Mental Training: Focus Your Attention to Control Your Mental Game

By Arno Ilgner ,

Arno Ilgner

Attention is the coolest part of mental training. It gives us a central point of reference that lets us know whether or not we’re focused. If we notice that we’re distracted, then we can bring our attention back to the task at hand. Noticing distractions—anything that isn’t related to what you need to think about to climb—can be difficult at first. For example, if you’re thinking about the goal instead of how to climb the next section, then you’re distracted. The task at hand is that next section of the climb.

There are many tasks in climbing, but for focusing our attention there are really only two: thinking with the mind and moving the body. In general, we focus our attention on thinking when we’re at stopping/resting points, and we focus our attention in the body when we climb between these stopping points. This is the foundation for how we’ll use our attention, and it’s also pretty simple. Note, however, that I didn’t say “easy”—we still need to work to stay focused, though this rubric gives us a guide for refocusing when we notice we’re distracted.

Stopping points

Focus on resting at stances both to recover energy and to do the necessary thinking about what lies ahead. First, put some thought into where the next bolt/rest stance/protection is. Next, look down to check out the fall zone. Looking down helps you see what’s actually there instead of allowing your mind to create inaccurate fears about what might be down there. Finally, look back up to devise a general plan for the climbing ahead. Ask yourself, “How will I climb to the next bolt/rest stance?”—in other words, what’s the sequence? Then, stop thinking and commit your attention to the body and the climb.

Moving between stopping points

Here you’re focusing attention in the body so that it takes over the responsibility for climbing. This means your attention will be focused on feeling and in your senses, grounding you in the present moment as you climb. There are four main components to maintaining focus: 

  1. Breathing: Maintain continuous belly breathing to help you stay calm.
  2. Moving: Move continuously to create momentum.
  3. Staying relaxed: To conserve your energy, relax your grip, using only the amount of tension you need to climb.
  4. Maintaining eye focus on the holds: Do this to keep your attention focused on each move.

There’s a lot going on during climbing, but by boiling it down to these two simple processes, and realizing there are only two ways to focus your attention, you can begin to control your mental game. 

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