Many climbers shy away from the subject of mental training, partly because the benefits can seem less tangible than those of physical training, and also because the subject can appear excessively complicated. Entire books are devoted to mental training, but the topic can be boiled down to a relatively short list of fundamental problems and solutions.
Use the list below to troubleshoot and address your own specific mental weaknesses.
1. Do a pre-climb mental routine.
Everyone understands the importance of a physical warm-up, but most climbers question the value of mental preparation. In high-pressure situations, we get anxious and want to rush through; but the best way to neutralize your worries is to face them with control. Pre-climbing mental prep does not have to involve sitting around and meditating. The prep can be performed during your warm-up climbs and in cool-off periods. It should be personalized to your own requirements and you should be able to condense it into different time frames (e.g.: from 5 minutes to 30 seconds). Practice regularly during normal training sessions. Don’t attempt to use a mental-prep routine for the first time in a high-stress situation. A sample routine follows:
- Tune in to your environment. Acknowledge your immediate surroundings, including potential distractions. Breathe deeply and relax.
- Visualize. Rehearse the sequence, or if you don’t know it, then just imagine yourself climbing well in the first person and in real time. Take your time. Make the image feel as real as possible. Don’t imagine the route being easy, rather that you are coping with the difficulty.
- Black box. List all the factors that are worrying you, come up with some positive solutions and then place them in an imaginary “black box.” Return to the box and open it after the ascent, and you will find that the majority of your worries were unfounded. This helps you to trust the process further in the future.
- Positivity. Give yourself a final pep talk using positive words. Smile. Listen to music that helps to raise the mood.
2. Shift the focus from training.
If you have been unable to train, then your only option is to focus on the other factors that will assist your performance. Climbing requires skill, mental performance and technique. The best performances are produced by drawing on all these factors.
3. Improve preparation tactics.
If you make a habit of arriving at the crag or at a competition with trashed tips and aching muscles, then look directly at resting rather than pinning your hopes on a mental-training solution.
4. Shift the focus from preparation tactics.
In high-stress situations we all have a tendency to attach too much significance to the way we feel or to minor flaws in our preparation. Be sure to remind yourself of previous occasions when you climbed well with thin skin, or when feeling less than optimally recovered.
5. Take regular falls (onto bolts or good trad gear).
If you are scared or even slightly nervous about falling onto bolts or bomb-proof trad gear, it’s probably because you don’t do it regularly. One solution is to get on a route that is so hard that you will be forced to fall. Alternatively, set up some test falls in a practice environment at the wall or crag. Use the dynamic belay method and do not attempt this unless you and your climbing partner are aware of all relevant safety issues. Note that this is probably the most powerful and effective mental-training tool of all.
6. Flip the negative.
Consider that a big run-out means that you are less likely to get pumped because you won’t have to stop and place gear. A route with a hard crux move may be less sustained, and a route that is sustained may be less cruxy. A poor piece is better than no gear at all. A fear of falling onto poor trad gear is a healthy trait that will help you to stay alive. Nerves can bring out the best in your performance. In general, if you feel down, the only way is up. If you don’t expect to do well, then the pressure is off and you may surprise yourself!
7. Move the finishing line.
If you are prone to blowing it at the anchors then imagine there are still another two or three clips to go. This can have the effect of helping you stay calm and prevent punting at the top.
8. Believe in the next position.
If you are prone to giving up when you are pumped or scared remember that the next hold may be the good one that leads you to a rest or a runner. Always slap for it!
9. Stay in the present tense.
In high-stress situations the mind often wanders forwards or backwards in order to escape the trauma of the present. This mental sense of remove, however, will increase anxiety levels and dilute the effectiveness of your actions. Whether it is tying in at the base, placing a runner, or searching for a foothold, always stay focused on the task at hand.
10. Don’t wish for it to be different.
The mental-training guru Arno Ilgner was one of the first to point out that climbers have a habit of wanting holds to get bigger or runouts to get smaller. The climb is what it is, and that’s why you want to climb it! If you had wanted something easy, you wouldn’t be there. Rejoice in the difficulty and rise to the challenge.