Think for a second how much easier climbing would be if you had the mental side totally down.
Climbing completely unbound by distracting fears, emotions, or thoughts. Just complete and utter mental control and confidence.
That’s the goal, right!?
With the mental side covered, tackling the physical side doesn’t seem all that bad. So then why do we pour all or most of our efforts into physical training, and little to none into the mental side?
….because compared to mental training, physical training is easy. It’s measurable and results can happen relatively quickly. Mental training on the other hand, although the benefits are far more substantial, so is the work and effort required.
Well, I think it’s about time to take our climbing to the next level. Physical training can only take us so far. Tapping into the power of the mind is arguably the best climbing skill you could ever achieve.
Let’s look at 10 things you can do to start climbing mentally strong!
1. Practice Tolerating Discomfort
When you find yourself in uncomfortable or difficult situations, it can become difficult to control your thoughts and emotions. It could be as trivial as the discomfort of your feet wedged into your shoes, or as significant as the anxiety that may arise when you begin to feel vulnerable on a climb. Regardless of the severity of the discomfort, the mind can be very easily tempted to wander, resulting in a loss of focus and control where it’s needed most…on your climb! Luckily, you can train your body, and most importantly your mind, to tolerate discomfort.
My favourite method is through yoga (obviously 😉 ), but yin yoga to be even more specific. Yin yoga is a bit different to the traditional yoga that typically comes to mind. Yin is a very slow paced and passive practice where the poses are held for several minutes and sensations are allowed to rise throughout the duration of the pose, likely taking you well outside your comfort zone. Let me just get this out of the way and tell you that a yin practice is not meant to be comfortable; however, this is exactly why it has the potential to have such a huge impact on your mental strength. As you hold each pose you’re meant to commit to stillness. As discomfort increases during the duration of the pose, mental and physical fidgeting can be a welcome distraction from the discomfort you may be experiencing, however, your job is to resist those urges by committing to stillness. It can be very difficult at first, but with practice you can indeed train yourself to tolerate discomfort which will not just help you throughout your practice, but also on the rock.
2. Visualize the Heck Out of Your Climb
The more you can keep your focus on your climb the better. You don’t want your mental capacity to be eaten up by unnecessary thoughts and planning that could have been easily addressed beforehand. I’m speaking specifically about send attempts here. Of course while working a climb there is beta that needs to be determined, which involves quite a bit of problem solving (i.e. mental power!), but during a send attempt your mind should be solely focused on the climb.
Visualization exercises are great for improving your mental strength because it eliminates the need to think or plan out future moves. We want our minds to be with us in the present, not preoccupied on the future. You want to visualize your climb enough that it gets ingrained into your mind; so that each movement can flow without hesitation or doubt. This technique works best when many of the senses are involved. So, as you visualize your project, think about what you see, how the holds feel beneath your finger tips and toes, the sound of your hand slapping that sloper, or of your partners cheering you on. The neural patterns that your beginning to establish during visualization will actually teach your muscles to perform exactly how you’d like them to.
3. Review Your Core Beliefs
Many of our core beliefs get established early in life and can influence our behaviour, thoughts, and emotions in any given situation. You may not even be aware of what some of your core beliefs are, which is why reviewing them, and perhaps reestablishing them, can create a great shift in mindset. Think if you ever just assume that you’re not strong, or that you suck at sports, or that you’ll never succeed, or that everything is just harder for you. These are all examples of beliefs that may have been established long ago by parents, siblings, peers, or other experiences. The key though is that although beliefs may already be established, doesn’t mean that they have to be accepted. You have the awareness and the choice now to decide which beliefs need to be reestablished to serve you better, instead of continuing to allow them to predetermine the outcome of your climbs and your life. It will take hard work to rewire the pathways in your mind, but the results can be life changing.
4. Let Go of Ego
What is ego anyway? It’s a false identity or mask that we create for ourselves based on labels, images and judgements. When it comes to climbing, the ideas we have regarding our talents and abilities as a climber can severely affect our potential and clutter our mind with unnecessary distractions. Ultimately you climb for you. Allowing ego to distract you and convince you that you need to please other peoples expectations (which by the way, are really defined by you) is just nonsense. Our ego needs constant reinforcement and thrives off the approval of others and unfortunately, this can really limit our potential. It can cause us to avoid certain climbs, create excuses, and not push our limits for fear of not living up to expectations.
The ego must be left behind. Your focus needs to be on you, not on pleasing others and allowing those self-created false expectations to dictate the way you climb. If you’re embarrassed to fall then force yourself to fall until you just don’t care anymore. Allow yourself to be comfortable with the climber that you are and use that new found confidence to thrive!
5. Face Your Fears
The best way to overcome your fears is by confronting them head on. Easier said than done, right? Dealing with fear can be very mentally and physically exhausting, not to mention extremely unpleasant! Fact of the matter is that fear can be debilitating, paralyzing, and can completely drain you of your resources. It’s a mental game, but one that you can win. Fear is an emotional response to what you perceive as a threatening situation, so the first step is taking a moment to better understand your fears.
For example, several climbers fear climbing past their last piece of protection, but why? Fear of falling? Fear of getting hurt? Not trusting your gear? Not trusting your partner? You need to understand what is the trigger of your emotions. With that understood, then you can move forward better equipped to conquer those fears, and to conquer, you need exposure. The greater the fear the more exposure to it you’ll need.
Starting in a controlled environment (like a climbing gym) can be very helpful since it can help soothe and ease your mind. Work at your own pace, slowly working towards stepping further and further away from your comfort zone. It will be unpleasant and uncomfortable, but the amount of potential that is trapped behind your fears is well worth the hardship.
6. Get Good Climbing Partners
A lot of confidence in climbing comes from the comforting fact that you have complete trust in your spotters and belayers. Without them your mind can become consumed with thoughts and concerns that will only hinder your efforts and distract you from your climb. It’s your climbing partners job to look after your safety, and although you’re responsible for your own safety as well, it’s a huge relief when you don’t have to climb with the entire burden of your well being weighing down on your shoulders. A good climbing partner will do everything in their power to remove unnecessary stresses and concerns from your mind so that you can focus completely on your climb.
Excellent communication and knowledgeable in climbing and safety are essential qualities for someone you’re essentially trusting your life with. It may not seem like much, but even just hearing your spotter or belayer yell some encouraging words to you not only may give you a boost of confidence, but it also confirms to you that they are alert, paying attention and completely focused on you. That alone can give you the mental space and security you need to stick the next move.
7. Embrace Failure
Falling is a huge part of climbing, and if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be nearly as fun. Climbers like to be challenged and like to push their limits, both of which are impossible without experiencing failure. But, even though it’s an expected and necessary part of climbing, that doesn’t make it any easier to handle, especially during those times when failure seems to come all to frequently. Failure means that there are still lessons that have yet to be learned. Really, they are opportunities for growth. It doesn’t symbolize that you’re not a good climber, in fact, it’s completely the opposite. Challenging yourself to explore outside your physical and mental limits will take you to places that your unfamiliar with, so expecting anything close to perfection is just unrealistic.
The key is choosing to learn from each and every failure. There is a lesson hidden in there. If you continue to fall on a climb and don’t analyze your failure for clues, then your pushing that moment of success further and further away. Getting into the habit of analyzing your falls can bring to light what the true hurdle is. It could be footwork, lock-off strength, lack of trust in your spotter, or countless other things. Failure is really only a failure if you choose not to learn anything from it.
8. Eliminate Doubt
Do you notice the difference in the quality of your climbing when you feel confident? It can make quite a positive impact, right? Doubt, on the other hand, can play a pretty big toll on your mindset, and as a result, your climbing. When you believe in yourself you put yourself in a better mental state to accomplish the desired task, and since the mind controls the body, your body will be better guided to execute the task to your expectations. The thing is, it’s not easy to feel confident all the time. Climbing is challenging and we are often asking ourselves to step outside our comfort zones, however, there are several limiting thoughts you can address to begin to eliminate some of that doubt and boost your confidence.
For example, during routes it can be common for some to begin to doubt if their knot was tied properly, or if their harness is on properly. These thoughts are usually fear based and are rarely ever a result of carelessness. Even still, if you know that these thoughts like to creep in then take an extra minute with your belayer to verbally confirm all safety checks. Eliminate that doubt completely from your mind.
Another example is approaching a climb that has holds that you struggle with…lets say pinches. The climb looks very attractive and appealing but you know you really struggle with pinches, and already you’ve allowed doubt to enter and lower your expectations on the climb. Yes, you know pinches are hard, which likely already lowers your expectations a bit, but what’s the point of lowering the bar even more by going into the climb assuming you’re not going to perform well? Being faced with your weakness can surely bring up feelings of doubt, but dwelling on it will only allow it to grow stronger. Chose to go into a climb with confidence. Believe and remind yourself of your abilities and don’t allow the doubt to predetermine the outcome of the climb.
9. Set Small Goals
Hey, I’m all about dreaming big, but when it comes to maintaining a positive mindset, it’s all about those frequent small victories. I do believe it’s very important to have those ultimate goals established to work towards and look forward to, however, breaking them down into smaller daily or weekly goals is a great way to keep your mind engaged and motivated. The mental side of climbing is huge and can greatly dictate your performance, so learning techniques and even ways to fool your mind into maintaining that positive mindset can certainly be a major game changer.
Let’s take bouldering as an example. Falling on a problem, especially multiple times, can begin to bring up feelings of frustration and failure, which does nothing to help our performance. Even though you may not have consciously set a goal, subconsciously your goal was to send the problem and anything short of that your mind defines as failure. So let’s change the goal. Instead of defaulting to making the send the goal, why not narrow it down and make it the first 3 moves, or 1 move, or perfecting your footwork? What was once seen as a failure can now be turned into a victory, or at least the victory will come faster. So instead of just celebrating each send, you get to experience many mental highs throughout the life of the problem.
10. Remember Why You Climb
We know we love climbing, but how often do we think about what originally ignited our passion for it? It can become easy to get distracted and focused by things like grades, and as a result we may forget about those real underlying reasons. Don’t get me wrong, grades can be an amazing source of motivation and a great challenge, but they can also bring a lot of feelings of frustration and disappointment, and this is when remembering why you love climbing becomes especially important. There’s just something truly special about climbing that goes way deeper than grades and competition and red points and flashes.
Climbing is freeing. It’s an escape. It’s a test of our mental and physical limits. It’s an opportunity to explore the world. It’s a community of great people.
Take a moment to think about what originally drew you into this climbing world. What ignited your passion? What’s the real reason why you climb? Remember it. Write it down. Allow it fuel your climbs. Keep your passion in climbing.