Case Study - Mental techniques for Climbing

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Dr Rebecca Williams
Dr Rebecca Williams is a Chartered Clinical Psychologist and Senior Academic Tutor at Bangor University, as well as being a climbing instructor. She runs workshops and private tuition in psychological performance enhancement and movement skills for climbers. Check out www.smartclimbing.co.uk for more details.

Read Rebecca's other UKC article: Psychology in Climbing - Navigating the Minefield


Most people who climb have had the experience of progressing rapidly and then suddenly reaching a plateau. For the lucky few, they can either by luck or design edge themselves out of that plateau, perhaps fuelled by a drive to be better than someone else or reach a particular grade, or perhaps just by getting stronger and fitter. There are now many programs out there designed to tackle stamina and strength, and if they are followed religiously they will result in benefits. However, sometimes better fitness or strength isn't enough. If you find yourself coming out of a long rest phase climbing almost as well as you did beforehand, its likely that there are other factors behind your plateau.

Drawing from the sports psychology literature and working with clients, there are a number of ideas about what might be behind the plateau effect. These can be broadly categorised into problems with attention maintenance and problems with making the most of the strength and skills you already have.

Attention maintenance - what does that mean?! Everyone agrees that climbing requires a high degree of focused attention, but there are a number of things that can get in the way of this. The obvious contender is fear, but perhaps less well known are factors like a lack of slickness with gear placement and ropework which can unsettle you and distract you from the task in hand, and perhaps even less obvious, but something which can often underpin fear, is your underlying motivation to climb. Broadly speaking there are positive motivations to climb, such as the joy of freedom of movement, being outside and the positive effects of the mountain environment. There are also slightly less healthy motivations to climb, which for some people can work really well, but which may turn into demons once you get on a route at your limit.

Take for example Teri * (not her real name). For her, climbing started off as a way to improve her self esteem, but became a way of proving herself to be as good as other people. Of course, there will always be other people who are better than you, and you will always have bad days. When your primary motivation for climbing is about proving something, it can start off being your friend and motivating you, but can leave you feeling worthless and isolated when things don't go so well. Fear in this situation comes not from the objective fear of falling and injury, but from looking foolish in front of other people, of letting herself down, and proving herself to be a worthless person.

When many of us really examine our own motivations to climb, frankly and honestly, we may find some similarities with Teri. However, it is balance that is the key, and for Teri, taking time to explore some of these beliefs, and then trying to remedy the balance through some cognitive-behavioural work (CBT) proved enormously helpful. When the pressure is off you to climb harder and harder, you can begin to enjoy climbing more and that in itself results in a virtuous cycle, where performance and enjoyment continue to improve in synchrony.

For some people, their fear is not routed in some of these “demon” beliefs, but simply in overly focussing on the objective danger of falling. Again, psychology has a long history of working with this type of anxiety, and techniques such as mindfulness (being “in the moment”), and CBT (modifying unhelpful thoughts, beliefs and behaviours, and improving “self talk”) can all be taught and prove beneficial to managing anxiety on the rock. More proactive strategies such as learning to visualise and promote positive experiences through guided imagery, relaxation and self hypnosis can be applied between sessions and in build ups to big climbs. Geoff * (not his real name) benefited from a guided imagery session with deep relaxation before going on to climb his first E4, and cruised through the initial difficulties to the relative safety of a rusty old iron bar! The relaxation set focused on not holding tension anywhere in his body so he could maximise his strength, with the guided imagery including a run through the entire climb, from walking up to the crag, getting geared up, to the moves themselves. Geoff chose the word “focus” as a word we imprinted during the relaxation, which was then used by his belayer during those crucial moments of encouragement.

Returning to the other problem, difficulties with utilising the strength and skills you have, body awareness and body tension, prior planning and flexibility all fall under this umbrella. Again, psychological approaches such as learning how to visualise not only the moves you need to make, but the exact positioning and relative weighting of each part of your body can make a huge difference to your ability to hang on a hold. For example, where are you looking as you make a move? The eyes are a clue as to where your head is, and if you are looking down, then the stone-plus weight of your head will likely be dragging you down too – not great for moves where you are at the limit of your strength or reach.

Gymnasts spend much of their early life developing these body awareness skills and the ability to isolate, tense or relax different muscle groups, through rigorous conditioning exercises. Climbing can result in similar conditioning effects, but there can often be a “translation gap” whereby you know how you want your body to look on the rock in order to make a move, but for some reason you cant quite translate that into the actual movement. This is where intensive body awareness development work can come in useful, and begin the process of learning true visualisation – ie not just planning the sequence of moves you are going to make, but at any point being able to focus your mind on where you want your weight to be, which muscles should be working (and which should not), resulting in the exact response you need from your body. A quick test you can use with yourself is, lie on the floor, try to relax your body, and try to work out where the greatest pressure is. Make it more specific than eg “in my legs” – exactly where in your legs? Which muscle group is that? What is the smallest movement you can make to shift the weight to a different part of your legs? Not so easy is it at that level of detail! Finally, flexibility problems can also add to your difficulty in positioning yourself exactly where you need to be, and many climbers find yoga beneficial not just in terms of flexibility, but also for improving body awareness and mental focus.

All these techniques unfortunately are not a quick fix, and indeed need to be as rigorously applied as a strength and stamina program. They are however about climbing smarter, and making the most of what you have right now, and for that reason they can be beneficial for anyone, whatever level they are at. Not all techniques will work for everyone, but the key to making them work is to take them on as part of your regular climbing routine or training program.




Other Related UKC Articles:

Building Steps Off The Plateau - VS to E1 - Mental Training by Cider Nut

Training - Why Bother? by Simon Lee



More information Smart Climbing

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5 Aug, 2008
Bump. Unusually I didn't disagree with a single word of this article (which is one of the greatest compliments I could give it).
15 Aug, 2008
Rebecca: many thanks for a great workshop. I found the holistic approach to climbing great. I came away with loads to things to think about/learn from/try differently. ... oh and I had loads of fun. Many thanks to all, Peter
17 Aug, 2008
Great Article Rebecca, I got so much from your workshop the other weekend too - putting it into practice now and I am really enjoying climbing again. Thank you so much.
18 Aug, 2008
Also wanted to say thanks for a great workshop. Unique, enthusiastic and well structured, it has given me plenty to think about and my enjoyment and motivation are at a high. Looking forward to the next one