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Mental Training Made Simple

Ten maxims to get your mind right.

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This article was published in Rock and Ice issue 196 (September 2011).


Many climbers shy away from the subject of mental training, partly
because the benefits can seem less tangible than those of physical training, and also because the subject can appear excessively complicated. Entire
books are devoted to mental training, but the topic can be boiled down to a relatively short list of fundamental problems and solutions.

In this article, I list 10 important mental-training tips. Use the list to troubleshoot and address your own specific mental weaknesses.

1. Do a pre-climb mental routine.

Everyone understands the importance of a physical warm-up, but most climbers question the value of mental preparation. In high-pressure situations,
we get anxious and want to rush through; but the best way to neutralize your worries is to face them with control. Pre-climbing mental prep
does not have to involve sitting around and meditating. The prep can be performed during your warm-up climbs and in cool-off periods. It should
be personalized to your own requirements and you should be able to condense it into different time frames (e.g.: from 5 minutes to 30 seconds).
Practice regularly during normal training sessions. Don’t attempt to use a mental-prep routine for the first time in a high-stress situation.
A sample routine follows:

> Tune in to your environment. Acknowledge your immediate surroundings, including potential distractions. Breathe deeply and relax.

> Visualize. Rehearse the sequence, or if you don’t know it, then just imagine yourself climbing well in the first person and in real time.
Take your time. Make the image feel as real as possible. Don’t imagine the route being easy, rather that you are coping with the difficulty.

> Black box. List all the factors that are worrying you, come up with some positive solutions and then place them in an imaginary “black box.”
Return to the box and open it after the ascent, and you will find that the majority of your worries were unfounded. This helps you to trust
the process further in the future.

> Give yourself a final pep talk using positive words. Smile. Listen to music that helps to raise the mood.

2. Shift the focus from training.

If you have been unable to train, then your only option is to focus on the other factors that will assist your performance. Climbing requires skill,
mental performance and technique. The best performances are produced by drawing on all these factors.

3. Improve preparation tactics.

If you make a habit of arriving at the crag or at a competition with trashed tips and aching muscles, then look directly at resting
rather than pinning your hopes on a mental-training solution.

4. Shift the focus from preparation tactics.

In high-stress situations we all have a tendency to attach too much significance to the way we feel or to minor flaws in
our preparation. Be sure to remind yourself of previous occasions when you climbed well with thin skin, or when feeling
less than optimally recovered.

5. Take regular falls
(onto bolts or good trad gear).

If you are scared or even slightly nervous about falling onto bolts or bomb-proof trad gear, it’s probably
because you don’t do it regularly. One solution is to get on a route that is so hard that you will be forced
to fall. Alternatively, set up some test falls in a practice environment at the wall or crag. Use the dynamic
belay method and do not attempt this unless you and your climbing partner are aware of all relevant safety
issues.

Note that this is probably the most powerful and effective mental-training tool of all.

6. Flip the negative.

Consider that a big run-out means that you are less likely to get pumped because you won’t have
to stop and place gear. A route with a hard crux move may be less sustained, and a route that
is sustained may be less cruxy. A poor piece is better than no gear at all. A fear of falling
onto poor trad gear is a healthy trait that will help you to stay alive. Nerves can bring out
the best in your performance. In general, if you feel down, the only way is up. If you don’t
expect to do well, then the pressure is off and you may surprise yourself!

7. Move the finishing line.

If you are prone to blowing it at the anchors then imagine there are still another
two or three clips to go. This can have the effect of helping you stay calm and
prevent punting at the top.

8. Believe in the next position.

If you are prone to giving up when you are pumped or scared remember that
the next hold may be the good one that leads you to a rest or a runner.
Always slap for it!

9. Stay in the present tense.

In high-stress situations the mind often wanders forwards or
backwards in order to escape the trauma of the present.
This mental sense of remove, however, will increase anxiety
levels and dilute the effectiveness of your actions. Whether
it is tying in at the base, placing a runner, or searching
for a foothold, always stay focused on the task at hand.

10. Don’t wish for it to be different.

The mental-training guru Arno Ilgner was one of
the first to point out that climbers have a
habit of wanting holds to get bigger or runouts
to get smaller. The climb is what it is, and
that’s why you want to climb it! If you had
wanted something easy, you wouldn’t be there.
Rejoice in the difficulty and rise to the challenge.


Neil Gresham has been training and coaching for two decades. In 2001, he made the second ascent of Equilibrium (E10 7a/5.14X) on Peak District gritstone, and last year established Freakshow (8c/5.14b) at Kilnsey, also in the U.K. On October 13, 2016 he made the first ascent of Sabotage—an 8c+ (5.14c) extension to Predator (8b/5.13d) at Malham Cave, North Yorkshire, England. Sabotage is Gresham’s first climb of the grade.