Your body might be strong and willing, however, if you don’t have an equally strong and determined mind, you may feel like you underachieve in your athletic performance. The good news is that you can train your brain just like you train your body. There are skills and mental focus that can be improved to enhance overall climbing.
I often struggle with controlling my head when doing challenging cruxes and even though I’m not pumped, I shout the dirty “take” or simply give up before even trying the move. Ironically, on good days when my head feels stronger and I actually go for a hard move, I manage to succeed approximately 80% of all tries. But, why doesn’t it inspire me to do the same in these self-doubting moments? Falling off can be scary but when it stops you from progressing, it can also be really frustrating. My climbing buddies are aware of my irrational fear and as a result, one of them presented me with a book called ‘Vertical Mind’ by Don McGrath, Ph.D., and Jeff Elison, Ph.Dto help me control my head in critical moments. Here is what I learned and gained from it.
Habitual or skilled behaviour is learned by many neurons firing in particular patterns to produce the end results that we observe as thoughts and feelings. In other words, repetition, practice, and drills improve performance by changing neural connections. So, mental rehearsing, redpointing and memorising beta helps being quick, confident and efficient in grabbing holds or making precise moves under pressure. A good example of it is professional climbers imitating each move staring at a route before entering a competition. Some people draw beta maps before sending their projects and rehearse them in their heads either lying on the floor or in bed before falling asleep. I bet most of you tried mental rehearsal of at least crux moves once or twice in your life before falling asleep.
Human brains like creating patterns (scripts), thus, allowing us to react quickly in familiar situations. It’s kind of like working on autopilot, which conserve valuable resources: attention, consciousness, and working memory. These are intimately linked and very limited. Everyone’s scripts vary, but many need to be rewritten in order to improve. In order to do so, there are three simple steps required: Plan, Practice, Perform.
Script rewriting process
In this stage, it is crucial to identify the areas we’d like to improve. It is recommended spending at least 30 minutes or more a week reflecting on our climbing to recognise the things that will help us climb better. One way of doing so is to ask other climbers who watch us in action to draw our attention to details we need to work on. Swallowing our egos is necessary, as there is nothing better than constructive criticism to reap profits here. Perhaps, it’d be more effective to talk to experienced and supportive climbers, whose observations really matter to us. Another way of finding areas for improvement is videoing ourselves whilst climbing. Even though it seems slightly narcissistic, it will help to notice what needs to be worked on.
The next stage is to rewrite scripts based on the observations made in the planning phase. Spend at least 25 percent of your climbing time working to develop the skills you need to climb better. These can easily be done during warm-up, or the time when you are climbing easy routes to build these skills. It is important to work on our weaknesses in a calm atmosphere, allowing ourselves to fail. But then, try again and again. The objective in this stage is the repetition of movements, thoughts and positions to rewire the scripts. For example, our footwork is a bit sketchy and we just don’t trust our feet especially on tiny, weirdly angled footholds or big moves. First, find a boulder problem or a route where we can practice using these “nasty” footholds. Then, notice which foothold to use to get optimal effects and consider why. Repeat the moves on a variety of challenging footsteps, maybe even attempting a dyno from a semi-awkward position whilst using them. Do it again and again till overwriting the script or gaining the confidence to climb effortlessly when on challenging footsteps and being pumped at the same time.
In this final stage, we solidify the new habits that we created by finding a route that we are excited about and will be challenging for us. This is the most exciting part of the journey, where new scripts are applied in attempt to send routes under the pressure of challenging moves, being pumped and potential falls. What really matters here is the will to climb a challenging route well applying what we have learned and believing that we can do it. Whether it’s an on-sight or redpoint is less relevant. This will create emotions and feelings, including excitement, that build a proper environment in which to practice the new scripts. As a result, they move deeper into our subconscious and become automatic.