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How to Mentally Train

I know that mental-preparation routines can be hugely beneficial for climbers, but the books never tell you how to fit these in when you're hanging out with your buddies. What routines do you recommend and how can you do these before a climb without looking like a geek?

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I know that mental-preparation routines can be hugely beneficial for climbers, but the books never tell you how to fit these in when you’re hanging out with your buddies. What routines do you recommend and how can you do these before a climb without looking like a geek?

—Tim Johnson | Laramie, Wyoming

The main reason climbers neglect mental preparation is because it’s so easy to get distracted. This is ironic when you consider that the main reason to do these routines is to reduce distractions! Of course, this isn’t an issue with most other athletic sports or even for competition climbing, where mental prep routines are accepted as commonplace. Conversely, it’s hard to concentrate when you are hanging out with your pals. A good tip is to use your first warm-up route to get focused. Climb slowly and breathe deeply. If the route is sufficiently easy, you’ll have plenty of opportunity to run through a few of your favorite mental-preparation strategies, especially when hanging out on rests. Another trick is to sneak off for a little walk just before gearing up. If you attempt your mental prep when gearing up, of course, your buddies will keep interrupting you, but the key to a versatile routine for climbing is that it can be picked up and put down at whim. Don’t be fazed if you are distracted. Simply stop the routine, make conversation, and then resume when it’s convenient. A quieter partner might give you plenty of space, but a master conversationalist may only offer a few scarce moments, so come up with a mental prep routine that can be condensed, even to less than a minute in total. In my opinion, the shorter routines work better anyway. In any case, it’s worth asking your partner for a few quiet moments before you send. I don’t think many folks will have issues with clamming up and respecting your wish.

There are many books on mental preparation for climbers, such as Arno Ilgner’s iconic texts, The Way of the Rock Warrior and Espresso Lessons, but I usually split my routine into the following areas. The first is to relax and focus, where you simply breathe deeply and become aware of your immediate surroundings. The next is to deal with doubts by finding positive outcomes, a technique known as black boxing. The idea is to post all your concerns into a metaphorical safe house, so that they don’t re-surface and detract from your performance. The next is a quick visualization routine, if it’s a redpoint, then rehearse the moves, and if it’s an onsight then just imagine yourself climbing well. Always visualize as if you’re actually climbing the route (as opposed to viewing yourself on a TV screen) and try to incorporate as many senses as possible: sights, sounds, the tension in your muscles, the friction of the rock and so on. Don’t rush and make sure that the difficulty of the climbing is realistic, if you dream that it’s going to be a path then you’ll set yourself up for a shock.