Alli Rainey: Improve Your Climbing – Mental Training continued (Part 15)
Visualization/Memorization: Visualization is a HUGE component of using your mind to bolster your performance and training outcomes. For awesome directions on how to effectively implement visualization for sports performance enhancement, check out The Power of Visualization and Teaching Athletes Visualization and Mental Imagery Skills.
For climbers, especially redpoint climbers, a key part of effective utilization of visualization is to memorize every single move you’ll make on your project, including breathing, clipping, how long to stay at rests, shouting, nuances of core positioning, foot placements, hand positions, and so forth. The more details you can retain and repeat in your brain during your daily visualization sessions, the less likely you’ll be to forget what to do in the moment. And yes, this might take years of practice to refine your visualization/memorization skills to this level of detail.
You can start to drill your ability to memorize at the gym. Get on a boulder problem once, then turn away from the wall and try to remember all the handholds you used in order. The next time, add in the footholds. After practicing this for a few months, you should notice a marked improvement in your ability to recall sequences even when you’re not at the gym or on the route outside. This practice will help you start to develop a method to remember that works for you when you get on a new project outside.
My method: I start by memorizing the handholds I use during the crux(es), then I memorize the crux feet, then the crux clips. Then I move out from there, recalling the moves before and after the crux, as well as the clips, breathing, rests, and so forth. I visualize projects 2-3x each a day, minimum, when I’m actively working them. It only takes 10 minutes or so to put in a solid visualization effort. For me, visualization works best either when I’m sitting or when I’m walking – not when I’m distracted by things like television or cooking dinner or the like.
Added to the intricacy of memorizing movement and persistent dedication required for visualization to really work, you also will still ideally be able to improvise in the moment if things don’t go as planned, too – so you do not want be totally attached to the visualization. When you get to a sticking point on the climb and you can’t move on as planned, you still want to be able to take advantage of another option that might work if it’s available, making the decision to go for that in a split second and letting go of the plan. This leads to the topic of the next entry: Mental Tactics for the Crag.
“What good is a prepared body if you have a scattered mind?”(From Divergent, by Veronica Roth)
All of the physical training in the world can fall by the wayside, unused or underused, if your mental state while climbing doesn’t support and enhance your physical capabilities. Even if you have a great mental game off the rocks – daily visualization, positive attitude, belief in yourself and your abilities, a disciplined and informed approach to training, and so forth – this can all go to waste if you aren’t able to tap into your brainpower and use it to your advantage when you’re going for a peak performance. Doing this involves the following:
Reading sequences from the ground: Technically this happens right before you embark on a problem or a route, but it’s still a key part of utilizing your brainpower to its fullest capabilities, and it’s also good exercise that can help you improve at reading sequences ahead of you while you’re climbing. So before you step off the ground, whether you’re onsighting, redpointing, inside, outside, competing, or just clowning around with friends in the gym, always look at the route/problem in question and try to visualize exactly how you’ll climb what’s in front of you. Knowing where you’re going in advance and having an idea of how you’re going to get there can save you valuable time when you’re actually climbing, making for a more efficient and less draining effort and yielding greater success.
Looking ahead & planning en route: When you’re already climbing and you get to a resting position, use this time not only to bring your heart rate and breathing down (more about breathing later in this entry!) but also, to look ahead at what’s coming up and visualize yourself performing the sequence perfectly. If you’re redpointing and you know what’s coming, this is easier, of course, but it gives your brain and body the cue of what you want to happen and can help shut down voices of doubt, feeding yourself positive imagery of success instead. If you haven’t been on the route before, holds you couldn’t see from the ground can come into your field of vision, and you can also up climb and touch what’s available and look around for options and then return to the rest while you work to piece together what sequence you feel will be most effective for you to try – which brings us to the next on-the-route tool: downclimbing.
Downclimbing: Like so many parts of successful climbing, downclimbing is not just a mental tool, obviously. It’s the physical act of reversing sequences and getting back down the rock without taking or falling, which is often harder than climbing up into a position. Cultivating a deep well of knowledge about how and when and why to downclimb takes training, meaning you should definitely put some time into training climbing down. Knowing if and when you can or should reverse a sequence can be the difference between sending and failing, and sometimes, between wholeness/injury or even life and death. Diligent training can render this into an automatic response in certain emergency situations, so that when you know you can’t do the next move or that you’d have a better shot if you had more rest or that you need to climb into it with your hands or feet on different holds, your body just reverses direction back to the last rest, where you’ll shake out and prepare for what’s ahead. Downclimbing can also actually be a lifesaver if you find yourself unwilling or unable to perform a sequence, and/or you do not have the proper gear to protect yourself for the effort – instead of falling, you can downclimb back to your last piece of pro or to the ground.
Dealing with stressful situations efficiently and effectively: A strong on-the-route mental game means that you can handle stress without allowing it to impact your performance negatively. This takes time and training. Stressful situations while climbing can come from both external and internal sources. External sources of stress include (but aren’t limited to) barking dogs, disruptive or unpleasant people of any age, lightning storms, breaking holds, competitions, or beta that looked or felt like it would work but doesn’t work in the moment. Internal sources of stress include the brain screaming that you can’t possible do another move, your own expectations and pressure you put on yourself to succeed, or even internalizing imagined or real external pressures, like knowing that some people are watching you climb and thinking they expect a performance.
Some people react to such stressors more negatively than others, but no matter who you are and how much you feel, you can learn to moderate the negative impact of added stressors on you through effort and training of the mind. Acknowledging the feelings but working to ignore them by replacing them with positive imagery is the starting point for this, instead directing the mental focus into the present moment, to the task at hand, which is climbing, and not worrying about the outcome or focusing on it. Consider disruptions happening around yourself as an added challenge; they’re “distraction training” and can be used to help you stay more solid mentally. When beta turns bad, instead of giving up, try something – anything! – you might surprise yourself, and the more you go for it, the more you’ll realize what your go-to moves are and what works best for you in a pinch when what you’ve planned or anticipated goes awry. In a competition (as well as climbing anything, really) remind yourself that five years from now, neither you nor anybody competing or watching is likely to seriously care about the outcome of the present moment; this can let you just focus on climbing and enjoy it for what it is – climbing. Which is supposed to be fun!
Self-talk while climbing/staying in the present moment: This ties into the above, of course – staying calm and confident and relaxed within yourself as you climb, telling yourself that you are strong and that you can do whatever’s coming up next, and also holding the sense that so long as you give it your all, that’s all you can ask for and you won’t be frustrated or disappointed by the outcome. The goal of every day is to try your hardest when you’re fresh enough to do so, to understand and be gentle with yourself and your body when it’s not recovered for full-on effort, and to not berate yourself for what you don’t accomplish on any given day. Staying present with yourself and just enjoying the moment-to-moment challenge of climbing and immersing yourself in the joy of movement is to remember and honor why you climb at all – for the sheer pleasure of climbing and the creativity it inspires and the enhanced sense of totality of a unified being living in the present moment. Feed your brain positive messages, and your body will follow; saturate it with negativity and your body will also follow. Staying positive before, during and after climbing leads to more overall positive outcomes and enjoyment of every day of climbing and training (and even rest days, too).
Breath control/modulation: I’ve written about breathing in an earlier entry in this series, but it’s worth pointing out that breathing is an autonomic function that we can also control voluntarily – meaning that bringing your awareness back to your breath and training yourself to maintain that awareness while you climb (so you don’t hold your breath through hard sequences and deprive your muscles of much-needed oxygen) is a huge and often overlooked advantage. Do not be lazy about this. Train your breathing until it’s subconscious to breathe deeply and fully while you climb, no matter how hard the going gets.
Acting as if: I think the phrase “Act as if” comes from Thinking Body, Dancing Mind: Taosports for Extraordinary Performance in Athletics, Business, and Life as a suggested mantra (of many); it’s a good one to employ in those sketchy situations when doubts crop up. If you simply tell yourself to act as if you’re strong enough or have enough left to do a sequence or move, sometimes the results can be quite surprising. Try it out. I’m not saying it’ll always work, but it’s a good way to get a little extra out of a tired body by pushing it with a solid, positive mental prompt.
A significant part of my mental training game involves setting climbing and related training goals. In the old days of my climbing life, these involved mainly tangible route sends or bouldering achievements. This set me up for a ton of disappointment and negative self-talk, as I struggled often to achieve what I wanted to achieve in terms of concrete sending (overachiever? You bet!), and measured the successful outcome of all climbing days as send vs. no-send. No-send = failure = not a good day overall. Obviously, this doesn’t work very well for keeping the fun factor high from day-to-day, especially not for someone like me who generally happens to prefer enormous challenges bordering on impossibility in terms of redpoint-project selection.
Gradually, my mindset has shifted into a more productive way of approaching every climbing day and training sessions, too, in terms of using goals to motivate (not denigrate) performance and training improvements, both. Every day I climb or train, I set myself several ultra-short-term goals to guide me through the session. For an outdoor climbing day, these goals might include making it one move higher on a project, climbing a sequence in its entirety for the first time, reducing the number of hangs on a project, attempting a particular onsight I’ve been saving, climbing faster (pushing my pace, which tends to still at times be too slow for my own good), working out better beta on a troublesome sequence (or at the very least double-checking or maybe even checking for the 100th time that I haven’t missed anything that might help – because, yes, I still have great faith in technical trickery, despite all the strength/power work I’ve put in!), and so forth. For training, I might just make it a goal to get out into the gym, or to get through my weights session, or to try to add some weight, send a problem, work on pinches or slopers or dynos, do a move I haven’t done yet, or make sure I stretch my forearms/chest out after training, and so forth.
The point is that these little goals motivate and guide me through every second of my climbing and training days, making me feel like I’m accomplishing and achieving the micro-steps that will take me that much closer to my medium-term, long-term, and even longer-term goals. For those goals, I tend to allow them to be more fluid and less set in time, because it’s hard to predict when you’ll send a hard project or embrace a new level – and deadlines on goals can actually set you up for letdown and frustration if you routinely don’t make it in the time period you give yourself. Instead, I suggest having an array of goals that fall outside of the ultra-short-term range, some of which are closer and some of which may take you longer – and to use them to motivate but not to judge yourself in a negative or disparaging light.
If you find yourself never even close accomplishing your climbing goals, you might want to reexamine them and to create some more attainable goals to serve as stepping stones along the way. Consider including in these attainable goals some training goals that you establish by looking for the reasons behind your inability to reach the goals you’ve set (yet). A trainer, coach, or climbing partner who’s familiar with you and your climbing might help you figure out some appropriate training goals if you’re having difficulty identifying these on your own.
In my world, climbing goals and training goals go hand in hand. Training goals are informed by the climbing goals I have yet to reach; I craft my personal training plan in the off-season by noting what I struggle with during the outdoor climbing season, since all of my climbing goals revolve around sending hard-for-me sport routes outside. Whatever I have trouble with, whatever keeps me from “succeeding,” I now consider extremely valuable information for me to take into consideration, something I can use to make better training decisions in the future. Coupled with my mini-short-term goals, this angle enables me to view nothing as a failure – and I can almost always have fun on any given climbing/training day, as a result (and this was most certainly not always the case for me!).
Always having fun when I climb is a huge goal for me, actually – because I really don’t think there’s any point to climbing if it’s not fun. Part of the learning process along these lines has also involved making resting, rest days, and not overdoing it into goals for myself, as well as for backing way down in training sessions or climbing days when necessary; when my body says, “nope,” I listen instead of barreling on through with the schedule as planned – a do-or-die mindset that resulted in too many overtraining incidents in my past to count on one hand. This leads to the final topic/entry in this series on Mental Training – cultivating a solid, sound mindset for physical training.
Cultivating an Ideal Training Mindset
Training for climbing beyond just climbing to train for climbing isn’t for everyone. This is not because most climbers wouldn’t stand to benefit from employing some climbing-specific exercises in the weight room (for example), but because for some folks, this kind of training takes all the fun right out of climbing, period. And that’s 100 percent fine, of course. Anyone who is happy with their current climbing level and the way that climbing/bouldering as a training method serves them/enables them to improve or stay at the same level should stick with that, because if it’s not broken, there’s no need to fix it.
However, if you, like me, discover that using climbing-specific training methods beyond simply climbing can and does help you reap tangible benefits, learning how to cultivate a solid training mindset can enable you to reap even greater rewards from each session. (btw, I don’t consider this “cross-training,” because the exercises are climbing-specific; in my mind cross-training involves training by participating in other sports/activities not specific to climbing, and it isn’t really applicable or effective for sport-specific training programs, but more on that in another entry!).
After you’ve identified what areas need the most attention in training and have a sound training plan in hand, you have to actually be able to commit to the program to make it worth anything. In other words, the most awesome training program in the world on paper is worthless if you cannot adhere to it enough to see results in your climbing ability. This is where personality (partially determined by your genetic predisposition) and life circumstances/schedule can really come into play as far as what will work for you. Are you internally motivated? Externally motivated? Do you need a coach/training partner/both, or do you prefer to train alone? How much time do you have to train? Do you have the right equipment? Do you have the discipline to push hard in training but also, to know when to blow the whistle on yourself and to stop before you’re injured?
The toughest part of training for me at first was learning to really embrace what I “hated” and to realize that I hated it because it was what I needed to work on the most. I’ve observed that it’s a common tendency for humans to gravitate, consciously or subconsciously, toward what we’re good at and to avoid or skip over what we’re not as good at. However, if we can stare what we are relatively not as strong at right in the face and attempt to make it stronger with time and dedication, it can gradually become something that we don’t mind as much – and that possibly, in time, we learn to love.
This has happened with me – I love steep climbing now and slopers and dynamic movements and pinches, and I also enjoy doing pull-ups(!) and lifting weights; all of these things I didn’t used to like much at all (understatement), but that’s because they were hard and painful and not fun. It’s happened with people I coach, too. Now, when I find something (a motion or type of hold, for example) I don’t like that relates to my climbing ability, I know that this most likely means I need to work on it in order to enjoy it more, if this is involved in an aspect of climbing I want to improve at.
As an aside here, there’s absolutely no problem with people deciding they don’t care to be good at a specific angle or style of climbing. It’s totally a personal choice. For example, if I’m never good at granite friction slab climbing, I’m okay with it. But a part of me always wanted to learn how to enjoy steep, dynamic, thuggy climbing, because it looked so fun – and that’s a different thing, to want to be good at something but not putting in the time/effort/proper training for it, rather than not caring to improve at it or wanting to master it.
Along with cultivating the right set of circumstances to promote your adherence to a smartly planned training program informed by your own individual goals, strengths, lifestyle, schedule, current fitness level, and climbing-related areas that need work, you’ll most likely need to make a longer-term commitment to training than you might expect or want to. Seeing real-world climbing-performance results from training takes time, and jumping from program to program or only training sporadically with no real consistency will not yield the most effective, efficient results – nor will rigid adherence to a schedule no matter what. A disciplined and committed but also flexible and malleable approach that involves consistency in training along with an understanding that missing one or two workouts here and there really doesn’t matter is the best approach. Too much commitment and a set-in-stone mentality about training can lead right into overtraining and overuse injuries – the topic of the next series.
Training smartly is a long-term endeavor that will always be a work in progress, and you’ll have to have faith that what you’re doing is worth it and will help you improve your climbing ability. Your program will change with the seasons and with your gains from training and with any new knowledge acquired from your not-sends and struggles, too…but at the same time, you’ll want to keep it somewhat consistent so that you do, indeed, see gains in the areas that need the most work. For most people, myself included, the first year or two of training using a more structured, less-“climbing-is-the-only-training-I-need-for-climbing” approach is the most difficult time; it requires a leap of faith because you’ll give up some climbing time, and it also takes a serious amount of time for most people to see real, tangible, on-the-rocks improvement – but boy, when you do, you’ll be likely to get hooked. I certainly did!
Read more about the latest advances in sports psychology in Evidence-Based Applied Sport Psychology: A Practitioner’s Manual. It’s an information-packed (read: dense) and fascinating read on the mind-body connection and why different people benefit more/less from different approaches for mental training.
~ Alli Rainey, prAna Ambassador
Alli Rainey (allirainey.com) discovered rock climbing more than 20 years ago, and it has been a driving passion in her life ever since. After incurring an injury that prompted her to explore training for climbing beyond just climbing itself, the results amazed her so much that she started studying the science of athletic training in earnest. This led her to become an ACTION Certified Personal Trainer (CPT) and a climbing coach. Rainey is also a Yoga Alliance certified yoga instructor (RYT-200) and a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard University. Facebook: /alliraineyclimbing; Twitter/Instagram/LinkedIn: allirainey