Training: Improve Your Head Game

Use these mental techniques for better performance

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Photo: Ryan Weller/Flickr; CC BY 2.0

Ignoring a slightly misplaced foot, pushing past a nagging fear of gear failure, or ramping up the intensity to latch a small hold all require mental awareness. Arousal regulation and mental toughness are crucial for success on climbs at your limit. Knowing when to activate your mind and how to control it takes practice, and here, Justen “The Climbing Sensei” Sjong shares his insights into the mental training he does with some of our sport’s top athletes. Follow these guidelines to maximize your own performance.

Arousal Regulation 

Think about having an internal dimmer switch to adjust your level of intensity throughout a climb. Any given route has a variety of difficulty, and climbers need to adjust for the changes by consciously adjusting their arousal level, or level of excitement. Dial up the intensity for hard sections, and dial it down for easier parts. This allows you to conserve both physical and mental energy, as well as focus it in the correct way.

“When you’re climbing, you want to be present-oriented,” Sjong says. On a single boulder problem or climb, there are sections where the climber needs to change his arousal level. The first moves of a boulder problem could be the crux, so the climber needs to be crushing from the start. The last pitch of a long trad climb may contain loose rock, so the climber needs low arousal levels to perform the complicated task of moving safely. Being present and in the moment helps identify the proper level of intensity required, which is crucial to success.

“A climber who’s too excited about what they’re doing too soon, about winning the World Cup or sending their project, can drop the ball,” says Sjong. Climbers often refer to this as punting, meaning failing after the hard climbing is over. “More often, climbers hold back their emotions. They won’t fight to send their project,” Sjong says. “Most people don’t want to fall and think, ‘I actually did try my hardest and I still failed.’ They don’t fail, but they’re scared of that possibility. Climbers fear applying themselves to that level. In cases like this, the beta is just to try hard.”

Arousal Regulation Practice

  • Adjusting arousal levels is just like flexing a muscle. “Training to me,” says Sjong, “is to train that muscle.” When you enter the gym, you should make this mental approach just as much a priority as physical strength. 
  • Jump rope and then try a hard boulder problem to identify how you can adjust your arousal levels. 
  • Visualize the appropriate state of arousal just like you visualize the holds and the moves themselves. Before pulling a hard move, imagine getting angry, trying hard, and climbing aggressively. For a runout or scary section, visualize staying calm, flowing through the moves, and being tranquil. Execute these strategies while climbing.     

Mental Toughness

Fumbling a clip or grabbing the wrong piece of gear can be distracting. These little errors can break you down during a climb. Suddenly you’re falling or back on the ground because of a simple mistake. The errors can snowball into larger problems like anxiety, holding your breath, and subpar performance. How you deal mentally with these situations matters. They can be chances to fail or opportunities to develop as a climber.

Climbers often have unrealistic expectations of their climbing performance. They believe that to climb their hardest they need to perform with flawless technical skill, mental strength, and maximum physical effort. “They think they have to be perfect,” says Sjong, “which is impossible.” What actually happens is that you make minor technical errors, your mental strength diminishes, and thus you don’t reach your physical maximum. Realizing that you won’t be completely perfect all the time will help you start to climb with high intensity even when everything isn’t going smoothly. According to Sjong, “Perfection is not the goal. You can still reach a high level of effort without it being perfect.”

Mental Toughness Practice

  • “If you misplace your foot, don’t pretend it didn’t happen,” Sjong says. “An error creates doubt. If you don’t own it, you lose confidence, and then you fall apart. Now you’re holding your breath. Now your eyes are darting everywhere. It’s like watching a trainwreck happen.”
  • Realize a mistake immediately and work hard to focus your energy on calming down before you let it take you down a spiral of failure. Don’t focus on the mistake itself, instead focus on moving past it. 
  • Practicing mental toughness means making mistakes and then correcting for them. Onsight climbing or even intentionally climbing a sequence incorrectly can provide opportunities for calm correction. After misplacing a foot or making a mistake, breathe deeply, relax, and attempt the move again. 

Justen Sjong, a climber of 20 years, has put up both 5.13+ El Cap routes and 5.14c sport. Now he coaches elite climbers, runs training camps and offers online training through The Climbing Sensei.