Mental Toughness for Rock Climbers

Alone on this wall of horrors, the crisp red rock broken sporadically with lighter and literally softer tones, the negative thoughts returned and overwhelm me. The climbing between these two polar mediums requires a calmness not only to succeed by to survive.

First come the questions ‘Can I pull through this?’, ‘Am I strong enough?’, ‘Will I survive a fall?’. These questions are innocuous enough when climbing but when your survival hinges on you answering yes despite another darker voice saying, ‘You can’t pull through this’, ‘You’re not strong enough’, ‘You can’t survive a fall’, then it takes strength, determination and courage to head onwards into the unknown. If you fail to win the battle and step over that line, your reality is altered by your mind, and the irrational has won and the downward spiral begins.

Half an hour ago I had been on the ground, alone, I had talked myself out of the top pitch. I wasn’t even going to look at it, in my head I had already failed. In those 30 minutes something had happened, I was stood on the other side, a massive smile on my face and the world was now below my feet, in my hands was my destiny and it was not now a question of whether I believed I could still climb on loose and committing rock, I knew I could, In a matter of minutes my reality had changed, and switched in my favour.

Leaving the ground, the climbing was hard and sustained, edging upwards I expected my arms to start to feel the steepness of the crag, that gently overhangs over its entire length looming over me like a black cloud, each step up is a move closer to the belay and a move closer to when I am going to be on the sharp end of the rope, where the risk is greatest, but for now a rope above me means that I am safe.

On the belay, I delay my departure as I rack up slowly and methodically, placing everything in it’s place on my harness so I know where it is should I need it to protect myself from a fall. Today though I am labouring over this task, my head is down, and I am reluctant to engage with the climb. I feel nervous, jittery and anxious as I head up into the unknown to have a look, and I don’t like what I find.

The holds that I am on are large, but thin and delicate, like holding your weight on two large bone china plates, slow and gentle movements is all they will take. I have to try and relax and keep calm, panic will get me nowhere here, but self-doubt is all around me, and those demons threaten to overtake me and I don’t want to fall from here.

Around me I build myself a safety net, as piece after piece of protection are placed in between the soft and hard rock, it is a web of lies though as each piece will barely hold bodyweight. Its enough to edge myself further on, to a line in the sand, the point of no return, a place where you need to be sure that you can succeed and remain calm, and at no point can you panic. As the safety net grows so does my belief and like someone flicked a switch I go from zero to 100%, my head lifts up and I engage with the rock, and flow.

I leave this world and enter the one where only the holds under my hands and feet are all that matters anymore. The anxiety and worry leave me as I morph myself across the rock to the next island of safety, but now I am free I can see a way out its hard but I believe in myself.

Unknown climber on the amazing Blue Remembered Hills, the mind bending move on the second pitch is a real battle to show you are mentally tough!

* * *

There are many aspects of this story that express how being mentally tough can help a climber succeed, especially when the danger stakes are at there highest. Sports Psychologist have spent a great deal of time exploring this ephemeral quality, that we will no doubt hear so much about in the coming months as the Olympics roll into town.

This research suggests that mental toughness is a combination of Self-Belief, Motivation, Focus and Composure under pressure. If we as climbers use this as model to which to work on, we can help ourselves improve our mental game when it comes to our vertical dances with death. So how can we develop these key attributes to Mental Toughness?

Self-Belief

At is most simple it is about total belief in your ability to succeed on a given route, as such it can be seen as task specific. So your confidence on a slate slab will be different from that of a route on grit or on mountain rock.

Fortunately there are several building blocks to confidence, and by using progression in your climbing you can help build up your level of confidence. These building blocks in order of effectiveness are:

1. Prior Performance

2. Vicarious experience

3. Verbal Persuasion

4. Arousal

Prior performance can be built on by progressing from route to route in not only grade but also angle, rock type or even boldness. By building on the last route, or day out climbing or training session, you can slowly build up your self-belief.

Vicarious experience, is that of seeing someone’s performance and subconsciously measuring your own performance against theirs, so if you see someone on a grade and you believe you are equal to or better than them you will have a stronger belief in your ability to succeed.

Verbal persuasion, are words we hear that help or even hinder us. They can come from those around us or from ourselves. The best thing to remember is when you are belaying be positive for your climber, and hopefully they will return the favour and send positive words up the cliff for you.

If the negative thoughts come from you, then you first need to spend a few session recording these negative thoughts, either by clicking a karabiner every time you have a thought on a route, and more importantly try and record them in a notebook after. Given the records from a few sessions, you can now see if there are any patterns and try to reframe them in a more positive way. If you like you are tried to write a positive response to any negative thoughts you may have.

The last aspect is your level of arousal, which refers to how much we are being affected by adrenalin and worry. This aspect is covered more thoroughly in the composure under pressure section below.

There is a whole article on this one subject called Head Coach: Self-Efficacy and Self Belief in Rock Climbing.

Motivation

Being and staying motivated for what can be years of participation in climbing, especially given the weather that can dampen your enthusiasm, can be hard to maintain. Often we need something to be motivated for, be it a route, a grade and climbing holiday.

As such Motivation goes hand in hand with setting appropriate goals.  There are several ways to achieve this, first think of a route, a grade or a trip you are planning for the coming year. Research as much as you can on this goal, and try and focus on what exactly you need to do to be performing to the standard.

You then need to focus on monthly bite sized mini goals in order to achieve that. This can be achieved by using icoachclimbing.com , as it allows you to individualise your focus on a monthly basis, by setting five training goals.

Similarly think about using the SMART goals method, where your goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time oriented. Setting goals can be particularly effective when they are suitably far away that it makes you try to achieve it, but not too far away that it quickly becomes apparent that it feels impossible. This attention to proximity of the goal will help you engage with greater effort and persistency if the right goals are chosen.

Red Walls a place where mental toughness is a pre-requisite for climbers!

Focus

To a certain extent focus is about remaining on the path to your goals, not getting side tracked along the way. However in climbing, if the weather is good and you fancy a long mountain route rather than another redpointing session on your current project then often we can’t ignore the pull simply to enjoy ourselves.

More than just remaining on the path, it’s about maintaining appropriate concentration on a route. By appropriate, I am referring to what you focus on at a given moment, as we have to switch our attention throughout a route. We can train this by practicing with our focus of attention in the house. There are two dimensions to this. The first is internal and external focus of attention, so sat down try and focus on a single object in the room, and see how long you can hold that focus, next try and focus on the feel of an object like a phone in your fingers, and again see how long you can stay focused.

With both of those exercises we concentrated on one end of the second dimension of focus, that of a narrow field of view. The opposite end of this dimension is a wide focus of attention. So spend a few minutes a day trying to control what you are focusing on. At work or school, you can use this when interacting with colleagues or friends to try and give them your undivided attention. You can then try and expand that field of focus to as much as possible, this may help if you are on sighting and you need to focus not on a single hold but a whole section of a climb in order to try and find the best sequence through it.

Composure Under Pressure

To remain calm under pressure one of the best approaches to achieve this under the stress of a dangerous or challenging lead requires the ability to relax. Simply trying to relax on a routes will be hard at first, however you can again spend a few minutes a day practicing.

At first it will take you about 15 minutes to relax, however given a few weeks practice you can reduce that to a few breathes. Whilst there are many ways to relax, we are going to use breathing, as when climbing the effects of adrenalin increase or breathing rate so bring that under control can help counteract the effects of adrenalin.

So start by sitting down and slowing your breathing down, so you breath in through your nose to the count of 4 to 6 seconds, and then back out through your mouth at the same slow pace. When you have that speed of breathing, start to add a mantra. I like using ‘Re’ on the inhaling breath and ‘Lax’ on the exhalation. This Re-Lax adds another level to the relaxation. In order to measure your success you can also measure your heart before and after you have relaxed. Eventually with practice, you might be able to reduce your heart rate by 10 beats or more a minute in a few breaths.

On top of this you need to start practicing this relaxed climbing in more and more stressful situations. If you like you are trying to desensitise yourself to stress, but remaining relax in places that previously you were stressed in.

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