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The Mental Game

*Editor’s Note: This piece is coauthored by Chris Rolling and Adam Scheer

“The crux of climbing is, in the face of fear and doubt, the ability of your mind to make your body do the things your body is telling you are impossible.” -Ron Safarik

We’ve all felt psyched out on a scary gear route, frustrated by a sport line we couldn’t seem to crack or out of our element on a boulder problem. If we’re open to them, these moments offer the lessons and perspectives that spur improvement. ‘Uncomfortable’ encounters are also where the mental strengths or weaknesses of a climber show brightest.

The Mental Game (Photo: Tyler Scheer)

It might sound surprising that even infamous trad heroes, 5.14 sport climbing gurus, bouldering addicts and intrepid soloists have to overcome the same mental hurdles we face. Indeed the empowering element for these climbers is not that they’ve vanquished every pessimistic internal whisper; it is that they relish – and win – the argument. Their remarkable achievements prove that strides in the mental game can be as important as physical gains. Similarly, no matter how physically capable, mental limitations, in other words, a deficiency in guts, poor choices or general callow trifling can be the major weakness in one’s climbing arsenal.

Here we explore the byzantine mental struggles climbers face and a few strategies to address them. Three aspects of the mental game may seem cliché and obvious but are nonetheless woven into the psyche of any climber: fear, doubt, and motivation. Fear is an intrinsic part of climbing. It’s something we all experience – we’re hardwired to survive – and that’s good. Without fear, karma will dispose of you like a hot fart out the window. But fear must, at the minimum, be managed and ideally be harnessed to achieve the physical potential available to a climber. Similarly, doubt, both overt and covert, has kept many a strong climber from stretching the realm of his or her possibilities. On the other side of the coin is motivation. Finding sources of motivation, both to train and to strive for goals, has a huge impact on all aspects of our climbing.

So how can we efficiently develop the mental game?

As was the case with physical training, the answer is not as straightforward as the question and will be different for every climber. This is why the magazines stay in business. After spending 3 minutes flipping through dramatic climbing photography and exotic locales, we’re sponges ready to hear how to up our game. And don’t despair! It’s guaranteed that someone has devised a new training regimen, meditation program, diet or clever way to dispose of big wall turds. Eventually something will stick. But rarely will you read a piece designed to guide a climber toward the more enigmatic, ethereal and ultimately empowering process of self assessment that will actually help a climber zero in on weaknesses.

A good place to start is, once again, by identifying goals. You could be looking to take that next small but intimidating step in your specialty. You could be a gym rat ready to experience real rock. Maybe you’re a boulderer psyched to engage more vertical terrain or a sport climber wanting to step into the next dimension of gear. You might be an alpinist desiring to trade in your pig for a crash pad. In each case, a different set of mental challenges will accompany the physical tests. Or maybe you’re just tired of yelling “Take!!!” two feet above your last pro where the nightmarish visions of Aunt Jemima shortages become crippling.

Though many physical limitations can be addressed well in the gym, often we must face our mental battles at their source: outside. However, the gym can still prove to be a valuable testing ground so we begin there with one simple rule: Until comfortable taking falls, never say “take” in the gym. Even experienced climbers may need to build up to this philosophy and periodically return to it throughout their careers.

Falling is part of climbing. The sooner this fact is digested, the sooner we can move on to more appealing subjects, like blueberry pancakes drenched in a surplus of steaming Aunt Jemima. And if not comfortable taking a gym whip, forget about pushing limits outdoors. So if starting from scratch or wanting to hit the reset button on your mental game the first, bare minimum, step we see is developing an immunity to falling indoors.

Curtis whipping big on Nemo 5.13b; El Potrero Mexico (Photo: Chaz Ott)

There are ways to practice falling. Many climbers recommend taking progressively longer and longer falls on purpose until they are over the fear of being above their last clip. This is a good idea. But we’d suggest something a little more primal.

1. Lead everything. If you can’t go clip to clip on a gym route, save the belayer a roped bouldering session. Many gyms have unfortunate areas in which leading is off limits. In that case, make a point of sticking to the lead walls.

2. The word “take” is off limits. In other words, the rope is there only to catch you, not to enable timidity.

3. If you get a route clean, clip the anchors, but agree with your belayer that you won’t be taken tight before lowering. This will force you to trust the system. If you don’t truly believe the rope will catch you then why are you 50 feet above the ground in the first place? Get used to letting go without tension.

So far these exercises are designed to dispose of fear like you used to do with your messy drawers between routes. The next point is all about overcoming doubt.

4. Once comfortable with the first three points, it’s important to go for moves instead of just letting go. This includes when we’re pumped beyond belief and know there is no chance of sticking it. This philosophy will come in handy when working on harder lines as it forces you to progress as far as possible and will often result in a new high point from which to work. This can be the hardest step because you really have to push against your pissed off survival instinct.

5. Finally, it goes without saying to not grab draws, holds on other routes or the hairy ankles of the neighboring climber. Just fall. Falling is part of the deal. Once again, the sooner a climber come to terms with that, the better.

The gym provides a relatively controlled environment that allows us to not only be comfortable with falling, but also a venue to learn how to fall. This skill is a big step towards developing that cozy relationship with the idea of lobbing yourself into air.

In rare cases, even in the gym it is wise to not take a fall. On a poorly set route, you may whip into another wall or have a big hold below your feet looking to rack you. Especially at crowded gyms, other climbers may encroach into your fall path. But these are the strange exceptions.

Outside, there may be a ledge or big runout looming below. Gear isn’t always bomber or available exactly where you want. Your belayer may get attacked by an ant riding a mouse riding a shark riding an elephant when you’re mid-crux. Climbing is inherently risky and it’s up to you to determine a tolerance. Semantically the difference between actual and perceived danger is clear, but outside, the vast grey area in between dominates.

Chris’s first trip to Yosemite became a unique learning experience because he came to understand what it meant to be runout and to perform under that stress. Any trad climber will eventually face definitive moments those first few times above their gear. The internal conversation either ends in downclimbing, handing off the lead and buying the beer or trusting in one’s ability to execute the sequences and pressing on. Experience, focus, and clear thinking are important, but in the end it is simply a decision. You trust your belayer. You trust your gear, You trust yourself. You accept the risk and keep moving. Or, you don’t.

Ian leading Eldo's classic Scarry Canary 5.12 (Photo: Rob Kepley)

This notion is as relevant to sport climbing as it is to trad climbing, highball bouldering, or (yes) even gym climbing. There is a moment where you are either self-aware, confident and move on or none of these things and back off. In these situations, recognizing the difference between rational fear keeping you alive and irrational fear that just keeps you from your goals is paramount. Sometimes the best decision is indeed to back off. But a climber who never pushes that line in the sand will be more prone to plateaus and slower development.

Now imagine yourself at the base of a boulder problem that is your anti-style. The moves are big (or small or involve pinkie gastons, nose hooks or whatever) and you’ve never been good at them. Not wanting to ruin the mojo of your group, you strap on your shoes, chalk up, and try the first few moves only to, predictably, fall. The next thought is, “There’s no way.” You become an insecure color commentator for a while before realizing nobody’s listening and saunter off to Denny’s to bury your face in a fluffy tall stack of buckwheat blueberry pancakes dripping with Aunt Jemima while your friends have fun.

Now picture yourself saddling up for the redpoint send on your super mega ultra proj. You’ve rehearsed the moves a dozen times, especially that pesky deadpoint crux where you’ve fallen so many times. Despite fatigue, you launch into the route for the day’s last burn. The first half goes well, but somewhere in the home stretch, you start to feel the effects of the previous attempts. Lactic acid builds along with that insidious doubt. You press on and to your surprise make it to the deadpoint clean. You get a good shake and go, but, alas, find yourself screaming like a banshee Ondra style at the end of the rope…again…feeling like you could have done it.

These two hypotheticals illustrate central aspects of the mental game that can have a dramatic effect on your climbing.

The first story illustrates the flaccid, conscious outlook that you are unable to do the climb. There’s no secret to addressing this, other than recognizing its presence and changing your poopy pants attitude. It’s really as simple as saying and believing the words “I can” instead of “I can’t.” It’s a distinct decision with huge benefits and will make a climber more fun to be around than the mopey bag of old excuses and glory days tails parading around in zebra-striped spandex. Hard boulder problems or climbs are a great way to stretch your limits, or to even conceive of what it takes to reach that next level. You’ll learn more about your strengths and weaknesses by working on something a bit over your head than by cruising up another line in your comfort zone. Laying the groundwork on a problem then coming back stronger is a great way to truly gauge improvement.

The second story illuminates the doubt that develops after repeated failure coincident with projecting routes. It’s the subconscious expectation to fall, because that’s what happened so many times before. This type of doubt is a stealthy emotion cloaked in rationality. Whether its climbing or daily life, it has a way of sneaking up and sabotaging your most well-intentioned efforts.

You can chose to ignore such internal detractors or you can change your expectation. Both are viable tactics. The ‘ignorance is bliss’ strategy basically amounts to training your mind to slip into “the zone” the second you pull on route. We’ve all felt that instant where everything clicks and movement feels effortless. In these elusive moments you stop trying to control the environment, let go, and allow your body to execute what your sessions on the route have wired it to do.

Amy topping out her lifetime proj at Horsetooth Reservoir (Photo: Eli Powell)

Accept that you can’t control whether you finish the route anymore than you can usher the demise of reality TV. Stop focusing on finishing the pitch and turn your attention to the important stuff like maintaining steady breathing, a tight core, precise footwork and efficient movement. When you get to that hypothetical deadpoint, premature thoughts of sending become machinations of the climbing gods conspiring against you. Impatience with the on-route process will inevitably yield a sloppy effort. To combat this, one must keep the conscious mind busy and productive so the subconscious and muscle memory take over. Again, a focus on finishing the pitch can be a harmful distraction. How many times have you been preoccupied by what lies ahead only to botch an easier sequence and waste a bunch of precious energy? The dominating thoughts should be on movement, position, the holds and if you find yourself clean at the anchor, or pulling over the lip, all the better.

The other method of overcoming subconscious doubt is to reprogram your perception of the climb. This can be done by visualization and memory. Picture yourself on the route, succeeding – but not just succeeding – imagine climbing the route in pornographic detail. Feel the holds, hear yourself breathing, imagine the pump and then shaking it out, concentrate on the ease of the movement, efficiency, the feeling of clipping the chains with plenty in the tank. Rinse and repeat. The goal is to turn the subconscious in your favor by tricking it to expect success like a cat presumes breakfast after sitting on your face at 5 am sharp every morning. Visualization is a technique applicable to all disciplines of the sport. If you’re onsighting an intense trad line, imagine placing a piece of good gear, trusting it and then fully committing to the next sequence. Create the expectation that you’re going to have to pull hard above gear rather than being surprised if that happens.

On route or pre climb tactics aside, perhaps nothing is more determinate of success or failure than motivation. To even begin your journey through climbing, or anything for that matter, there needs to be a foundation that compels you to perform. And in climbing it’s only after you’ve made this hurdle that you are challenged in more inspirational ways. Furthermore, that foundation needs to remain strong throughout the life of a climber so one can build the physical and mental structures on top.

Motivation connects, once again, to self assessment and defining goals. We all climb for different reasons. Some enjoy the physical challenge, others the adventure and relationship with nature, some the camaraderie, and still others the meditation discovered by being pushed to the limit. Regardless of why you climb, it’s important to be honest with yourself and allow your goals to guide decisions. Make sure your actual climbing is consistent with why you climb in the first place. And be sure to check in on yourself periodically, especially during those times when you feel plateaued and all of this sage advice is losing is freshness.

Blueberry pancakes drenched in a sea of Aunt Jemima (Photo: God)

Now you’ve assessed why you climb and are highly motivated. Well congratulations. Enjoy the clarified sense of determination like a tasty pile of steaming blueberry pancakes soaked in Aunt Jemima. The minute you feel a dragging weight of responsibility, obligation or too much pressure, change it up. Put your project on pause. Do some noncommittal sport climbing instead of an epic alpine adventure. Dust off your bouldering pad and leave your harness at home. Whatever it may be, reconnect with the pure fun of the sport and be reminded that we are lucky to experience it.

Not only can having a strong mental game make the difference between sending and taking or between composure and panic, it can be the determining factor in having fun. If climbing never scares or intimidates you, makes you feel fragile in the battle against gravity or inspires you to rise to a challenge, you are missing the soul of the sport. It is how you anticipate these moments and prepare for them that can ultimately define your place in the world of climbing…like a crown blueberry stuck in an ocean of Aunt Jemima atop a fat stack of pancakes.

Finally, we’d love to hear your thoughts on the mental aspects of the sport. Leave a comment below and share what has worked for you, what you struggle with or what inspires.

For part I of this series, check out Making The Grade.

Emily Kildawg - Thoughts in my head during a typical day of nursing school: “I need to quit climbing, yeah, just quit climbing. Then I will stop dilly-dallying at the UNL climbing wall and study. I am going to quit because nursing school is “so overwhelming” that I can’t possibly think of anything else especially something fun like climbing.” Then I check my e-mail and find Climbing House posted The Mental Game and I remember why I will never quit climbing. Thank you!!!!
The UNL climbing comp. is this Saturday and I find myself nervous thinking about clipping bolts. I am not even sure if there are other girls competing in my category so I could be up against myself again. I love leading, I like falling; I dread that moment before I detach from the rock. Flashes of my body getting tangled in the rope race through my mind. I usually scream some high-pitched shit before I even let go. I do know that I am an analytical climber who tends to stall through a section of a route failing to look for key rest spots.
The main point I have realized is my clipping problem. When I go to clip I feel like everything goes in slow motion. It’s almost like I feel the need to move extra delicately and push the rope ever so tenderly into the biner as if I would blow my feet if I moved my arm a little faster. I assume I just need to quickly and efficiently snap that baby in there, but for some reason when I pull the slack and grab the biner, my whole body says, “No, Emily you aren’t going to make that clip, you little weakling.” It all boils down to the fear of falling. Climbing House, what is your advice? :)

Your little Nebraska climbing friend,

ekilzFebruary 18, 2013 – 9:19 pm

Adam Scheer - Dear Emily,

Good luck at the comp!

The UNL wall often has thin vertical routes that can make for tenuous clips. As with anything, practice will help. Keep leading routes that push you, keep taking falls and hopefully you’ll even blow a clip every now and then. You’ll scream, live and laugh about it later. Eventually, you’ll get used to tough clips, better at actually making the clips and comfortable with the notion that even if you do blow a clip you’ll be fine.

Make sure to consume lots of bacon as it will make the skin glow. A healthy leech bath twice per month will keep the cellulite away and don’t forget to rub lemons on your face to lighten the freckles.

Your redheaded Cali counterpart

aschilzFebruary 20, 2013 – 9:33 pm

Sara Konecky - Great post! To touch on the the point about reprogramming your perception of a climb – you can also reprogram your perception of what trying hard really means. When I was working a project this past weekend, my friend Jesse would say “Ok, try hard!” I thought, well yes, this is obvious – try hard. But, watching him climb brings “trying hard” to a new level. He doesn’t waste go’s with any half ass tries! You’ll probably meet him in one of our upcoming trips!February 21, 2013 – 2:21 am

Sara Konecky - Also – Adam, yes, that was my first V6. I was overdue, I think. If you didn’t listen to the audio, listen to what I’m saying while climbing (I was sure I was going to fall the whole time) I think Kris tells me not to fall, so I didn’t. Funny how much falling is a conscious decision and not simply ability. It wasn’t pretty, but a send is a send!February 21, 2013 – 2:26 am

Adam Scheer - Thanks, Sara. I’ll have to try your secret. Next time I’m struggling on a boulder problem, yell “ADAM, DON’T FALL!!!” That should ensure a send.

That video is a great example of the ideas Chris and I wanted to touch on here. I wonder if you could post it in the comments? In your own mind, you were ready to fall but Kris’s ‘encouraging’ spot kept you dialed in. It goes to show what your true capabilities are if your mind’s in the right place. Awesome.

First V6! Congrats.

~AdamFebruary 21, 2013 – 5:28 pm

Curt MacNeill - Well written Adam! I believe that our minds limit us in climbing much more than our physical abilities. I believe everyone can climb at a much higher level, with a little bit of dedication, hard work, motivation and mental strength. Believing in yourself is half the battle. Its the law of attraction. If you constantly say “I can”, eventually “you will”…February 22, 2013 – 3:47 pm

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