What If I’m Not as Good at My Sport as I Used to Be?

Welcome to Tough Love. We’re answering your questions about dating, breakups, and everything in between. Our advice giver is Blair Braverman, dogsled racer and author of Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. Have a question of your own? Write to us at toughlove@outsideinc.com.

Question 1. I have been a climber for seven years now and really enjoy it. I’ve never climbed super hard grades, but I have been solidly intermediate and enjoyed feeling competent and brave on the rock.

Recently I’ve seen a huge backslide in my climbing. It doesn’t seem to be strength related, but mental/technique failings. I am getting terrified on routes that I previously scampered up without a second thought. I’ve scaled back my plans and am now climbing things that are recommended for brand new climbers. When I go out with people, I can’t keep up with my old partners. I used to mentor climbers but have been struggling recently, since I’ve become so bad. It’s hard to mentor people who are already climbing better than my current state and who get bored on the stuff I can currently manage.

I’m not sure if this is tied to the pandemic or something else, but it doesn’t seem like something that I can fix quickly. I suspect I may just need to write off the last seven years of building skills and confidence and start over. This makes me really sad and I’m struggling to have fun on the things I can do now. It’s hard to feel a sense of accomplishment on something I walked up in runners two years ago. My partner is still climbing very strong and I feel bad when I have to suggest easier options or can’t do something. I’m tired of feeling scared and uncertain and I miss old competent, level-headed me.

Do you have any advice for trying to enjoy where I am at now? How do I keep the joy in something when it seems like I’m getting worse and my hard work doesn’t pay off?

Question 2. I’m looking for advice on returning to beloved pre-pandemic activities in a very different post-pandemic world. I’ve done circus as a hobby for almost a decade now, and before the pandemic I was in some of the best shape of my life. I was taking circus classes regularly, felt great about my skills, and was thinking about even doing a little performing for fun. That all stopped abruptly with the pandemic, as training in a busy gym no longer felt safe. The pandemic also coincided with an incredibly tough year of school (I’m a med student, and started clinical rotations a few months into the pandemic) so my overall fitness steeply declined. I’m now, slowly, returning to some of my old activities, but it feels very discouraging to have taken so many steps backward. Skills that used to come easily now feel impossible. How do you cope with returning to something you love, but having to start over almost from the beginning?

On a related note, I’d also love advice about returning to communities after watching them handle pandemic safety incredibly poorly. While some circus communities/spaces did a great job looking out for the health and safety of their members, many did not, and in fact actively promoted harmful activities. Circus is a risky activity that involves a ton of trust in others to protect your safety. How do you deal with that sort of broken trust while returning to activities you love?

I wanted to answer these together because they’re indicative of a theme that’s coming up often in questions lately, which is shame or anxiety or disappointment in continuing an activity at a lower level than before. And while the questions aren’t always tied to the pandemic, it hardly seems a coincidence that they’re coming now, when we’ve been immersed in a global emergency for a year and a half. When your life has been turned upside-down, you deserve gentleness and praise for getting through the days, not critique because you didn’t manage to prioritize literally everything at once.

It’s normal for skill levels to slip sometimes, although that doesn’t mean it’s not frustrating or disheartening when it happens. But as hard as it can be to believe when you’re struggling to do something that used to be easy, you’re not actually starting from scratch. All the time and effort you’ve put into your sport, the knowledge and muscle memory you developed, are still there. And if you rebuild the strength you need, or re-learn to steady your mind, you’ll progress infinitely more quickly than someone without experience. Being rusty now doesn’t mean you’ll be rusty forever.

But for the sake of argument, let’s say you are rusty forever—that you’ll never get back to the level you once reached. I suspect, even more than actual frustration, it’s your own expectations that make that feel so bad: the shame of having gone backwards, so to speak. If you can identify that shame for what it is—a feeling of failure, rather than an objective reality—it might help you get back to the simple, almost childlike enjoyment you first felt in your sport, which for most people is why they got started in the first case. The last time you were at this level, you enjoyed what you were doing, or at least you enjoyed it enough to keep going and become better. What was it you loved? The feeling of reaching the top of a route and looking out at the view, knowing you got there on your own strength? The fresh air? The camaraderie that comes from working together to do something unusual and beautiful and fun?

For the climber: if you haven’t already, I’d recommend seeing a psychiatrist (or specifically a sports psychiatrist), someone who can help you to process your fear and develop exercises to calm your mind. It makes sad, perfect sense that living in this pandemic would affect your ability to feel safe and secure while engaging in an extreme sport. Your mind and body have adjusted to a world that demands far more vigilance than it used to, and of course you can’t just turn that off while clinging to a rock in midair.

When it comes to mentoring other climbers, is there a way for you to guide or help them without being directly beside them? The world is full of legendary mentors and coaches who can’t “do” as much as their mentees, but have the knowledge and experience to help others succeed. If you don’t feel like sharing the reasons that you’re not climbing yourself, you can be super vague: “I’m recovering from something” or “eh, it’s a health thing, I don’t want to go into it” is more than enough. Your mental health is your health, and it’s no one else’s business unless you choose to share. On the other hand, you may find that confiding in your climbing friends will help them to better support you (and you might learn that you’re not alone). Think of Simone Biles choosing not to compete during parts of the Olympics: it’s an act of great courage, not a failure, to speak honestly about where you are and what you need.

For the circus artist: I wish I had a better answer about going back to a community that failed to protect its members, but the truth is that broken trust is broken trust. Circus seems communal by necessity, so it’s not as simple as saying you should step back from your community if it’s the only one available to you. But whenever possible, try to build even stronger bonds with people who do prioritize safety and responsibility. The more open you are about your values and your frustrations, the more kindred souls will come out of the woodwork. And when you find those people—the people you do trust—you’ll know just how precious they are.

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