In 2013, I pressed my palms against the smooth granite of The Book of Hate, a 5.13 stemming corner just above Yosemite’s Merced River. Though the footholds and fingerlocks had vanished, my palms and feet stuck perfectly to the blank corner walls. Without a thought, I found myself at the anchor, ecstatic. I had entered a flow state—one in which I was hyper-focused on what I was doing and in which all self-consciousness had fallen away.
“Flow sits at the heart of the majority, if not all, of the greatest athletic performances,” says Sue Jackson, co-author of the seminal book Flow in Sports. This matters to climbers because when we’re in flow, we not only climb our best but also feel our best—it doesn’t matter if we fail because we know we could not have done any better. As a professional climber and mental training coach, I’ve studied the concept of flow intensively with Cameron Norsworthy, author of the soon-to-be-released book on the subject Finding Flow. As I’ve learned, recent research suggests that certain preconditions, mental tactics, and training can greatly increase our chances of accessing flow.
This matters in a sport like climbing where performance anxiety, fear of failing, and fear of falling can hold us back. However, when in flow, these psychological distractions fall away and we can be 100 percent focused on the climbing itself. Here’s how:
Create sufficient challenge
Flow occurs when our skills match the level of challenge, whether that challenge is actual or perceived. In climbing, actual challenge is what it feels like when a 5.12 climber gets on a 5.13—he is physically and mentally out of his depth. Perceived challenge might occur when we’re tackling a route well within our grade range but that features a style foreign to us, giving us the perception of challenge when actually we are capable.
In both cases, the key is to find the right level of challenge: If the route is too easy, we are apathetic; if it’s too hard, then we’re anxious and cannot lose ourselves in the climbing. Find the sweet spot, and suddenly you’re on the way to a flow state. Creating sufficient challenge should thus be part of your whole climbing day, every time you climb. Here are three reliable ways:
- Even though a warmup needs to be unchallenging physically, you can still add challenge to it and therefore access flow. For example, you could try to climb your warmup as efficiently, as smoothly, or as quickly as possible.
- Don’t ask for the beta on a route if it means making the challenge too easy. We climbers often like to strip away the challenge and maximize our chances of success. But what is “success,” really, if there’s no challenge to begin with? To find the sweet spot, be honest with yourself about how much challenge a route will present—with or without beta.
- Work your weaknesses. Challenge isn’t just about picking the right grade; it’s also about doing what we’re uncomfortable with, seeking unknowns and working weaknesses. Go to crags that don’t suit you and pick routes in your anti-style—just remember to drop the difficulty, so you’re still in the sweet spot to find flow.
After creating the right environment, you now need to focus your attention on the task at hand: namely, climbing. To do so, you should act to minimize three common types of distraction:
Fear of falling
A small amount of fear can elevate performance, but too much fear can distract or even paralyze us. Commonly, it leads to increased tension, slow, inefficient climbing, poor decision-making, and the dreaded “Take.” Combat this through practice falls, a type of exposure therapy. Do so gradually, starting with small falls and working up to bigger falls in a controlled environment like the gym or a steep sport route.
When we’re in flow, we lose our self-consciousness and any worry about what other people think—the latter of which can even feed our fear of failure (see below). We can thus better access flow if we find ways to worry less about what other people think in the first place, essentially reverse-engineering the process. You can combat self-
consciousness by reminding yourself that other people have their own worries and are likely stuck in their own heads—focused on themselves instead of you. Also, remember that it’s your climbing day, and it’s better to use it on yourself. If you feel like someone truly is judging you, talk to them to find out. Noticing these types of negative thoughts for what they are—just thoughts—is a big first step to being free of them.
Fear of failure
Usually, athletes will make performance a priority, which for climbers means “getting to the top.” But when we put pressure on ourselves to succeed, the flip side is that we also fear failure, and so will often stall or climb rigidly. Also, by putting undue focus on the end goal, we are thinking too much in the future; our minds are not present. If we instead prioritize flow, we can focus on climbing our best and having fun—and let the results happen in their own time.
This doesn’t mean thinking about the actual concept of flow whilst we’re climbing; instead, before starting up, we consciously aim for a flow experience instead of a send, which in turn helps reduce performance pressure. Then, if we get too goal focused while climbing, we can redirect ourselves to the task at hand by shifting our attention to something happening in the body—e.g., our breath. This creates distance between our thoughts and us. Sensory feedback is another way to create that distance. Ask yourself a few key questions like:
- How does this hold feel?
- Is my body position right?
- How much more can I relax the muscles in my upper body?
- Can I breathe deeper and more calmly?
Homing in on this sensory feedback will help shift our attention to where it needs to be: in the moment and not waylaid by annoying or anxiety-inducing thoughts.
At times, everything can be lined up right yet flow still remains elusive. In these moments, remember that accessing flow is not about trying to achieve flow; it’s more about letting go and trusting your body to do what it knows, which well help you find flow. Half the time, we are our own worst enemies, overthinking and second-guessing every move. Relax, letting your anxiety dissipate. Magic happens when we give in to the moment.
3 Questions to Help You Find Flow
- How present can you be? If you find yourself lost in thought, maybe it’s time to sharpen your mind with some mindfulness skills like meditation or yoga. The simple practice of bringing your mind back to the present moment is an invaluable tool whilst climbing.
- Are you pushing yourself enough? In order to learn mentally and physically, we need to exit our comfort zones. Only when we step outside them can we truly be creative. Monitor how often you’re challenging yourself by keeping a climbing diary. Count how many times you fell off at your limit—the more the better! Remember, any day you tried hard and learned something new is a good day climbing.
- Are you optimizing your emotional states? Some people climb better relaxed, while others climb better amped up. This is called “optimal level of arousal.” Experiment using different music—from soothing to aggressive—to see which helps you climb better.
Hazel Findlay is a pro climber and coach in the UK. She was the first British women to climb E9 and free El Capitan. Hazel has a passion for teaching and psychology, which has led her to coach mental training in climbers.