented me from entering in the first place. I was so excited, it was hard for me to sit still as we watched the dyno comp (I have no idea how some of those moves are possible) and pro finals (MetroRock’s own Francesca Metcalf kicked ass in the women’s final) – thankfully the free pizza and beer helped to quell my overflowing energy. The whole comp was a blast, and it was great to finally talk to a bunch of people whose faces were familiar to me from the gym.

Here’s hoping I’ve started to take some steps toward overcoming the debilitating fear I feel whenever people are watching me do something. I may never have to perform gymnastics with a crowd screaming at me as Francesca does, but hopefully some day I’ll be able to make it through a presentation without hoping that everyone is just staring at my slides while I hide behind the podium. In the meantime, I’m planning to enter MetroRock’s next competition on February 27. And now that I have some sense of my bouldering level, I can start working to bolster it – maybe even set a goal, like: I will climb a V5 at the February comp. Yeah, that sounds good. Let’s go with that.

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