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The mind is the engine of climbing performance. We’ve heard that a hundred times. Yet how many strong climbers do we know who somehow fail to deliver on the day?
Most of us don’t really have any clear strategies for steering our minds in one direction or the other, we just vaguely hope to be all right at the time. We wing it. Then … choke and botch it? What?!
And then if it happens again? O.K., now we have a problem, the apprehension compounded with each instance.
How can we go about reducing a fear of performing badly, as opposed to our fear of falling off? Is it all about our mental prep and mood prior to the climb, or are there also strategies we can deploy mid-climb, to stay focused?
Now, I know you—you’re a climber and not likely to do any type of drill I crib from a sports-psychology textbook; however, if I list the 10 most practical tips that come straight from the coalface of hard climbing, maybe you’ll bite.
No matter how much you try to talk yourself up, you can’t fool yourself. You won’t feel confident about your performance if you are weak and unfit, so page one is to be in shape, with the caveat that we rarely, if ever, feel in “perfect shape.” Additionally, make sure that your training campaign fits the intended discipline: Don’t expect to feel strong mentally before a sport-climbing trip if you’ve only been bouldering and have ignored your endurance. Overall, if you haven’t done the work, you won’t expect to climb well, but if you have and still don’t feel confident, you need to look a little more deeply into the psychological aspects of your performance. Which means, keep reading.
2. Don’t just climb hard.
Climbing beyond our limits can inadvertently teach us to “fail.” If we spend too much time trying to achieve the next grade and getting our butts kicked, that is the outcome we start to expect, if only subconsciously. Mid-grade climbing promotes feelings of success, so drop your grade periodically and clip some chains.
3. Process focus.
The quest for performance can be all-consuming, and climbers are notorious for being bent on the end goal. If you focus on the details of the process, as well as the beauty of the overall experience, then, in accordance with the mysterious laws of reverse psychology, you are way more likely to send.
There are several aspects to this way of thinking. First, move the conversation away from success and failure and toward learning. Stop thinking about the outcome, and focus on all the incredible lessons you’ve learned in order to get to this point. Take the pressure off by reminding yourself that there will be other opportunities, if not for this climb, then others. If you push your limits in climbing, failures are as inevitable as successes. Acknowledging this concept will help to lighten the load.
See the whole thing as a journey, and remind yourself of all the alternative reasons to go climbing: the movement, the view, fun … remember? Chris Sharma, the master of neutralizing redpoint nerves, described climbing more as a type of practice than performance, and made parallels with yoga, martial arts and activities that we do simply because they make us feel good.
It is always better to ask what you can give to your performance rather than obsessing about the rewards you want to receive in return.
4. Stay in the present tense.
Don’t allow your mind to flit around and land at random places on the route. If you wish to visualize the moves, do it calmly, in one continuous stint. Then leave it alone and don’t keep returning to it! Instead, focus on what’s going on right under your nose: if you’re drinking from your water bottle, focus on that, or if you’re tying your shoelaces, focus on that.
Then when you start climbing the lower section of the route, curb your mind from racing ahead to how you’re going to recover on that crucial strenuous rest below the crux. Simply focus on holding each hold perfectly, making accurate foot placements, moving smoothly, breathing and so on. Of course, many of these things are easier said than done, but sometimes the act of merely trying will tip the scales in your favor. Remember, the goal isn’t to eliminate nerves, which is completely unrealistic, but rather to lower them to a manageable level.
5. Flip the negative.
The mind wreaks havoc prior to hard ascents, shrinking the positives and massively inflating doubts and concerns. Tell yourself it’s not too cold—conditions are prime, and you’d be greasing on the slopers if it was too warm. Or if it’s too warm, tell yourself your muscles will feel loose and relaxed and you’ll be moving well, or remind yourself of previous times when warm conditions worked in your favor. Or: You’re not too tired—your body is tuned up from recent climbing. You may feel nervous but channeling our nerves can help us to get the best from our performance. You should be more worried if you don’t feel them! Whatever the doubt, find a way to turn it in your favor.
6. Try black-boxing.
This psychological programming technique is for listing your worries, with possible solutions, either on paper or in your head, and then posting them into a metaphorical black box. The key is to return to it afterwards for post-match reflection, as you will realize just how few of your fears proved to be significant. In other words, you’ll see that your mind was merely playing tricks by exaggerating the negative. The more you do it, the more effective and trustworthy black-boxing becomes. While it is an acknowledged drill in sports psychology, many successful climbers find they develop the habit subconsciously.
7. There is no utopian mind state.
As Dave MacLeod, a top British all-arounder and coach, once said: “Hard routes or boulder problems have been climbed in every conceivable mental state,” so don’t fixate on the fact that you’re feeling nervous, angry or negative. You can still do it! Others will have sent when more nervous than you, and you have almost certainly sent in the past when you were more nervous than this.
8. Forget about others.
Let’s face it, climbers are a pretty egocentric bunch. You need look no further than social media or Mountain Project for proof of this. The reality is that people tend to care about their own climbing and not yours! Many others will feel just the same apprehensions about their own climbing as you do, they may just be concealing it, the same way you do. In any case, put the opinions of others out of mind.
9. Acknowledge external stresses.
Maybe you feel anxious because of other stresses in your life. Sometimes these can be channeled to your advantage but at others this is a bridge too far. Accept that you don’t have to send this route now and a more suitable time may appear in the future. Once again, this may invite reverse psychology to kick in and free your mind from worry and doubt, thus helping you to send. It may simply make the decision easier to throw in the towel, at least for now.
10. Ramp up your mood.
Hold your head up and puff your chest out. If you act the part you will start to feel the part, but as soon as you slump down like a loser then you will verge toward being one. Play some high-octane music or conjure up some of your favorite motivational metaphors or imagery. If you’re not quite feeling it yourself, steal some vibes from Adam Ondra, Chris Sharma, Margo Hayes or Janja Garnbret.
Smile. Make a joke about yourself to put things in context. Don’t take your success on a route too seriously: Your life probably won’t change if you don’t make it, nor will it if you do. It’s only climbing, after all! (Sometimes I need to read my own articles.)
Neil Gresham has climbed 8c+, 5.14X trad and WI 7. He has been a pioneer of training and coaching methodology for over two decades and offers personalized training plans at www.neilgresham.com.