19 June 2023

Francis Sanzaro: "Confidence is overrated"

Francis Sanzaro is a lifelong climber and former editor-in-chief of Rock and Ice magazine. Check out his The Zen of Climbing to read more of his thoughts. His The Boulder: A Philosophy for Bouldering is on its second edition. (c) Jess Rueppel

Confidence is overrated in all sports, especially in climbing, and I’m going to tell you why. Not only that, when you start to climb with less confidence, you will climb harder, get frustrated less, and start to focus on the things that actually help you climb. Who doesn’t want that?

The reason we think we need to be confident is because we are not really confident, and so we genereate self-talk, such as “you can do this,” “you got this,” and so on. With self talk, we mask weakness. We compensate. We fill ourselves up with positivity, but we are doing so out of a deep sense of “I can’t,” fear, nerves or anxiety. Or a mix of all of them. Filling yourself with positive thoughts has the same effect as filling yourself up with negative thoughts. And thoughts don’t help climbers.

Doing moves efficiently, without higher-order cognitive functions creating blockages in our minds, helps climbers. Blockages are what prevent intuitive reactions and execution. One paper, published in Scientific Reports, found that when athletes try to think and exercise at the same time, the ability to do both is compromised—we lose cognitive capacity and muscular performance. The loss, however, is uneven: muscles suffer the most. Muscular ability decreases 13 percent, compared to very small losses in mental function. A loss of 13 percent means you are falling on your project.

As it turns out, you don’t need positivity or negativity to climb hard—you don’t need the “I can’t” and you don’t need the “I can.” You don’t need the “I” at all. What you need to do is let your body do the work and allow your mind to work as freely as possible, across all of your limbs (without blockages). Self talk, like that of confidence, gets in the way of execution and blocks your mind from going where it needs to be.

As the sports psychologist theorist Ken Ravizza has noted, “confidence is overrated.” On the day he became the first person to flash a 5.15a/9a+, Adam Ondra later said in an interview that: “I lacked the confidence I’d hope I’d have.” Ondra said this about the hardest flash in history, a type of climbing most people think requires the highest level of confidence.

Time and time you hear top climbers saying that on the day the sent, they felt bad. Shawn Raboutou on Megatron (V17): “It didn’t feel like a good day. Like I didn’t think I was going to do it.” Or Stefano Ghisolfi on the second ascent of Change (9b+), “You know when there is the feeling that everything is perfect. The day is perfect. The weather is perfect. Well, it was not that day ... I really didn’t know what to expect from this attempt, so I just kept climbing and kept going.”

Ondra, Ghisolfi, Raboutou, and so many others sent because they had a value-neutral mindset. They had little confidence in the day, or themselves on that attempt. They expected little, so they just climbed. It’s good beta, and I’ve found it to be true in my own climbing (hence, The Zen of Climbing). However, for the record, there are studies that show confidence can be beneficial in athletes, but when you really get down to it, the practices and methods for cultivating various confidences feels like constant patchwork—since confidence is a fickle thing, we need to manage it all the time. And that’s exhausting.

But there’s another approach with a very long and successful history—that of avoiding positivity and negativity. Zen, samurai warriors, and many other classes of philosophy and sports psychology testify to just this. When you have confidence, you set up a duality, and with every ying, there’s a yang. An athlete only needs to add confidence when they are, unconsciously or not, judging themselves, as it is in this act of self-judgement that the need for positivity originates. In one of the foundational books on sports psychology, Timothy Gallwey writes about tennis: “Clearly, positive and negative evaluations are relative to each other. It is impossible to judge one event as positive without seeing other events as not positive or as negative. There is no way to stop just the negative side of the judgemental process. To see your strokes as they are, there is no need to attribute goodness or badness to them…Ending judgement means you neither add nor subtract from the facts before your eyes. Things appear as they are—undistorted. In this way, the mind becomes calmer.”

A calm mind doesn’t judge oneself. A calm mind climbs harder.

Movement is neither good nor bad. You don’t need confidence to climb hard routes—you need to train, execute and keep a clear head without distraction. These three things alone are all you need. If it is in your body’s ability to do a route, pumping yourself full of positive talk isn’t going to make a difference. On the other hand, you can convince yourself all day that you can’t ride a bike, but when it comes times to ride a bike, you are going to if you know how. You don’t need confidence or overconfidence. Overconfidence creates gaps in attention, making you drop your guard and botch the sequence. When you are overconfident, you don’t try hard enough. Maybe your mind is at the chains while your body is at the crux. Researchers on sport psychology, Sian L. Beilock and Thomas H. Carr, note the negative effects of confidence-distraction: “This shift of focus changes what was single-task performance into a dual-task situation in which controlling execution of the task at hand and worrying about the situation compete for attention.”

You never want a situation when your attention is split. A climber needs to execute. When complexity is introduced, thought is introduced, and when this happens, your ability to execute is diminished. For any athlete, body is first material. This doesn’t mean you don’t use your mind. Rather, you just have to learn to use mind differently.
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