When I started climbing, I had a paralyzing fear of heights and had trouble getting up the sort of routes I see folks send on their first day at the climbing gym. Nowadays it’s quite a different scenario! I’ve made huge gains in my mental fitness and learned to conquer my own fears. Through that process, I’ve learned to help others to do the same, too. Lucky for me, my mind is nothing unique so the methods I’ve used and the way I look at mental fitness can work for anyone! The reason I’ve been able to help people isn’t that I have a unique ability, It’s because I started off completely ordinary. My first time driving on the freeway was terrifying. My first ride on an auto belay scared the poop out of me! Lead climbing took me months to get familiar with! The obstacles for your mental fitness are the same that I’ve dealt with on my path.
The great news is that you don’t have to solo or partake in dangerous climbing to become mentally fit. In fact, most of my practice happens in complete safety! That’s the beauty of climbing, it can be as safe or dangerous as you want it to be, and you can still become as mentally strong as you want! Before we get started on this article I’d like to stress two points: Nobody has to climb the way that I do, and I started in the same place that you did.
There is a great myth among climbers regarding mental training. They seem to think that being afraid is normal and that getting over those fears is a difficult feat reserved for the elite few with superior knowledge. That last part is what I’d like to object to. You don’t need a tremendous amount of knowledge to get more mental fitness for climbing. The problem is that “mental fitness” is ill-defined, so most don’t quite know what it is or why they should even care! Climbing is already fun, right? Isn’t mental training just for people who want to push their limits and climb the hardest routes? Not exactly. Climbing is fun, but it’s a lot less fun if you’re terrified. Mental training is less important to the community at large as a path to climbing hard, and much more potent as a vehicle toward climbing happy and having more fun. Once you’ve maximized the fun, then we can worry about crap like grades!
When folks hear of my soloing, folks tend to ask me about mental training for climbing. As if soloing has given me some advanced perspective that is unattainable for everyone else. I don’t think it has; however, it has caused a lot of people to ask me awkward questions, and those questions caused me to think harder about mental training. Just what is it that’s going on differently in my head from yours? It seems obvious that something is different about the way I climb compared to everyone else, or they’d find soloing just as ordinary as I do. Nothing better, nothing enlightened, just slightly different.
I don’t know everything, not nearly. Or at least I sure as hell hope not, because I don’t know terribly much, and it would be pretty sad for us all if the contents of my head made up “everything.” Furthermore, if I knew everything about climbing, I think I’d have to retire, and that would be doubly sad!
*cough* Excuse me, I digress, but that’s what I do. I do love a good rant… Anyhow, enough about how unqualified I am, let’s get back to the point!
Mental fitness only seems daunting because we view it through a lens of gurus and mythical figures, but in reality, it’s just as trainable as physical fitness. But it’s hard to train well if you don’t know what you are training. If you don’t have a proper target, you’ll never be able to hit it! Today’s article grew more wordy than anticipated, so I don’t have space to include training tactics today, but I hope that I’ll be able to describe the target well enough to get you started in the right direction!
Friends have told me at points that they feel a need to work on their “lead head” or that “I don’t have a head for bouldering.” Another favorite is “I just don’t have the mind for trad.”
Listen, folks, you only have one head. Only one mind. The mind that’s sketched on the hard mantle at the top of a tall boulder is the same mind that is afraid to take practice falls on safe terrain at the gym. We only have one mind, but the mental confidence required for falling on bolts in the gym is different from what’s needed as a trad climber locking horns with a long runout over questionable gear. We all know we only have one brain, but clearly, there is something different happening in each discipline. So the first question I have is “what’s the similarity across these disciplines?” The second question is “what’s different?” It turns out those answers are more related than I’d have thought.
In a sense, I’m peddling semantics. But the point I want to make isn’t one of arbitrary distinctions and terminology rather one that’s simpler and more useful: You only have one mind, so if you have strength in any one aspect of that mind then you have the potential to become strong in every other aspect of that mind. And you all have the ability to strengthen some aspect of your brain. I mean, for most of us, our first time driving a car on the freeway was absolutely terrifying, and now it’s just another Tuesday because you have learned to handle that stress. The same can happen in your climbing just as quickly, but you have to make a conscious effort to practice since nobody is forcing you to climb a rock on your commute to work!
So to me, that’s the biggest myth of mental fitness. Sometimes I hear folks who state “I’ve got my mental game on lockdown for sport, but trad is just too scary. I can’t do that.” To me, that statement is as absurd as hearing someone state that he has massive finger strength, and therefore obviously can’t gain endurance. That’s just plain false. These things don’t exclude one another, rather they work together! They’re all part of a well-rounded climber. Similarly, as building strength has payoffs in your power and endurance, so can strengthening one facet of your mental abilities pay off in other ways that you didn’t at first anticipate.
We all know that physical fitness is a multi-faceted subject and that we can simply improve in the areas we are lacking. Why shouldn’t mental fitness be the same? Just as we have one body with many abilities at different levels, we have one mind and it is powerful in many ways! All we have to do is pay attention to its multiple aspects, and we can learn to bridge the gap between ourselves and our dreams!
What’s the difference?
When you first start climbing, you have no good gauge of how well you can hold on, and no ability to know when you’re likely to fall. And that’s scary because you haven’t learned to trust this whole “top rope” thing. You don’t have that gut-level instinct that tells you the rope is going to catch and you’ll be okay. You haven’t learned to trust the system, and that’s a problem. When you’re new, you can’t trust your abilities, so to prevent being terrified all the time, it’s imperative that you learn to trust the system to catch you. It’s hard to climb well and have fun if your instincts are screaming that you’re about to die!
Another example, when someone like Chris Sharma or Adam Ondra ties into a rope to head up their new project, they aren’t trusting in their ability to send. They know that there’s a chance they could send, but they are well aware that it’s okay if they don’t, so they charge up the wall to find out! When you know you’re safe intellectually, and you feel it instinctively, it’s okay to push your limits. That’s the first part of mental fitness for climbing: Trust in the system. Since each discipline has a slightly different safety system, you will find yourself re-discovering this aspect of fitness multiple times during your climbing career. It’s important for your instincts to be in line with your intellect. The goal is to feel safe everywhere that you know you are safe. That’s the first facet of mental fitness. It’s not a pass/fail sort of thing, but a spectrum. It’s not a matter of fit vs. unfit, but a question of degree. How fit is your mind?
If you are afraid of the consequences of a fall, it means that you do not accept the consequences of falling. We already have a discipline of climbing where the consequences of falling are unacceptable; it’s called free-soloing. Soloists are incredibly limited in what they can climb because of this. If you can’t control your mind, you will be just as limited. What use are strong fingers if the brain can’t use them? Furthermore, whenever you experience fear your body releases adrenaline. In extreme cases, adrenaline is known for giving mothers the ability to lift cars off of babies. Its purpose is to prepare the body for intense bursts of strength and power, but there’s no such thing as a free lunch. This power comes at a cost: Your endurance. Adrenaline changes the metabolic state of your body to prepare for feats of strength, but doing so shuts down the metabolic pathway which clears lactic acid from your system. Once you’re pumped on adrenaline, you stay pumped, and you can’t recover. That is why the fear of falling makes you so much more likely to fall.
On the other hand, sometimes you really can’t afford to fall, and in those scenarios fear can have lethal consequences. Fear is more than just the mind-killer. As you succumb to fear your body releases adrenaline and your heart rate goes up. We outlined the problems with adrenaline earlier, but it has been shown in numerous studies that we lose proper decision-making ability when our heart-rates is red-line. Fear puts us in a state where we are more likely to make poor decisions. Meanwhile, our endurance has been ruined by adrenaline so we can’t just hold on longer to make up for our mistakes. It’s absolutely natural and reasonable to be afraid when your life is on the line, and that’s the problem because fear makes you much more likely to die in situations where it’s reasonable to be afraid. When climbing goes wrong we need our decision-making abilities intact, and we need all the endurance we can muster. While panic may be reasonable, it’s certainly not productive.
Controlling that fear so you can get down to business, make competent decisions, and get to safety is another important facet of mental fitness. It’s also one that will come with you off the wall into your daily life. Climbing is not the only place where it is unproductive to panic in the face of adversity, but climbing does provide a controlled place to practice preserving your equanimity and learn to be the stone resting at peace within the rapids.
In these cases of moderate to extreme danger, you have to trust in your abilities. Being comfortable with falling is often heralded as the prime example of mental fitness for climbers, but this is a terrible oversimplification. Clearly, there is no benefit to being comfortable with falling when it could result in a broken leg. Others consider soloing, bold trad and highball bouldering to be examples of mental fitness, despite the fact that these disciplines require avoiding falls. When Alex Honnold soloed El Sendero Luminoso, I don’t believe he was comfortable with the idea of falling. When Michael Reardon onsight-soloed “Romantic Warrior” (700’ 5.12b), I don’t think he relied on any trust in his system or gear; There was no gear. Soloing is a simple system. Had they fallen they would have perished. But then, I guess that’s the point. It’s an entirely different form of mental fitness. When you can’t trust the system to save you, you’d better be able to trust yourself. Otherwise, you’re going to have a very bad time.
And finally, there is a sport-psychology aspect to climbing. Even for those who feel safe when they truly are safe and who trust their abilities to send the climb when things get scary, they may be reluctant to give it their all when the moves get hard. They might simply not want to, there might be a lack of motivation to push limits. Or perhaps you’re like I was a couple years ago… I wanted to get stronger, I was training and thought I was doing everything right, but I wasn’t progressing an inch. I had plateaued. Nearby I spied a guy I’d only seen in the gym a couple of times crushing boulders I could only dream of. Bouldering strength; THAT is what I was lacking! So I asked him “How do I get stronger?” After a short couple of questions back and forth about my training and goals, Andrew Perry looks straight at me and says “huh, yeah, that all sounds about right, I think you just might need to try harder.”
And the worst part? It turns out he was right! I held my training grip on the fingerboard twice as long on my next attempt. Clearly, I hadn’t been trying hard enough, but I had been suckered into my own myth and believed I was trying as hard as I could. I needed an outside perspective to shake my thought pattern up. And that’s the trick with sports psychology: Learn to try harder and believe you can do it. You don’t have to believe that you can do it now, just that you can get there someday if you try hard. If you can’t believe it, how can you achieve it?
Three aspects of Mental Fitness:
I break climbing down into three categories of mental fitness:
Those subjects are the unifying thread across all disciplines of climbing, what makes each type of climbing feel different in the mind is how much you need each of those types of mental strength. Just as bouldering and big-wall have different demands on Strength, Power, and Endurance, they also require different amounts of trust in the system, trust in your abilities, and letting go of preconceived notions to see success.
The first step towards mental fitness is trust. You have to learn to trust your safety system and your partner. Otherwise, you’ll be as terrified as if you were soloing every single time you climb. Trust is why folks consider the ability to fall as a sign of mental fitness. Trust gives you the ability to feel comfortable in a place which once was scary. The second step, which is especially important when you climb outside, or if you climb trad, is confidence. This is the reason some folks think of soloists as mentally strong. However, the soloist’s greatest gift can quickly become a crutch that holds you back.
By learning to trust their abilities to a greater extent, many climbers fail to gain confidence in the system. After all, nobody is afraid when they don’t believe they will fall! These folks are often seen calling “TAKE!” as soon as they encounter moves that they’re not sure they can complete. Meanwhile, there are those who trust the system very well but have no confidence in their own abilities. Whenever you see someone fail to try a move with full effort, or you see them jump off the wall and “take the whip” instead of trying a hard move, this is because their trust in the system has become a crutch and a hindrance. Falling has become their new comfort zone, and their confidence in falling has surpassed confidence in their own abilities, so they are more willing to fall than try a move that feels uncertain.
The good news is that you don’t always need to trust your own abilities.
I love watching video clips from Chris Sharma’s process while he was projecting “Jumbo Love.” The climb was so hard that he truly felt each attempt was in vain and was sure to end with a 60ft fall through free space before the rope came tight. Knowing the fall path was clean, he trusted his belay system entirely, and he let go of weighing his own abilities. Instead of passing judgment on his fingers and wasting time and energy on deciding if the move was possible, he just tried it. If you want to truly climb your hardest, you have to let go of the outcome and just try the move. It’s a scientific experiment. We need the willingness to try uncertain and challenging moves by letting go of your judgments of what is possible or impossible. How many times have you achieved moves you thought were impossible? If it’s happened before, it can certainly happen again, but if you decide the move is impossible and jump off without fully trying… You’ll never actually know if it was impossible or not.
And if you fall?
It was a successful experiment! Use this moment to think and ask yourself “why?” Why did you fall? Was it an error down low? Could you have used better technique? Are your fingers simply too weak? In answering this question, you learn how to become a better climber. Ask it as often as you can, after you’ve asked it many times on many efforts you’ll see patterns arise, and only then can you know what the weakest links are in your climbing. Only then will you see the easiest path to gains in your abilities.
Remember folks, sending is only a demonstration of strength and skills that you already possess! It is only through repeated and calculated failure that we can improve, so get out there and try the moves!
There really are only two possible outcomes: If you stick it, then you’ve succeeded in sending the impossible! If you fall, then you’ve succeeded in learning about your climbing! In a very literal sense, failure simply isn’t an option.