Training: Build Mental Climbing Strength

Tune up your head for calmer, smoother sending
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We often focus on training the body, to pull on smaller holds, control wilder swings, and make bigger dynos. But we rarely take the time to bring the mind up to speed, simply assuming that a stronger body can make up for any mental shortcomings by making hard climbs feel “easy”—so that we don’t have to address how negative self-talk holds us back. This works to a point, but when you’re at your limit, you also need to build mental muscle, so that both body and mind are clicking along in synch.

Madaleine Sorkin Mental Training Climbing Diamond Long's Peak

Madaleine Sorkin works her mental muscle on the Diamond, Longs Peak, Colorado. Photo: Henna Taylor

Dark clouds filled in as my friend Eli and I arrived at the last difficult pitch of The Honeymoon Is Over, a 1,000-foot 5.13 on the Diamond on Longs Peak in Colorado. The climb begins at 13,000 feet and has four pitches of 5.13 up overhanging granite with flakes, tips laybacks, and tiny edges. After six weeks of obsessive work and with the three hardest pitches redpointed, I was so close!

Then, snow began to fall. We hung at the anchor, wiggling about to keep warm. “We’ll wait it out,” I told Eli. Snow turned to sleet. The rock was soaked. Out of options, we bailed. By the time I sent, last September, I’d put in nine trips over two months. Even as my body remained fit, my head also needed a constant tune-up. With any big project like this, I know that where I put my attention will greatly affect my motivation and subsequently the outcome. I’ve had to learn how to build resilience and focus my attention.

Build resilience

The tougher you are mentally, the easier tough things will feel and the quicker you can recalibrate in the face of adversity.

Honey badger

Whatever the situation, the honey badger don’t care; it’s just ready for battle. “Mental toughness,” as sport psychologists and coaches call it, is the ability to perform in difficult situations. So, show up and look like a competitor even when you don’t want to. For me, the gym is the ideal terrain, as I’m not as intrinsically motivated on plastic. To get my “grrr” on in the gym, I’ll train with gym-psyched friends or join a weekly group that increases my accountability. For mental toughness, I’ll manufacture situations that fatigue my body. I’ll do back-to-back pitches or a core workout and then jump on a 4x4 bouldering circuit. When I start doubting if I can make the next move, then I know I’m in prime honey-badger learning zone and it’s time to fight. (See Training: Improve Your Head Game.)

Buddha eyes

Become more self-aware—soften your gaze and look inward, as the Buddha did. Observe yourself in the challenge. What are your mental strengths: Stubbornness? Compulsivity? The ability to reduce mental chatter? Performing while in physical pain? Take advantage of those! I’m a unique mixture of self-aware and stubborn. I’ve often had the self-awareness to know when it’s time to step into a committing challenge, like the 5.13 RP pitch on The Honeymoon, and when to back off. Meanwhile, stubbornness helps me to fight when I feel fatigued or have negative thoughts.

You can use this introspection to assess your blind spots—your self-sabotaging behaviors. (Hint: They may be closely related to those “strengths.”) One of my main climbing partners is aware of my stubbornness blind spot—how it gives me tunnel vision. She’s even developed successful rubrics for working with it: She acts gentle, orients me toward something comforting, and then opens up the situation to the variety of options. In sum, she is reflecting how I could be acting toward myself. It is very important to love those blind spots. Dysfunctional or not, they exist for a reason.

Curious George

Be willing to fail. As we become more self-aware, we observe the mind trying to protect us from stress. A climber’s work is to direct attention toward processes, such as sensations in the body and exploring a challenge in new way. Poke curiously into that “impossible” goal: a sport climb two letter grades harder than your hardest send, or that endurance crack that goes on 50 feet too long. Perhaps it’s possible right then; perhaps not. But how else will you know? If you fail, let yourself experience the sensation, throughout body and mind. Then reflect, analyze what happened, and move on with more knowledge.

Focus your attention

Our ability to direct attention to the present moment greatly affects our climbing performance.

Hall monitor

Track where your attention wanders and redirect it toward process (e.g., breathing or making one move at a time) rather than result. Ask your partner to remind you as well! My ability to manage playful, focused attention on the variables that I can control while letting go of those I can’t greatly affects my performance and motivation.

On the Honeymoon Is Over, when the sun left the wall, my fingers and toes froze and fearful thoughts entered my head. I’d have to respond to them like a focused competitor with behaviors that helped me accept this non-ideal environment as the one I’d be trying my hardest in. As I climbed, I redirected my attention to processes that could aid my performance. If I fumbled a move, I tried to either adapt, fight through it, or downclimb to a rest. Sometimes, I was more aroused than I knew was necessary for that section of climbing. I’d down-regulate by exhaling deeply and directing my eyes to each hold, and how it felt on my fingers or toes, and to the next move.

The mountaineer

Take a one-step-at-a-time approach—your mind can only focus on so much! I began the Honeymoon by hiking to the top of Longs Peak, rappelling the route, and trying the most intimidating pitches on toprope. This strategy maximized my limited time and gave me the confidence to start leading. When I started leading, I hung on key pieces, confirming they were solid. And then I started falling on them a little and then a lot. And so on went the incremental approach, until both body and brain became habituated to situations that had once felt “extreme.”

Auto-pilot

Let your body climb. You’ve learned the moves or perhaps you can look ahead and have enough previous experience to know mostly what will be required. Once you commit to the movement, do just that. Simple mantras help. Pro climber Hazel Findlay has one: “Let the body climb.” Try ones that focus attention on physical processes like breathing, moving with commitment, and generally trusting your body’s intrinsic knowledge. Bottom line: You are not going to think your way out of a busy mind—or up a rock climb. If you can notice a distracted mind, then you are already observing it, and the next step is to redirect your attention to the present moment and let your muscles do the rest.

Headspace

A big part of the mental game is also separating what can actually harm you from what just feels like it can.

  • If you’re not in imminent danger but your body is throwing up red flags, stop, even if just for one breath, and ask, What am I really scared of?
  • Once you’ve identified the source of your fear, employ positive self-talk to embrace it: OK, I don’t like this fall but it’s not unsafe. I’ll just go for it anyway. Or: Those storm clouds won’t be here for at least an hour.
  • If fear continues to plague you, try exposure therapy. Immerse yourself in the stimulus until it no longer triggers a reaction: Take a falling class, climb exposed routes to push through your fear of heights, and so on.

Join pro climber Madaleine Sorkin as she guides you through our 4 Weeks to Sending Fitness course, with shape-up exercises from fingerboarding to core blasters to endurance training and more. Visit 4 Weeks to Sending Fitness.

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