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Mental Training: Skills For A Stronger Mind

Monday, April 24, 2017
Black Diamond Athlete Hazel Findlay just roared back from shoulder surgery and recently redpointed her hardest route. However, Findlay will be the first to tell you that her biggest strength is not her body, but her mind. As a coach, she’s found that most climbers could benefit from a few simple tips to strengthen their mindset at the crag. Get stoked, because in this article she’s shared these tips.

I just sent Mind Control (5.14c) at Oliana, Spain, which is my hardest redpoint to date. But I might be one of the weakest people to have ever climbed that route (any takers for “beating’” me at that competition?). I think my biggest strength in climbing is having a good mindset. From observation at the crag and those that I coach, I’ve noticed that many blame physical weakness when really their head is the limiting factor. Here are some of the mental training skills I use to help me perform when I really want to.

1) Step one: ask yourself why

Hazel Findlay on Mind Control (5.14c).
Image: Jonny Baker

First, it’s good to ask yourself what’s motivating you to climb your project. To have a project is to have a long-term goal for which we expend a lot of energy and time to achieve. In doing this, we can accomplish our best and put our bodies to their physical limit. We can also learn a lot. The problem that many people face from the outset is that their motivations are very end-oriented. Instead of choosing a project to learn something new they choose a project because they want to “have done” a particular route, or “have climbed” a particular grade. If this sounds like you, have you ever thought why you want to have done a route? To tell your mates you can climb a certain grade? To get the girls? Because you’ve already tried it too many times to give up now? Because your Instagram declaring your success will be awesome?

Unfortunately, these kinds of motivations (although common) don’t give fruit to the best results. The problem is that all these things haven’t happened yet and it’s hard to be motivated to go to the crag day after day, skip clips and fight until the bitter end for these insubstantial, ego-driven goals that only exist in the future. Having your attention on end goals distracts your attention from where it needs to be—and that’s on what you’re doing right now. These sorts of goals are also fear-based. By this I mean that they come from a place in you that’s scared. Scared to be second best, scared to think of yourself as a failure, scared of displeasing your sponsors, scared of not getting any girls. Having your motivations be fear-based is much less productive than your motivations coming from a happy place. Just think of all the times you’ve gone running happy and psyched and it feels like you could have run 1000 miles, compared to days where you are running because you think you should. Climbing is the same. A happy climber is a productive climber and isn’t weighed down by fearful thoughts.

So what should motivate us? What we can call “process goals.” For example, “to be a stronger climber,” “to challenge yourself,” “to test your mental strength when it comes to projecting.” For me climbing Mind Control was an end goal but the over arcing process goal was to get my body in good enough shape after injury. Being process orientated goes hand in hand with what is called a “growth mindset”; the idea that your talent and abilities are not fixed, and that every day on the rock you can grow and develop as a climber. So why project at all you ask? Because end goals or projects are needed to focus your learning and direct your energy.

Bonus tip: Watching someone’s reaction when they fall or fail to send is a good indication of where their motivations lie. If they scream and shout and go home hating the world, then it’s likely that all they care about is the end result and their motivations are fear-based. If they fell and are still smiling, understanding that today like all days they have become a better climber, then it’s clear their motivations are healthy, sustainable and in the end much more powerful.

2) Help yourself

Even if you have good motivations for sending, you can help yourself. Pick a project that inspires you, in a place you want to be. You could go and try the scrappiest piece of rock at your local crag for a year and still improve as a climber, but you might find it easier to stay motivated if you pick a really fun route that you won’t get bored of.

3) Ask yourself what you’re willing to sacrifice

Long term goals aren’t just paid for in your own time and energy; other things may also have to be sacrificed. What about your partner who might also have to join you at the same crag over and over again? What about your career or other hobbies? Can you spend so much time away from work and family? And the bigger question: at what point do the sacrifices become too big?

4) The “bad” days are still good days

Inevitably you will have to endure bad days. Days when the route feels too hard for you, a hold breaks, a 12-year-old girl comes and cruises it. Learn that these days are still valuable, and that you still have learned something. On these days ask yourself: did you want it to be easy? If so, why did you pick a hard project, why didn’t you just do the easy routes? Remind yourself that you signed up for the challenge yourself and the bad days are part of that process.

5) Pressure is your friend

When I did Mind Control I had two days to do it before the rain came in and soaked the top of the route again. I didn’t do it the first day so the second day was my final chance to send. Some people perform well under pressure, others don’t. Those that do perform well under pressure use it in their favor.

Here are some points to help you:

The first thing is to reframe your perception of pressure: If you’ve always had a negative perception of pressure, take a step back and consider the opposite. Maybe those nervous feelings are going to sharpen your senses when you get on the rock. Maybe this added bit of pressure is going to give you just that little extra edge. Remind yourself of all the times you’ve performed well under pressure (and not just climbing examples).

• Pressure means you’re capable. High pressure scenarios only occur when you have a chance. Therefore, you are in a position to remind yourself that your body contains the ability to do this route. All that will get in your way is your head. Luckily you are the master of your own mind and the pressure will help you focus it.

•Remind yourself that not knowing whether you will send or not is part of the fun. How boring would climbing be if you knew in advance whether you’d succeed or not?

• Go back to your motivations. If they are pure, then you won’t care if you fail. You tried your best, you learned something new and you are one step closer on the journey to mastering climbing. What more can you ask for? If you want more it’s likely that it’s coming from your ego. Remember that your ego is never satisfied; you think it’s over after you've sent? No it’s never over, you can always climb harder, there will always be another project and it’s likely the one you’re working on right now is just a small stepping stone to the next one.

Image: Bernardo Gimenez

6) Visualization is a powerful tool

• Mental visualization or imagined rehearsal of particular movements builds neural pathways, which make that movement more familiar. This means that without any physical training you can be one step closer to mastering that movement. So if it’s raining and you can’t try your project—don’t worry, you can rehearse it in your mind.

• Studies have shown that those who visualize what they want to happen are much more likely to succeed compared to those who visualize what they don’t want to happen, or those that don’t visualize anything at all. You can visualize anything, not just movement. You can visualize falling and not being scared, you can visualize being brave above a bolt, you can visualize being calm at a competition, and you can visualize being totally focused and sending your route.

How to do it:

• Find somewhere calm and private. Sit or lie down. Close your eyes.

• Maybe you will imagine yourself putting on your shoes and you feel calm and happy albeit a bit excited about trying your route.

• Then pull on the first move. Imagine where your feet go, where your hands are, what the holds feel like. Do this methodically for every move, clip and rest on the route. Really take your time.

• You reach the anchors and on the final hold you pull up the rope and you clip the chains.

• You may find that it’s hard to picture exactly what you might see while doing the moves. People get worried during visualization that they’re not seeing it “right.” Don’t worry so much about what it looks like. Remember how it feels to have those holds. How it feels to cross your right foot through. This is what’s important.

• The most important thing to remember is to REPEAT: visualization only works if you do it again and again. Just like you need to repeat your route to get the moves dialed, you need to repeat the visualization to get it dialed in your mind as well.

7) Be aware that even mild fear of falling can add a grade

• If you are ever so slightly over-gripping, or you’re not as relaxed as you could be, or your mind wanders to the distance between the bolts, you are wasting not only valuable mental energy but physical energy as well. I have seen many climbers who could do their projects next try if they skipped a clip, but choose not to because they’re too scared. If the fall is safe, why not miss it? This saved energy could be worth two weeks in the gym training! For me this is what Americans call a “no-brainer.”

• Of course if you are scared of falling, taking a massive whipper might be too much for your mind. In this case you will need to practice falling. Arno Ilgner has some great exercises in his book Espresso Lessons. If this doesn’t work, see a coach.

• Practice falling from the crux or on any runout sections. You don’t want to grab the draw because you’re not sure you can do the move, and you don’t want to fall (I’ve seen this happen a lot). Projecting is about climbing at your limit and you need to make sure that your body and mind are prepared to fall at any point (I’m talking about safe routes here). If you think a runout might be a distraction to you, then practice that fall before you get to the send.

Image: Roger Schaeli

8) Focus is everything

• First, understand that to climb at your best, your attention needs to be with what is happening right now. This is especially hard to do when it comes to redpointing because so much of your mind is thinking about clipping the chains. Having your mind be in some other place (like at the chains) is a massive distraction and will be your downfall. Not only this, but all the most enjoyable moments in climbing are when we are wholly there in that place at that time with our eyes and mind on the next hold. I don’t know about you but I love climbing because my mind is no longer distracted like it is the rest of the time.

Practical techniques to help us focus:

Focus your attention on the here and now.
Before you step off the ground focus on something to anchor your attention. Your breath is an obvious object of your attention and if any of you have done yoga or meditation, this will come naturally to you. You may want to soak up the view, or listen to the ambient noise. When we really focus on what’s happening right now, we realize how much there is to fill our minds and we no longer have room in our head to worry about whether we’ll send or not.

Activate your senses.
To climb well we need quick and reliable feedback from our senses. How do you know if you’re holding that hold just right? By how your fingers feel. How do you know if your body is in the right position? By how much weight is through your feet. Just as we need to switch on our muscles before we climb, we need to switch on our senses. I like to focus my attention on what my chalk feels like on my fingers when I take that first dip. You may want to focus on what the first hold looks like, or how your feet feel in your shoes. Remember that you climb with your body or your sub conscious mind. Your conscious mind is mostly going to distract you, so let it go quiet and switch on your senses.

Points of rest on a route are the times when our conscious mind can start to creep back in and worry us. Internal dialogue like “I’m much more tired here than last time,” or “The conditions are terrible today. I’ll never send.” You have two options here: you can let it wander at rest but then when you start climbing again use the above focusing techniques to bring your mind back. A lot of sport psychologists use the phrases “switch on” “switch off.” Are you climbing and focused or are you resting and thinking? Be sure you don’t mix the two. The other option is to actively rest. This means applying the same level of focus to your resting as you would to your climbing. This requires a disciplined mind. Focus on having maximum weight through your feet, or on making small shifts in your body position so you are using the least energy possible. Observe the level of fatigue in both arms so you know when to change hands. Observe your heart rate so you can be sure it’s dropping. Be aware of your breath to make sure you are breathing deeply and slowly.

9) No excuses

The day I did Mind Control I felt really ill. I had a headache and sore throat and felt really low energy, but I wanted to try it because the rain was coming in. At first I felt really sorry for myself and was very grumpy. Then I remembered that there will always be something wrong. If you’re not ill, then the conditions won’t be good. If the conditions are good, then you probably slept badly. If you slept well, then you probably argued with your boyfriend. There will always be an excuse you can make. The best thing to do is to accept how things are and minimize that thing as a distraction. If it’s bad conditions, then when you start climbing make sure you focus your mind well so that it isn’t thinking about the heat when you need your attention to be on the climbing. The day I did Mind Control I was moaning to my boyfriend and friends on the ground but when I got on the rock I decided that I’d complained enough and now it was time to climb. During the route I completely forgot that I was ill. Ask yourself what you have to lose and remind yourself of all the times you’ve sent something in unfavorable conditions.

10) Enjoy and learn

Be fully aware of whether or not you are enjoying the process. If you leave the crag upset too many days, you need to ask yourself what’s happening. If you are learning, you should be happy. To climb anything which challenges you is to learn, therefore if you are not happy, you need to consider your motivations and your ego and reread number 1.

Image: Jonny Baker

11) Don’t compare yourselves to others

Whether you send or not, nothing can be gained from comparing yourself to others. So you thought you’d done really well and then you heard a 10-year-old girl did it in less tries, so now you feel less proud of yourself? How on earth can her achievement belittle yours? Unfortunately, we live in a world where we are constantly comparing ourselves to others. “What she did is nothing compared to so and so.” These sorts of comparisons are fear-based and come from a place in us that isn’t very attractive. If you were happy, committed and accepting of a challenging process, then what more is there to be gained? It doesn’t matter if it was a 6a or a 9a, the process is exactly the same. And this process of projecting is very valuable because there is much to be learned. So at the end of the day don’t ask yourself whether what you are doing is good compared to other people. Ask yourself what you learned. With this mindset, nothing can stop you.

—Hazel Findlay

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