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Challenge Negative Self-Talk for (Much) Better Climbing Performance

Most of you wouldn't talk to a friend like you do to yourself. Negative self-talk can influence our biochemistry, and lead to feelings of weaker muscles and higher stress. The good news is that there are many ways to challenge it and be present.

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Many climbers overlook the influence of thought and its effects upon their performance. We are talking about negative self-talk: The way we judge ourselves, the words we use to describe ourselves, the inner critic all influence us psychologically and physiologically. They affect the way we behave, our self-belief, which in turn affects our climbing performance. The below is excerpted from the new book Climbing Psychology: Mind Training for Optimal Climbing Performance.

By Kevin Roet (UK)

The influence of thought in climbing

From a young age, we spend a lot of time in an educational system, where we are indoctrinated to complete tasks, tests, exams, essays, etc., which are all marked against the same standards and criteria. We are then all judged on the mark we achieve against the work we produce.

I think this is very damaging to an individual. We forget about the learning process and the personal achievements of each person. For example, it may be a bigger achievement for someone who has dyslexia to achieve a grade A (80-90%) than for a straight A student to achieve an A* (90-100%). I’m not saying that the straight A student does not work for it, but thinking about the relative effort it has taken the individual with dyslexia to achieve an A grade.

We move onto the workplace, set projects to complete, tasks to do, and work our way up the promotion ladder. We are critiqued for making small mistakes and are judged and assessed for the work/job we do.

We are rarely praised for small stepping stones in our learning/achievements throughout our formative years. This process of continual affirmation, of “doing better” and looking at the end-goal, causes us all to lose perspective on the progress we have made and learning to enjoy the process, and can encourage fear of failure. We project this view on the rest of our lives. Striving becomes a habit and is often driven by fear, perfectionism and a whole host of critical and unhelpful thinking. Eastern philosophies have recognized this trap for hundreds of years. Practices for challenging this way of life have been cultivated in philosophies underpinning health and well-being.

Ollie, a confident, dark-haired optimist who loves climbing, spends most of his life pursuing achievements and living life to the full. He climbs a route just on the edge of his physical ability, reaches for an insecure move, and feels a little pumped. The little voice inside his head tells him he cannot make the next move, as the hold looks worse than what he’s currently on. The only time in his life, doubt gets the better of him. He hesitates and keeps telling himself, “I’m not gonna make it, I’m not gonna make it’. Then out of nowhere, he makes a half-hearted attempt at moving his body up to the next hold but doesn’t even make it halfway. His brain had already decided his fate.

I’m sure we have all been in the same situation as Ollie. Think about how much negative words can affect you. Words carry energy, just like anything else. If everybody realized how much power words had, they would never speak another negative word about themselves or give power to another negative thought again.

Most of you wouldn’t talk to a friend like you do to yourself. Negative self-talk can influence our biochemistry, our state of well-being and how we feel. It can cause us to feel fear, anger, anxiety, guilt or shame, to list a few. The effects on our biochemistry include the feeling of weaker muscles, variable or higher stress and hormone levels.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could flick a switch in our brains and switch all of this off and climb in-the-moment?

This is undoubtedly a work in progress. It will take time and patience with yourself. We may find that sometimes we feel very stuck in our heads and preoccupied with intrusive and unhelpful thoughts. The first step is most important: becoming aware of our thinking patterns and noticing our thoughts in the moment. Following that – cultivating a version of you that talks kindly about personal achievements and successes will help build a better self-image, promoting healthy balanced thinking; this will take patience and acceptance, which most of you will HAVE to practice. Just like climbing, if you do not practice noticing AND changing the way you talk to yourself, things will not improve. Just thinking about it is not enough.

Try practicing becoming aware of your thought patterns away from climbing, and slowly bring these into climbing situations. Practice in non-stressful situations first. Accept the days when you feel no progress is being made.

Once we become aware of our thinking patterns, there are many methods we can use to challenge our thinking. Some of the most common are listed below:

Self-soothing – through the use of breathing techniques, conscious positive affirmation, self-hypnosis: “It’s going to be fine.”

Thought challenging – challenge your inner voice, and replace the irrational parts with reasonable, positive statements: “There is no evidence that today I will fall.”

Thought distracting – through breathing techniques, listening to music, or singing a song.

Problem solving constructively – clarify your problem objectively. Analyze the actual issue from the psychological noise; that way, it can help you grasp the obstacle and help solve it: “If I inhale, prepare, exhale, and reach while pushing off my right foot, I will make it.”

Self-motivating – find out what motivates you to change your behavior; a reward (e.g. chocolate bar); the knowledge of change; friends; music; the idea of climbing a higher grade or better, etc. “Just think how good you will feel for persevering.”