Learn This: Mental Training for Climbers

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Think back to the last time you got on your project. Why did you fall off? Were you so pumped you couldn’t hold on? Were you scared to fall so you just sat back on the rope instead? Or were you so anxious about your redpoint attempt that you didn’t even get on it? If the second and third situations sound familiar, you’re not alone. Years of personal climbing experience, countless climber surveys, and psychological research all point to mental strength as the most influential factor in whether a climber succeeds or not. Your body might be strong and willing, but if you don’t have an equally strong and willing mind, your body has nothing to guide it. The good news is that you can train your brain just like you train your body. We’ve developed a mental training plan that outlines the knowledge and skills you’ll need to improve your head game and thus, your overall climbing performance.

How we learn

Any skilled behavior is learned. Therefore, we will first describe some of the science behind learning. Neural firing is responsible for the three domains of psychology: thinking, feeling, and doing. No neural firing and you are without thoughts, feelings, or emotions. You are dead. In fact, it takes many, many neurons firing in particular patterns to produce the end results that we observe as thoughts and feelings. Understanding a bit about how this system works will help your mental training.

Hebb’s Law states that when Neuron A fires, causing Neuron B to fire, changes occur in the neurons that make this firing sequence more likely in the future. Some people describe Hebb’s Law as: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” What this means for climbing is that repetition, practice, and drills improve performance by changing neural connections.

Rehearsing something until it becomes automatic is called overlearning. Think about memorizing beta. Why did that redpoint crux feel so easy after rehearsing it a hundred times? Rehearsal made you quick and efficient at perceiving the holds, grabbing them exactly the right way, and moving smoothly between them. Because you overlearned the sequence, you could reliably produce it under pressure, and you experienced less anxiety.

Visualization and beta maps

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A sample beta map. Click for full size.

We’ve all seen climbers outside and at competitions standing below their route or boulder problem, hands in the air, miming movement while staring intently at the line. This is an excellent technique when you’re at the base, but a more practical and powerful tool that allows you to overlearn beta on a climb without being there is a beta map. This is an illustration of the key holds and moves on a project climb, including clips, cruxes, and any troublesome spots. While you’re at the climb or looking at an overall image of it, draw the map to the finest detail, making sure to call out key features, moves, and holds. Use this reference to visualize and rehearse each move and hold over and over, just as you would study for an exam. Practice makes perfect, so do it as much as you can: lying in bed before you fall asleep, riding the bus on the way to work, or whenever you have some free time.

Importance of scripts

Human brains have evolved to perceive patterns—whatever makes a certain situation similar to previous situations. Generally, this is a very positive mechanism because it allows us to react speedily without much (if any) thought. These sequences of perceptions/thoughts/feelings/actions are what cognitive psychologists call scripts. They may be as mundane as your morning routine, or they may be as important as your way of interacting with loved ones or responding in emergency situations. Scripts are typically automatic, quick, and efficient. As such, we usually carry them out in a similar way every time. They require little conscious effort, allowing us to conserve valuable resources: attention, consciousness, and working memory, which are intimately linked and very limited. On average, a human adult can hold about five to nine items in working memory, which becomes the bottleneck in our thought process. One of our greatest adaptations as humans is the ability to learn, to practice, and to turn intensive tasks that would usually take up the entirety of our working memory into automatic, scripted tasks. In other words, instead of having to think through each move and hold of a crux (wasting valuable time and energy), your body would automatically perform the moves without any active thinking.

Rewrite scripts to improve climbing

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You currently have a set of scripts that affect your climbing. Everyone’s scripts are different, but many need to be rewritten in order to get better. Luckily there are only three simple steps required: Plan, Practice, Perform. A different way to say it that’s geared toward climbers is: Think, Play, Send!

Think

In this phase, analyze your climbing for areas where you can improve. Self-examine and gather input from others to figure out the skills to focus on and develop that will improve your climbing. A recent survey showed that more than 75 percent of climbers spend less than 30 minutes a week actually analyzing their climbing to figure out how to get better. We recommend spending at least 30 minutes (if not more) a week reflecting on your climbing and working to identify the things that will help you climb better.

One way is to simply ask people who have watched you climb what things they would point out as areas for improvement. Most of us don’t like to hear that we have things to improve on. Our egos feel hammered when this happens. You have to let go of your ego, be open to feedback, and figure out how you can improve. People who perform at very high levels are always good at taking constructive criticism and turning that into valuable lessons learned. So ask and listen. Don’t try and defend why you do what you do. Just listen. Write down what a few people say about areas where you have room to improve, and especially target areas that more than one person pointed out.

Play

In this phase, perform drills that build or rewrite scripts to create the automatic movements that lead to efficient climbing. In the previously mentioned survey, more than 85 percent of climbers spend less than 25 percent of their climbing time doing drills to develop specific skills, like better footwork (see p. 32) or dynamic movement. Spend at least 25 percent of your climbing time working to develop these skills. Spend your warm-up time doing drills, or use the time when you are climbing easy routes to build these skills.

Perform these exercises in a safe atmosphere. Allow yourself to fail and try again. And again. The objective will not be performance, but the repetition of movements or thoughts that rewire the current scripts. Let’s say you struggle with dynamic movement. Find some holds in the gym that allow you to work on jumping between holds without getting high off the ground. Try a variety of footholds and handholds; switch the catching hand, cutting your feet, and any other variables you can include. Practice a variety of dynos a few times each, until you feel like you have nailed down each different movement. This might not happen in one session, but be patient and keep trying!

Send

At this point, you’ve identified areas that will yield the biggest improvements when mastered. Then you focused your training on those areas, practicing exercises in a safe and playful environment to form new scripts. In this final step, you solidify the new habits that you created by finding a route that you are excited about and will be challenging for you. Apply your scripts to the real-world situation of trying to send a route under the pressures of difficult moves, pumped arms, and potential falls. This makes the scripts actually useful in similar situations when you really need them. It doesn’t matter whether you’re trying to onsight or redpoint the route, but what does matter is that you really want to climb the route well and that it’s challenging for you. This will create emotions and feelings, including excitement, that build a proper environment in which to practice your new scripts. This will help move them deeper into your subconscious and make them automatic. Continuing this Think-Play-Send process with other weak spots in your climbing will help you rapidly improve your performance—and have more fun along the way.

This is an excerpt from the book Vertical Mind: Psychological Approaches for Optimal Rock Climbing by Don McGrath, Ph.D., and Jeff Elison, Ph.D., which is available now at verticalmindbook.com. The authors go deep into the latest research in psychology and explain how it can help you retrain your mind and body for higher levels of climbing performance. Drawing on psychological research, surveys of climbers, interviews, and more than 50 years of combined climbing experience, the authors explain not only how to improve your mental game, but also the theory behind why it works.

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