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Climb Smart: Prioritizing the Technical and Mental Aspects of Climbing

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Nina Williams The Angler V2 Bouldering Joes Valley
The author, Nina Williams, climbing The Angler (V2), Joe’s Valley, UtahJames Lucas

In the spring of 2015, I stood at the base of Blue Suede Shoes, a notorious old-school V5 in Yosemite Valley’s Camp 4. Despite my trying for the better part of an hour, the send eluded me no matter how hard I crimped on the tiny handholds. “It’s only V5,” I thought with increasing frustration. “I can climb V5!” The more I threw myself at the problem, the less progress I made. Strength failed me. I reconsidered, thinking of Yosemite’s delicate, technical style. I needed to approach Blue Suede Shoes differently. I silenced the voice of disbelief that told me there was no way I could cling to this slick rock. Then I stepped onto the sloping dish feet, trusting my body position and gravity to keep me over the footholds, instead of muscle. Step by step, I shifted my hips with each insecure move until I found myself at the top. Crimping the handholds was one-third of the successful “sending recipe,” but re-examining my mental approach and technique comprised the other two-thirds of the “ingredients.”

Becoming a well-rounded climber involves being physically strong, technically sound, and mentally proficient. While you can find numerous hangboard protocols, core workouts, and campus routines to make your body stronger, the technical and mental aspects of climbing can be harder to train—and are often overlooked. Developing these facets will complete your skill set and prepare you for any challenge you may encounter. It requires conscious effort, involving time that may initially feel better used on strength training. But the hours put into mental and technical development will pay off—two-thirds more than physical training, to be exact.

Change your brain

Notice how you speak to yourself during a climbing session. Are you critical or harsh when a foot slips and you fall? Do you get down on yourself when you can’t do a move or a climb, believing it’s never going to happen? Negative thoughts reinforce negative results by eating away at productivity. These damaging thoughts will inevitably surface, but you have the ability to change them. Be aware of your inner voice and notice when you start to use the word “can’t.” Change “I can’t” to “I haven’t yet.” Look to the future and plan what you will do instead of staying in the past and agonizing about what you didn’t.

While it’s helpful, adjusting your mindset won’t be enough to send every time. So, when you’re failing consistently and your goal seems farther away than ever, find a few smaller goals to manage. If you’ve been falling off your V8 project for weeks, send 3 V7s, try two weeks of campusing, or do two sessions with a mental coach before returning to your main project. Find something different that will keep you motivated while also getting you closer to your goal. Focus less on getting to the top now and more on mastering the long-term skills needed to send. Climbing isn’t all about shortcuts; sometimes the longer way is more efficient.

Use your brain

When you first approach a problem, figure out your own beta. This will reveal what your preferences are in terms of style, strength, and hold type. You will also help develop a better technical understanding as you figure out what works and what doesn’t work for you. Finding your own beta also builds problem-solving skills that will come in handy during flash or onsight burns later. When you’ve gone through the moves several times and can’t think of any other ways, ask for someone else’s beta. Be open to trying their method no matter how crazy it may sound. Even after sending the problem, try it again using alternate beta. By trying the same problem multiple ways, you build up your library of technical movements, engraining them until they become second nature.

Another way to build your movement library is to think about what kind of hold type and angle you like the least. If pinches in a roof sound awful, it’s time to hop on that bread-loaf climb in the cave. Are you like me and hate slabs (see: Blue Suede Shoes)? Save 30 minutes at the end of the session for those slopey dishes you’ve been avoiding. Climbing is a fun sport, which makes us gravitate toward what we want to do, but the only way to get better across the spectrum is to make time for what we don’t want to do as well.

Turn your brain off

After practicing enough mental and technical skills, the goal is to reach a point where you don’t have to think about your movement anymore. Climbing without thinking is often referred to as a flow state, in which everything comes together perfectly with seemingly minimal effort. Being in a flow state allows your body to relax and go with what it knows, without being restricted by the limitations we put on ourselves in a conscious state. Flow is achieved when our abilities match the challenge at hand. Developing mental and technical abilities along with physical strength will open more opportunities for us to match whatever challenge confronts us. By combining all three abilities, we make huge strides in becoming more well-rounded climbers.

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