Climbers Corner: Mental Training in a physical style

Updated: May 24, 2020

Climbing can be frustrating, stressful and scary. It can be the reason we get out of bed but it can also kick us to the ground.

Climbing can be frustrating, stressful and scary. It can be the reason we get out of bed but it can also kick us to the kerb.

Most sports are either reactive and fast-paced or they allow us the luxury of time, to make a plan and to take aim. In climbing, you are the clock and the pace setter. Few sports put so much control and responsibility on the shoulders of one person. This is why we can go from enjoyment to frustration so easily, because we have choices to make and slowly dwindling time to think about it, or we simply choose to let go.

When we fail we blame ourselves because the wrong decision or lack of decision was our fault. This is why so many people quit climbing or become lethargic with our much-loved hobby. So how can we handle this?You must train your mind like you train your body; when you lift or run close to your limit you perform terribly but the struggle strengthens you. This is also true for you mind. But it's not enough to struggle once in a while. We need to become efficient and practiced, in other words decisive.

So let's take a physical approach to the mind.

Step 1 - Warm up, I know it's obvious to warm up physically but so many people don't bother. Usually this is because they feel uncomfortable running laps in a gym, but this is also a head game, so let's warm up mentally by doing something that makes us a little uncomfortable, and if you’re happy warming up - awesome proceed to step two…

Step 2 - Warm up on the wall

Where do you hate climbing? What moves do you dislike?

Warm up by playing around outside of your comfort zone. If you don't like big moves: involve some. Don't like balancing with no hands? Go for it! Hate being the person having to rainbow on the big main wall while everyone else is looking? Go for it! Just remember that it's a warm up, so don't go too big too fast and, mentally, don't go too uncomfortable too fast.

Step 3 - Get specific

If your session’s goal is a sketchy slab route, get a little sketchy on a slab and listen to the feedback your body gives you and learn what decisions to make. If you aim to lead a big roof, warm up on roofs and get on the lead… You shouldn't warm up for a bench press by only doing squats - this is no different.

Step 4 - Set goals

Set progressive mental goals and measure you benchmarks I hear and see so many climbers working hard above their limits as a first step and calling anything below the top a failure. If that's the case, then everything below the top must be too easy and exempt from being considered a challenge, and yet it's such a rarity that the last move is the only crux. It happens but not on the majority of routes.

So plan for where you may get anxious or stressed, the goal could be to learn a solution for each doubt, to test any falls, to breathe through the crux moves or simply to get to a designated hold with less fear than the last attempt.

Step 5 - Don't just cope

Overtraining 1 day a year yields no gains and risks injury. It's the same for mental training. If you push through the fear and get to the top by any means, stressed out mentally and broken, you'll only reinforce your fears.

We need to manage our tasks and accept our goal is in the chosen task as above not in simply topping the route or problem. And then we need to get some reps in and build confidence over time, setting and reinforcing the good practices in our brains.

And last but not least: don't stop.

Stopping leads to frustration and the dreaded quote of "I used to have X, Y and Z". Build mental training into your lifelong training plan and accept it if life pulls you out for a while - you may have to rebuild, whether that’s metal strength or physical strength.


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