Black Diamond Local Hero, Tom Stabbins, like most of us, has been struggling to climb throughout repeated lockdowns over the last year, but that hasn’t dampened his love of the sport. Tom reflects on how climbing has benefited his mental health – and how it could help you.
A personal perspective
The benefits that climbing can have on mental health have been widely talked about for a long time by people who are much more clued up on the details than I am. There have been many studies that have investigated the subject and while they are super interesting, that’s not something I’m particularly qualified to talk about. I can, however, talk about my own mental health experience and the love/hate relationship that climbing has had with it. I’m also going to ignore the elephant that has been in the room for the past year as I’ve struggled to keep up climbing over lockdown.
How climbing has helped me
I’ve been climbing for nearly 4 years now, almost always indoors and almost always at TCA in Bristol. While I’ve really enjoyed the outdoor climbing (especially Font), I’ve always found myself coming back to the comforting feel of The Mothership. I’ve even heard it described by someone as climbing in their living room, with familiar faces and in a cosy setting; I can see the resemblance. I found climbing when I was going through a tough time and to say it saved me might be stretching it, but it certainly changed my life. I was (and still am) quite young and inexperienced when it comes to knowing how to look after myself upstairs. I found myself quickly in a routine of physical exercise, one that has always been there for me in one way or another, and it soon turned into a part of my life that overtook the pub as my go-to for socialising. It gave me a reason to leave work early and helped me feel better about my physical appearance and ability. There are few people I know who haven’t said similar things.
For me, there are a few qualities that make climbing a stand-out sport when it comes to its impact on mental health. These are just my favourite parts and I’m sure you may be able to think of others:
One of the things I’ve found over the years is that nearly everyone can start climbing with relative ease, providing that they don’t have a phobia of beanies of course. There are fewer barriers between people and the wall than ever, with a list as long as your pumped forearm of clubs and groups to suit your demographic. There is a helping hand for anyone who wants to start.
Once someone has been for their first session, they’re usually interested in coming back again. The thing that surprises people (and I include myself in this) is how quickly climbing skill improves in the first few months. I don’t know if this is head game or some group of muscles I don’t know about. All I know is that the rapid progression does absolute wonders for self-esteem, something which, let’s face it, is a bedrock of most people’s mental health. It certainly is for me anyway. There is something about adopting a new skill and watching yourself improve in ability and confidence over a relatively short amount of time that I think can be a real key point in its relationship with mental health.
A sense of accomplishment
Celebrate successes, big or small
I’ve found a session at an indoor climbing centre can be broken down into two categories. One is problems that you can climb, and the other is problems that you can’t climb, yet. Both are as important as the other. Having your own personal relationship with the problems means that over time you end up with a little logbook in your mind of problems you were able to send and problems you tried but didn’t end up topping. Celebrating those successes, no matter how small, is one of my favourite things when climbing. Then coming back to the problems you struggled with, and finding a newfound strength, gives a sense of accomplishment I struggle to find anywhere else. Who cares if a grade is 3+? If you couldn’t do it last week and you can now, then take the win. Controversially, I like to ignore grades most of the time for this exact reason.
A welcoming climbing scene
Something that myself and many others I have introduced to the sport have found, is that whether you want to or not, you’ll end up making friends for life on the wall. For my first year of climbing, I was the only person I knew who wanted to climb regularly and I used to come down to TCA quite regularly, I can tell you not even once did I feel lonely or isolated.
So long as you don’t have a pair of headphones in (and sometimes even if you do), someone will end up chatting to you at one point or another in your session. This doesn’t mean to say it’s like a summer camp of awkward high fives and forced small talk, but there is something about the type of person that this lovely sport attracts, that oozes friendliness. Not once have I ever met someone who was not kind or supportive about a climb I was taking on, and it makes you want to act the same way. It’s not cringe-worthy though, I swear, it’s nice and natural.
The sport also really lends itself to regular attendance, which means that familiar faces are common at the climbing centre, and before long you’ll feel like you’re best friends with someone you’ve never spoken to. A bit like when you see people you know from your morning train to work in Cabot Circus and you don’t know if you should say ‘hey’ or not. But in this case, you actually want to.
For more on how climbing can help your mental health read this article or check out our other content on mental health and mindset. You can also read love letters to climbing written by members of our community during the first 2020 lockdown.
You only live once
Give it a go
Honestly, if you’re on the fence about giving it a go then I know I’m biased but I can’t recommend it enough. If you’re looking for someone to try it out with because going alone feels scary, then with a very small amount of effort, you’ll find a climbing partner no doubt. If you really struggle just message me and I’m always keen (once things go back to normal of course).
During non-Covid times we operate social climbing clubs at centres, but as Tom says you will very easily meet people in centres. It's possible to be friendly without being within 2m of others. So just pop along, when we reopen.
WRITER: Tom Stabbins is a climber, accessibility advocate and TCA Black Diamond Local Hero. He is also involved with Bristol Inclusive Thrill Seekers. In non-Covid times check out their website for adventure sports activities.