Flexible Mind: rope climbs

Yesterday in our workout, we had rope climbs. The one thing I thought I could never do.

Being able to climb a rope is actually quite an exhilarating thing for me. And not for any other reason than that I thought I truly couldn’t.

The story goes like this…

When I first started at our gym, it came as a wild surprise to me just how pathetically NOT strong I was. Having been a personal trainer and a fitness freak for many years, I assumed that I’d walk in and have to spend most of my time learning technique. I thought that the strength portion was there.

Big surprise.  Apparently doing basic dumbbell workouts and going for a run is quite different than executing Olympic lifts that are closer to your own body weight. And this is saying nothing of the more gymastics’y stuff. You know, the pull ups and the toes to bar and the ring dips and the hand stand push-ups. And yes, the rope climbs.

By the time I’d been at this new gym for a couple of months, I’d mentally whittled away what I wanted to accomplish from the things I really didn’t care about. In hindsight, I think I didn’t care about them because they seemed way too far outside the scope of possible.

Who really needs to climb a rope anyway? For what? And why?

One day, I asked my coach if he would give me a permanent modification for rope climbs so that whenever they came around, I would have something to slip into their place. And it didn’t even need to be a rope climb progression sort of move. I mean, I didn’t really care if I ever climbed the stupid thing; I was just here for a good workout.

What he said to me rolled off the tongue of a coach as second nature. I doubt he even remembers saying it. But it has stuck with me nonetheless.

Heather, you can push yourself as hard as you do or don’t want to push yourself. That’s up to you. So, if you don’t want to do things that Crossfitter’s do, that’s ok. You will get that great workout. But if you’re here because you want to be a Crossfitter, you have to do all the things that are associated with that. And Crossfitter’s climb ropes. Crossfitter’s are constantly forcing their bodies to do things that their minds say they can’t. And it’s ok if you can’t today, so long as you are saying “I can’t yet” rather than “I can’t and I won’t”. So, it’s up to you. If you want a great workout and nothing more, do heavy kettlebell drags every time rope climbs show up in a WOD. But if you want to be a Crossfitter, learn to climb the damn rope. Even if it takes a year.

I didn’t have to think very long about what he said. I wrapped the rope around my leg, put my hands in position, and tried.

I tried and failed.

For some reason, the motion of pulling up just didn’t compute with me for many, many months. I’d watch video after video of technique and get climbing advice from my fellow CF’ers at the gym, but still, I had a hard time accomplishing even one pull up the rope. My mind knew what to do but my body couldn’t make sense of it. AND, it was painful. The way the rope dug into my hands and legs felt like needles. Needles that were being pressed into me with the force of my entire body weight.

One day, I made it halfway up the rope. And then I froze. Being as terribly afraid of heights as I am, the idea that I’d never figured out how to get down made me too scared to get outside of the range of how far I could fall if I needed to without getting badly hurt.

And so, I stayed there for a few months. Whenever rope climbs came up, I went up and down only half way. But it wasn’t wasted entirely. Those little half climbs chipped away at this “I can’t” idea in my head, until one day, I started thinking “maybe I can”.

And so there I was. It was a Saturday morning much like any other Saturday morning. Rope climbs showed up on the board, and I didn’t think much of it other than that I was glad I had my long sock along to protect my right leg from the painful rope burn that normally happened. My hands were feeling strong and I was ready to do my typical half-climbs as many times as the board said I needed to. And it was a lot.

Halfway up for the third time, my friends on the ground stopped their workout to notice me. They’d seen me do this “halfway up, halfway down” charade for months. They’d been there to show me more efficient ways of climbing and they’d cheered my progress. And there in that moment, I suspect that they knew what I didn’t. They knew that I actually could now. They knew that the thing holding me back was my own mind.

Just one more pull, Heather. And then another.  Just do it. I know you can. If you can get halfway, you can get to the top. Don’t stop. Don’t you dare come down till you tap that ceiling.


It’s an awkward position to be in, ya know. Hanging from a rope with hands tired and leg burning from where the rope digs in. And then to have the strongest people you know suddenly stop to put all their attention on you. I knew I was going to have to go for it, and the only consolation I had was the fact that if I slipped, it was quite likely someone would catch me, what with all this sudden attention.

I bit my lower lip, tightened my grip, and pulled myself up three more times till I could let go of the rope with one hand to reach up and tap the ceiling. The trip down burned badly in my inner thigh, but it was worth it. And do you know what, after that one tap on the ceiling, I managed to do it nine times more that morning. Ten rope climbs that day. Ten. From none to ten. And why? All because the hardened ideas in my mind of what I am and am not capable of had softened, and I was able to reform them.

Fixed mind vs. flexible mind.

As happens often for me, these lessons learned in the gym through sweat and grunts and body pain rolled over into my overly analytical way of looking at the world around me. I began to see all sorts of ways that I’d made my mind up about things and perhaps arrived at the wrong conclusion. I saw all sorts of spaces within me that were firm fast beliefs that were altogether unchallenged. This spanned from thoughts of race and privilege and sexual orientation (partly due to a class I was taking at the time that put my mind thinking on those things for many hours a day) to thoughts of other areas of my life that were ripe with untapped potential.

One of the classes I was taking at the time was called Communications, but it really should have been called Public Speaking 101. And as I dealt with the nerves surrounding each speech, it felt a little reminiscent of those early rope climbs. I didn’t become an eloquent orator in the four months that that class took to complete, but I did manage to get A+’s on each one of those speeches. And just like I’m still not a fast rope climber, but I discovered yet again that I can. I can give speeches. A thing that used to be an “I can’t” was put into this machine that my mind imagines to be huge hands working on hard clay. Rolling it and stretching it and forcing pliability. Things that were hard become moveable and become moldable. Notions that have been hard set in me found softness. Found room for change. Room for maybe a possible where the impossible had previously so firmly set up residence.

I’ve shared before about two particular relationships in my life that exist. Sometimes I think they exist for the sole purpose of keeping the hard clay of my mind continuously in the Big Shaping Hands. I’ve reached forgiveness and resolution just as many times as I’ve returned to the place of being hard and unmalleable. It’s a painful tug-of-war, these two.

Sometimes life strips away from us all the things that help us along in making the right decision until we are left with nothing but sheer force of will. A completely unassisted determination to not allow the clay to be set down permanently and allowed to turn hard and dry and to begin to crumble. And for no other reason than that it’s the wrong choice.

No one will see if we make the right choice. No one will clap if we press hard into ourselves and dig out the best. No one will assist when we fight the midnight feelings that come most heavy onto us when we are tired and in the dark.

And those are hard times.

Private pain. Private anger. Private hostility.

These are hard enemies.

And when you face them, they feel like especially sharp needles that dig into your most tender places as if the full weight of your entire body was pressing them in all that much deeper. It hurts, and it’s maddening. And there is nothing outside to provide motivation. No crowds of friends stand on the ground next to you cheering that one hand to reach up again and that other hand to follow. There is no net of supporters below to catch you if you slip.

It’s just work.


Somedays you make it halfway up the rope.
Other days, you just swear at the thing and tell it where to go.

You get so close to succumbing to the hardness. Yet get so close to just letting the hatred have a home. And hatred is probably too strong of a word, but when the worst of it circles round your tired head and heart, it can feel like no word is too strong. The ferocity of the human heart can be so exaggerated sometimes.

Oh, mind of mine, you must not lose heart. You must not quit. You must not accept hardness as your final answer. Oh, part of me that I cannot touch, that I cannot coax into action by cheers and adulation, do not relent. Climb the damn rope. Feel the pricks and don’t give in. Let the ever-so-painful softening process continue to take place and don’t fight it. Set down the mental machinations always at work. The justifications, the reasons, the weight and balance that assigns blame to the other while giving yourself a “get out of jail free” card.

So, hard things have happened. Climb anyway.
So, lies have been told. Climb anyway.
So, relationships have been lost. Climb anyway.
So, your efforts will continue to be unnoticed and unappreciated. Climb anyway.

Climb, because to not climb would mean the acceptance of a hard heart. A hard mind. An unmalleable soul.

Climb, because the alternative is to allow the deep corners of yourself to fill with cobwebs and darkness and sharp edges.

Climb, because no one ever reaches the top without slivers in their hands and legs. No one ever wins because they stayed on the ground. No one ever finds freedom from this monster of anger and unforgiveness by letting hard places stay hard.

Return again to the fight.

Be stretched.
Be pulled.
Be made soft and flexible again.
Don’t resist it.

One hand over the other. And again and again.

Learn to climb the damn rope.

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