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The mental game – Part 1

Climbing is a complex interaction of the body and mind.  Personally it has always been the mental battle that I’ve struggled with.  It both confounds me and fascinates me.  Move for move I’m stronger than a lot of people who are climbing higher grades than me.  But I struggle to commit to the move, to believe in my ability to clip those chains, to focus in right from the start.

I’ve found many tricks along the way that help me send on the day; whether it’s a new motto, a good feeling that I hung on to, another climber that has so much faith in their own climbing and the ability of those around them that I don’t dare disappoint them or a bunch of kids that I am trying not to look like a pansy in front of.  But these are all fleeting and I wonder why others keep their mental strength while mine waxes and wanes.

Illona Pelser on Headology 28 at the Mag Wall in Shongweni. Photo by Micky Wiswedel

Illona Pelser on Headology (28) at the Mag Wall in Shongweni. Photo by Micky Wiswedel

Ask google to find you something about training for climbing and it throws up millions of physical training sites in nano seconds.  But trying to find anything on mental training takes a bit more persistence and careful use of search terms.  How can something which is so integral to our sport have so little information on it?  I dug deeper and found some info to help me out.  There are many parts to the mental challenge when tackling a route so for this first instalment I am going to deal with the pre-climb visualization.

Successful athletes in other sports realise the importance and validity of visualization and use it extensively.  It’s a powerful technique yet I was told the other day that climbers use visualisation less than in other sports.  You’ll often notice a gymnast, a golfer or a sprinter taking deep breaths and focusing in just before they compete.  But how often do you see a climber do the same before a red point attempt?  Perhaps climbers think they have this mental game sussed.  If they train hard enough to crimp the face off a donkey or become powerful enough to just crush the rock with raw strength then all they have to do is keep their fear in check while they’re up there and they’re sorted….right?  This kind of thinking is about as wrong and outdated as wearing brightly coloured spandex to the crags.

Russian scientists and coaches realised the importance of visualization and proved its effectiveness during a study conducted prior to the 1980 Olympics.  Four teams of athletes were grouped according to the following criteria:

  • Group 1 – 100% physical training;
  • Group 2 – 75% physical training with 25% mental training;
  • Group 3 – 50% physical training with 50% mental training;
  • Group 4 – 25% physical training with 75% mental training.

Group 4 showed the greatest improvement in performance while group 1 showed the least.  Simply put, the improvement to performance increased in direct correlation to how much mental training was undertaken.

So what is mental training?  Well there is more to it than just thinking positive.  It’s a technique that is not only useful for increasing your confidence and chances of success but it also stimulates the same neural pathways you need to use those muscles.  It can burn up to 25% of the calories you would burn doing the real exercise.  So if you have not been able to exercise for a while due to injury or illness or simply don’t get out to rock as much as you would like you will perform far better using visualization than without.   Virtual exercise while I’m sitting in traffic bored out of my mind?  Sign me up.

So what is the process?  Part of it is picturing yourself climbing the route as you would like to climb it, imagining yourself doing a successful red point attempt.  The more details you add to your imagined scenario the better. Picture yourself climbing in a relaxed and confident manner.  You are feeling fit and with plenty of energy and power to burn.  You are doing the moves smoothly, enjoying the climb.  You know which holds you will clip from, where you will stop and shake and where you will move through quickly.  Think about the deep breaths you will take, the feeling of the air pumping in and out of your lungs, the way you will slow your heart rate on those rests.

Visualization gets easier as you get more experience under the belt (or harness in this case).  You have more positive previous experiences to refer back to.  You know how it feels to red point that route, to push through a hard section, to hold on even when your forearms are screaming at you, defying gravity and feeling that enormous sense of achievement when you’ve overcome your own mental battle.

Personally I think you have to add in a bit of realism to your visualisation.  And this is something that I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere or heard anyone speak about.  But I think you need to think about how hard things are going to be.  It won’t be a plain sail to the top.  You have to also say “hey body, there are some hard moves up there.  You’re going to have to put in some effort.  But it’s going to be fine, because you’re strong enough.”

The clincher is that we all do visualize all the time….but it’s probably not the type of visualization that is going to help you.  A lot of our visualization is about the fears and doubts we have.  And because our minds do not always distinguish between truth and vivid imagination we often create our own realities.  Becoming aware of your thoughts is a technique in itself.  Thoughts come and go and we don’t even realise how often we doubt ourselves.  Knowing what to do with these thoughts is the next step.

One tip I found on indoorclimbing.com declares that you need to not only try eliminating negative thoughts, but to replace them with positive thoughts.  This is far easier than trying to not think about something.  For instance, I tell you to not think about pink elephants dancing around in tutu’s.  What dance are those silly prancing elephants doing in your head right now?  Let’s rather replace them with prowling tigers.  In the same way we need to replace those silly prancing negative thoughts with more confident positive thoughts.  And if you want to strengthen the reinforcement, try vocalising these positive thoughts.  If you feel daft saying them out loud, whispering them quietly to yourself is just as effective.  (But hey, I think it would be far more fun to get cocky about it.)

They also go on to say “You are what you think, so think what you want yourself to be.”  Visualizing yourself succeeding should be a common part of your weekly training.  Set yourself goals so that you have something to not only train physically towards but to mentally prepare for.

About the Author:  Illona is the organiser of the Renegade Rock Tour and also runs training sessions at Westville Girls High.

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9 Responses to The mental game – Part 1

  1. Andy Davies Aug 2, 2010 at 12:26 pm #

    Nice one Illona – its something we can all improve. Good effort.

  2. Jurgen Aug 2, 2010 at 2:35 pm #

    This is a great article Illona. 15 years ago climbers did a lot more mental prep because we weren’t that strong to start with, now the strong young uns as well as us forgetful oldies seem to have forgotten how important the mental game is.

    Well done

  3. Heinrich Aug 2, 2010 at 3:00 pm #

    Good article Ilona! It really adds something to the discussion, instead of just regurgitating old wisdoms. thanks!

  4. Dr. Rockzo (the rock&roll clown) Aug 3, 2010 at 8:08 am #

    Illona: Maybe you’re just more of a boulderer…? Realize your true nature!

  5. illona Aug 3, 2010 at 9:00 am #

    Oh boy, Rockzo, you’re in so much trouble!

  6. Adele McCann Aug 4, 2010 at 8:28 pm #

    thanks Illona – visualization can definitely make the difference. Drawing the route on paper can also help you remember the moves if you have gaps between visits to your project.

  7. Ricko Aug 5, 2010 at 2:37 pm #

    I realy enjoyed the article. thanks

  8. Chuchin Aug 23, 2012 at 7:24 am #

    Hi James, great advice and enuemragcont as ever. I’m 60 and have put on a few pounds more than I should so it takes me longer to recover from runs these days than when I was younger and very fit. Thing is I still have the same mental drive as before and really pushed myself like I used to until recently when unfortunately I pulled a hamstring in my right leg. This is very painful but most of all really frustrating because now I have to stop running and rest or excercise gently for some weeks just when I was beginning to make progress with weight loss & fitness! I’m doing some swimming with gentle leg movement and taking gentle walks. How long do you think before I can start running again & have you got any advice as to the best way forward? Thanks

  9. Stephan Jan 20, 2013 at 11:04 am #

    Great article, thanks! It reminded me of an interview I saw with Steph Davis, she was talking about the importance of the mental game when climbing, in particular free soloing. She tries to block the thought of falling, most of us do it by telling ourselves that we won’t fall, but in thinking that you still have thought of falling in your mind so she tries to tune it all out. That has really stuck with me and I was amazed how not thinking about not falling has improved my mental ability.

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