Mindfulness in Climbing

Austrian sports psychologist and climber Madeleine Eppensteiner explains the ubiquitous social media obsession with 'mindfulness.' What is it, and how can it be applied to climbing?

What exactly is mindfulness? I started asking myself this question when my Instagram feed was seemingly obsessed with it, as were most magazines I came across and cool hipster cafés I liked visiting. They all shared the same message: 'Be more mindful!', 'Calm down and enjoy the moment.' 'Focus on yourself, on the present!'

Focusing on the present is often easier in the outdoors. , 222 kb
Focusing on the present is often easier in the outdoors.
© Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media

It's easy to say 'calm down, focus on the here and now.' However, having been confronted with this trend of mindfulness, I got curious to find out more about it and did a lot of research. Mindfulness had become really big in sports as well, so I saw the potential for a new strategy to be applied when working with my athletes in a sports psychology context, particularly in climbing. After having explored mindfulness both theoretically and practically, I think I can say that I am now totally converted! I now understand why so many people write or talk about it – whether on social media or in 'real life'.

So again, what is mindfulness?

Mindfulness aims to focus on the present moment. Instead of thinking about the future or past, we should concentrate on the here and now. Let's give you an example: Do you still remember exactly how your cup of tea tasted this morning? We are often on autopilot mode, doing things automatically – such as drinking tea in the morning, or brushing our teeth. Another example is that we tend to already be thinking of the future while doing a certain task, such as wondering about what to do next after drinking tea (e.g. 'I have to get ready for work, or 'what do I still need to pack for work?'). This could also apply to competition climbing. We might sometimes find ourselves already thinking of our next route or boulder while climbing another one, or we might hope that something will end soon while we are still in the middle of a task. Mindfulness aims to become aware of such thoughts and behaviours. To start with, it is important to listen to ourselves and recognise our feelings. Easy questions such as the following can help to create awareness: What am I currently doing? How am I doing it? How am I feeling while doing it?

Mindfulness: the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something., 191 kb
Mindfulness: the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.
© Peter Crane

Mindfulness also aims to be intentional, and last but not least, non-judgemental. What does this mean – 'non-judgemental'?

Based on experiences we have made in the past or expectations we have, we tend to judge things and/or situations – often unconsciously. In turn, such judgements evoke certain reactions. Let's give you an example: If we are bad at slopers and we see a boulder problem that involves slopers, our natural reaction could be, 'Oh my god, this is hard! This is my absolute anti-style, I can't do this.' Another example from competition climbing would be, 'All the other girls climbed up to this point, this must be a really hard move! What if I fall there as well?' I'm sure most of us have made judgements like these. We often judge situations either positively or negatively, which in turn has an impact on how we react. If we judge a route negatively we are more likely to become nervous, fall earlier or exhibit other forms of negative behaviour.

In contrast, mindfulness aims to observe situations non-judgementally. Sit down and try to look at a boulder problem/route and write down what you objectively observe. Accept the boulder/route as it is but don't judge it (negatively or positively) based on personal experiences, expectations, strengths or weaknesses. (A longer and more generic exercise to practise is included at the end of this article).

Relaxation techniques such as yoga can complement mindfulness exercises, 156 kb
Relaxation techniques such as yoga can complement mindfulness exercises
© Fabian Hochheimer

Climbing itself is a very mindful sport. In order to climb a route or boulder, it's vital to be in complete focus and in the present. We all know that as soon as we think about something else while climbing (like 'Oh, I could fall' or 'What will I eat for dinner?') it becomes really hard to stay on the wall and not get pumped or too distracted. However, the essential extra element of mindfulness – not judging movements or situations – is very important and something that can and should be trained in climbing in order to foster better performance and well-being.

Mindfulness training can be very well implemented into competition training, where we have to learn to not focus on others but on ourselves. Comparing ourselves to others can be poisonous for our performance, particularly for athletes who are very nervous before competing. One aim of mindfulness training is to develop more tranquillity. By training to be more mindful we can positively influence our negative thoughts and concentrate on the moment. The more mindful we are, the more we focus on ourselves and observe the route we have to climb non-judgementally, the better our performance might be.

Being mindful makes you more aware of your surroundings, as well as of your own mental state., 80 kb
Being mindful makes you more aware of your surroundings, as well as of your own mental state.
© Peter Crane

Mindfulness training can also be used successfully in non-competitive climbing, indoors and out, and especially in fear of falling training. In our performance-driven society, we are becoming less willing to make room for fear and insecurity. We therefore often forget that being afraid of something is natural and that we are absolutely allowed to be afraid sometimes. Accepting our current state of emotion as it is – non-judgementally – is an essential part of mindfulness and can be very well trained. Here is a short mindfulness exercise which can be used for competitions, personal performance or combatting fear of falling:


You are a restaurant, the feelings are your guests.

If they knock on your door, you neither ignore them, nor do you build barricades. Remember that if you don't ignore them, they won't keep ringing the doorbell, poop on your doormat or find their way through the back door.

You don't have much choice on who will be visiting you. For this reason, you open the door for everyone and welcome them warmly.

You let them enter just the way they are – the small ones as well as the big ones: sweaty fear, bloody pain, hot anger, glowing joy.

Afterwards you name them. But you don't say 'I am sad', 'I am upset' or 'I am scared'. Instead – and this is a great trick that makes it a lot easier – you say: 'Oh, here is Fear' or 'Look, over there is Anger'.

They are guests of your restaurant but not the restaurant itself.

They are there, but they aren't you. They don't define you.

You are aware of them; you let them stay as long as they want. But you also know that all guests eventually move on and leave your restaurant – all of them, even the most difficult feelings.

There are numerous apps and websites online with exercises and podcasts based around mindfulness and meditation. Have a look and find something that works for you! Some are specifically tailored to sports, whilst others are geared towards everyday relaxation. Headspace is a good place to start.

UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Madeleine Eppensteiner

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