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Why Is Climbing Such A Mental Sport?

Why Is Climbing Such A Mental Sport?

I recently read the book Vertical Mind, which is a book to help climbers improve the mental aspect of climbing and it got me thinking about why climbing is such a mental sport so I did some research about it.

Why is climbing such a mental sport? Climbing is a mental sport because you’re constantly challenging yourself to overcome the climbing problem, which requires mental strength and confidence. Problem-solving, being able to overcome self-doubt and having the confidence needed to make every move are all essential for climbing.

Though the mental aspect of climbing is significant (especially compared to other sports), it is often overlooked or misunderstood by climbers that are just getting into the sport. If you want to continually improve your climbing performance, you’ll also need to train your mental side of climbing.

What Makes Climbing Mental

There are many mental aspects that go int climbing that, if worked on, can help you level up your climbing performance. Below are some of the most common mental barriers and challenges in climbing.

Self Talk

Self-talk is one of the most recognizable mental barriers that climbers usually find easy to identify with. For example, while you are climbing, you may be telling yourself that you are weak or not strong enough for the next move. In this situation, you may slip or not be able to pull yourself up to the next hold, whereas positive self-talk can help motivate you and give you the added strength you need to make the next move.

Speak To Me Softly, a video from Outdoor Research about the mental challenges of self-talk demonstrates this perfectly.


Visualization is an important barrier to process as it can help you with two aspects of the climb:

  1. While identifying beta (how to complete the climb), visualizing yourself making each move can help provide confidence and the mental how-to that you need to maximize your odds of making it to the top.
  2. Visualization is also good for projects that you may be working on. For example, if you are working on a climb and you get stuck on one move that has a super long reach, you can use visualization while you are at home or away from the wall to mentally practice that move. With mental practice and seeing yourself making that move in your head over and over again, you are more likely to be able to make that move when you go back to the route and try that move again.

Success Definition

Many of us are taught that success is accomplishing the goal or overcoming the challenges. This definition of success can be a powerful barrier when it comes to staying positive and motivated. 

In climbing, usually, the goal is reaching the top by overcoming all of the challenges in the problem/route. Success, however, (separate from the goal) should be viewed as an improvement. 

If you get on the route for the 3rd or 4th time and are able to make it one move closer to the top, then you have succeeded.

By defining success as improvement, you are going to feel more successful as you climb and the more successful you feel, the more confident you will be while climbing.

Fear of Falling

The fear of falling is one of the hardest things to deal with while climbing. Often time, our mind associates falling with injuries, pain or even death so it is (rightfully) afraid of falling.

In some situations, the fear of falling is useful in that it prevents us from jumping off the ledge without testing our knots and gear. On the other hand, and most often, it prevents us from making moves that we are fully capable of making and thus is a barrier to your mental climbing experience.

This mental barrier is difficult to overcome, but in all honesty, it isn’t possible to overcome. Instead, we become better a copping with it or the fear of falling becomes a quieter voice in our heads.

Even Alex Honnold, who in the documentary Free Solo climbed Mount El Capitan without safety gear, showed that his chemical reaction to fear, though smaller than the average person, was still existent

Related Article: How To Deal With The Fear Of Falling

Fear of Failure

.The the awesome book, Vertical Mind, Don McGrath and Jeff Elison dedicated an entire section of his book for overcoming your own fear of failure barrier as well as helping your climbing partner through their fear of failure.

The fear of failure is usually related to our concern about how other climbers or people view us. If you are afraid of failure, you may be feeling that others won’t want to climb with you anymore because you aren’t as good as they are. Or you are afraid of failure because it might indicate something about you as a person.

If you recognize that others don’t really care if you do it, they just care if you try, then that aspect of the fear of failure should subside (with frequent reminders).

If you have associated your failure as an attribute that says something about you as a person, you may be feeling that if you fail, you are a failure. In this case, it is important for you to remind yourself that your climbing performance is separate from you. You may climb and it may be your favorite activity, but you are much more than just a climber.


Separate from mental barriers that climbing presents, the meditative/zen state that you can achieve while climbing is more often and stronger than in most sports. The connection between your mind and your body creates a flow that releases stress and helps a climber not only focus, but also feel emotionally and mentally better after a climbing session.

I’ve included this in the list of what makes climbing flow because it is a mental state and therefore attributes to why climbing is mental. Plus, it’s one of the great mental benefits that you get from climbing that is difficult to find in any other sport or activity.

Three Tips To Improve Your Mental Game In Climbing

This video by Epic TV was made in 2015 with Louis Parkinson, a famous climber in London. Though the video is older, the tips shared are still completely applicable.

  1. Minimize Hesitation: By minimizing your hesitation, you are less likely to have problems from not committing all the way. For example, if you are trying to do a dynamic move, you have to fully commit to that move or you won’t be able to reach the handhold or grip hard enough to control the movement. In contrast, if you avoid hesitating, you are more likely able to mentally “hulk” through a move, even if you don’t hit the hold perfectly.
  2. Positive Self-Talk – Don’t Say “Can’t”: Self-talk is a powerful aspect of your mental game in climbing (see above). If you tell yourself that you “can’t” do something, it will be harder for you to mentally tell your body to grip harder when you need to or to reach further when you can physically reach further. “Can’t” limits what you can do, even if that one thing is something that is within your capabilities.
  3. Believe In Yourself and Be Confident: Similar to not hesitating, feeling confident with the moves required will make it easier for your body to complete those moves. For example, if you tell yourself that you are capable of getting to the top and you outline in your head what all of the moves are and confirm to yourself that you can do those moves, they will be easier to accomplish compared to if you weren’t confident in your ability. This is because your mind is powerful and can create physical limitations if you instruct it to.

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