What does it really take to be “successful” in a physical pursuit? If you’re a climber, is it simply how strong you are? How well you’ve trained your muscle memory and tested each tiny tendon that locks you onto a hold? Or does it require something more—something not bound to your bodily capabilities at all? Like, how brave you can be, how quickly you can make decisions, how steadily you can manage the flux of emotions…
When I sat down with Kyra Condie, a U.S. Olympic climber and MHW athlete, at our HQ office following her qualification to the Olympics, she summed up this complex enigma eloquently: there’s no simple formula to “controlled chaos,” or in other words: balance in the ever-changing storm of thoughts and movement.As a self-trained athlete, Kyra’s spent much of her life peeling back those layers, trying to figure out where that balance lies for her. She shares with us some of what she’s uncovered and tested in the recent months leading up to her qualification in Toulouse and what she’s reflecting on and fine-tuning as she continues on her road to Tokyo—her words a snapshot of the “chaos” and her efforts to tame them.
Mostly, failure motivates me. Climbing is so much failure. You’re falling all the time, and if you’re not falling, you’re not doing it right—you’re not getting better. That can be a really hard pill to swallow sometimes. A lot of times, for me, with failure, you have to make it into a question. Like, ‘why did I fail on that? Ok, well, I need to get better at this.’ You use it as a tool instead of making it a self-deprecating thing.
I think part of it is that I’ve done a really good job of keeping my climbing performance separate from my personal identity, which is, I think, hard to do. I’ve seen a lot of people that do turn to self-deprecation if their climbing session is going poorly. But for me, a lot of the pressure that’s put on myself comes internally, and because I’m a pretty positive person, that’s when self-motivation kicks in.
We all have this internal scale of how “good” we think we are, and sometimes you need to change it. You don’t want to be overly confident, but it’s important to know your ability level. For me, I’m constantly surprised by how I do… A lot of times at the end of a route, I know my effort was enough, but I still feel like I could’ve done better. I was talking to somebody during a comp, and she was like, ‘how did you not know that you were going to the next round after that? You climb so well.’ And she’s somebody who’s more experienced in competitions than I am, so that was a moment where I started changing the thought of what I’m capable of.The entire competition in Toulouse was a big test of that. I had been working on my speed and getting consistent eight-second times in every practice, and all four of my runs in practice would always be eight seconds or lower. And then my first run up Toulouse, I got 9.4 seconds. It’s a good time, but I knew I could be .6 seconds faster than that, which is a big deal. I could have been obsessing over the fact that I could’ve done better, but instead, I was able to rein it in and focus on: ‘my next round is going to be good; I can get 8.9 seconds easily. I know exactly how to get 8.9 seconds—I’m going to do that.’ And then I end up getting like an 8.8.
Both when I was bouldering and when I was on the lead in Toulouse, I could specifically hear my mom cheering, and she just kept saying, “Get it! Get it!” And I was like, “Ok! I’m going to get it!” Then, after the comp, when I found out I qualified, we were all just crying (me a lot more than them because, you know, neither of them are criers, but I am, so neither of those reactions were unexpected). And it’s funny because leading up to Toulouse, it was really hard to control what I was thinking about. I had daydreams of making it to the Olympics to false starting in speed—the whole range of things—but when I pictured my reaction of making it, it was almost exactly that. I pictured myself watching, crying, my parents getting a photo of it, posting about it—and it totally came to life.Since that day, I’ve had a lot of daydreams like, being in the Olympic village, getting the team kit, climbing. Right now, they’re not nervous daydreams like before Toulouse, where I was thinking a lot about what the boulders were going to be like, what the lead climbing was going to be like, all the way to topping the lead climb or slipping on the first move. A lot of the ones I get now are just kind of excited daydreams: ‘what’s it going to be like’ type things.
Whenever I need to calm myself down in competitions, I talk to myself in Spanish. I have to think about how I’m going to say things to myself that I would always just say in English without thinking. It forces me to really focus on what I’m saying and not be overthinking what’s going to happen or what just happened. It’s an extra level of intention that helps me get focused on my energy.
Music is another way of directing my energy that’s a huge part of my training. I really like music that you can move to. I tend to only listen to reggaeton when I’m training because it’s like dancey, and it keeps my session really positive and fun, which is especially important in Minnesota where a lot of the time, I’m training alone.
In competitions, I’ve recently started listening to opera music. It’s not like my sitting-in-the chair, hype-up music, it’s for when I’m freaking out a little, especially at these really high-stress competitions. It’s what I’m listening to to calm down and get in the zone. It’s the right combo of epic and disengaging to the point where I feel like it’s not calming me down too much but just bringing me down from a 10 out of 10 to a 6 out of 10.
My other thing has been to physically lay down in isolation and ignore everything around me. You just put on blinders like a pillow-over-the-face type thing. In competitions, there are tons of distractions and people to talk to, and that can be draining in some ways. Sometimes you need to remember to disengage when you need to get in the zone. I specifically used that technique at the World Cup lead events. You do one qualifier, and then you have two hours of rest where you can watch, talk to people, talk to coaches, watch videos of how the climbs are supposed to be done—and I was just always really engaged during that time because it felt like the right way to not be too nervous; but I’m kind of an introvert, so to have so much social interaction, I was way more tired for my second round, and I never made that connection. Once I made sure to take some time for myself and focus instead of talking, I realized how much more energy I had left for my climbing.Now, you don’t have to be a professional climber or even an athlete at all to apply these learnings in your own life. On some level, we’ve all experienced that scramble of thoughts when time is pressing, our heart strings are being pulled, and it seems like our body isn’t listening. Getting everything aligned isn’t easy—if it were, maybe we’d all be Olympic athletes. But if there’s anything we can learn from Kyra, for climbing or otherwise, it’s that it’s up to us to figure out how to calm our own internal chaos.