Right before I rearranged my body position to jump down from a difficult move last week, strangers started cheering me on and soon enough, half the bouldering area was telling me I could do it – and I did. This got me wondering about my mental training when it comes to climbing.
Some coaches suggest that mental strength/skill is 33% of climbing, however, when surveying hundreds of climbers at all levels, mental capacity was considered 80+%. The difference is likely that even though climbers recognize mental skills as a significant part of climbing, they tend to only spend 33% of the time training mental skills, if any time at all.
In an interview I did with Dr. Don McGrath, a leading expert in mental training for climbing, Dr. McGrath mentioned that when he was doing research for his book, Vertical Mind, the physiological approach for climbing, that he realized “without the right mind set, it doesn’t matter how strong or flexible you are. It doesn’t matter how good your technique is. It just doesn’t matter.”
When considering how often I’ve jumped off a route or only put half my effort into reaching for a hold before allowing myself to fall, I realized that this is an incredibly important concept that should be talked about more often.
Professional climbers often have sports psychologists that help train them and even though the average climber probably doesn’t have access to such professionals, there are still many things that we can do to train our mental skills.
“Without the right mind set, it doesn’t matter how strong or flexible you are. It doesn’t matter how good your technique is. It just doesn’t matter.” – Dr. McGrath
How do you know if you need to train mental skills?
Everyone can and should start training mental skills right now, even if it is your first time climbing. If you aren’t convinced, consider this –
Climbers aren’t able to complete their project on their first try (that’s why it’s called a project), but oftentimes, they are able to get it done by the end of the night. Is it because they got stronger as the day went on? Clearly, that isn’t the case since you spend a significant amount of energy and strength on each burn (climbers talk for “attempt”).
It also isn’t because you learn a new technique. Technique takes hours and multiple sessions to cultivate, not just one session.
This begs the question, if it wasn’t strength or technique, was it mental? In most cases, yes!
It was your mind reassuring you that yes, you can grab that hold and yes, you can hold on a moment longer.
A great example of this is when you stick a dyno (the big climbing moves that require jumping, cutting both feet and you often use both hands at a time to get to the next hold). The first few tries make the move seem impossible, however, after you finally stick it, the move seems easier each time you do it. It isn’t because you got stronger with each try, in fact you probably became weaker and more tired, it’s because your mind made the connection that the move is possible. After that connection is made, the rest becomes MUCH easier.
So how do you know if it’s mental and not physical? “Because I reached the top on my third burn,” said Dr. McGrath.
Common mental challenges with climbers
There are many challenges climbers overcome but there are two that almost every climber seems to experience: The fear of falling and the fear of failure.
The fear of falling
The fear of falling is most common for beginner climbers because your mind understands that there is risk of injury and pain if you fall. Injury and pain avoidance is one of the many things evolution has instilled in our mind to preserve life so it is one that isn’t to be removed, however, it is something that can be worked through and minimized.
The most common and probably the easiest way to overcome the fear of falling is to learn how to fall safely and then take many falls in a controlled environment such as a climbing gym.
By falling safely, a.k.a. rolling out when bouldering and bending your knees and keeping your hands clear of the rope when sport or top rope climbing, you mind starts to recognize the control you have with preventing injury and pain when you fall.
Those that have thousands of falls under their belt have usually learn when a fall will be dangerous and cause injury, vs those that will be ok and recoverable. This means that in addition to learning how to fall safely, you also need to have an arsenal of falls under your belt. In many gyms there are falling classes, if you want to do this with a professional. Another option is to take hundreds of controlled falls in a controlled environment.
The more falls you take, the more your mind will be able to recognize risk more appropriately and accurately, which will, in turn, reduce your fear of falling.
The easiest way to overcome the fear of falling is to learn how to fall safely and then take many falls in a controlled environment such as a climbing gym
The fear of failure
This fear is more common in experienced climbers and it is often related to the fear that someone will judge you or won’t understand if you miss that hold. It is most common with professional climbers as they have additional pressure to make moves so that they can maintain their sponsors and fan base.
“One of the worst things you can do while figuring out how to make a move, is to allow yourself to wonder ‘what will my mom think if I fail,’” said Dr. McGrath.
Instead, you should focus on what position you need to be in and what movement you need to make so that you can stick the hold. The fear of failure is one that can distract you from that.
To work through the fear of failure, many climbers focus on one move at a time, because that is the only thing they can actually control in that moment.
If you start thinking to yourself, what if I don’t make this move, then start listing in your mind everything that your body is doing in that moment. Review your foot placement, your arm direction and tension and your grip. Then list everything you need to do to make that move. This will help you regain focus and make the move you need to.
“One of the worst things you can do while figuring out how to make a move, is to allow yourself to wonder ‘what will my mom think if I fail,’” – Dr. McGrath.
Other fears in climbing
For the most part, if you talk to someone at the climbing gym or at the crag about the fears that they are working through, you can usually distill them down to the fear of falling and the fear of failure. However, there are other fears that though they are less common, are still very applicable to their situation.
According to Vertical Mind, rewriting the scripts that you have in your mind when you are experiencing those fears to force your mind to focus on the reality of what is going on and what you need to do, will help you through those fears.
Rewriting the scripts takes effort, but not a ton of time. Dr. McGrath explained that many climbers are able to rewrite their scripts within a matter of hours and have the benefits of the new scripts within one climbing session.
Many climbers are able to rewrite their scripts within a matter of hours and have the benefits of the new scripts within one climbing session.
How to start mental training
The best way to start mental training is to listen and taking note of what you are telling yourself when you are challenged on the climbing wall. This creates awareness. Then you need to work through whatever fears or mental challenges you may be having so when you are in those situations again, you can work through them.
I’d recommend reading books like Vertical Mind that have drills and activities you can do to become mentally stronger as a climber.