Mindset training: how to engage your attention for better climbing
By Josie McKee
What is mindset training?
Simply put, mindset training for climbers enhances the ability to engage attention on climbing movement. Our mindset is a set of beliefs, which inform the perceptions of self and surroundings. How we view ourselves as climbers, how we show up to our sessions and how we perform are influenced by our mindset. Our mindset determines the direction of our attention: our thoughts, emotions and behaviors. What we direct our attention on (how we think, feel and act) determines the quality (our performance and our enjoyment) of climbing.
For example: You believe you aren’t “good” at steep climbing. When confronted with steep climbs you have thoughts of inadequacy and feelings of stress. Your behavior is either to avoid it altogether or when you do climb on steep rock, your attention is on these negative self-perceptions. As a result, your movement lacks confidence, you overgrip, then pump out and fall, resulting in “failure.” You feel frustrated. This process reinforces the belief that you aren’t good at steep climbing. And the cycle continues. In order to shift your mindset and therefore your performance, you have to change something in this cycle.
Let’s say instead of thinking “I’m not good at it,” you ask: “What can I learn about moving on steep rock?” Sparking a sense of curiosity engages the cognitive, information gathering parts of your brain, which refocuses your attention, reducing your stress response and enhancing your ability to focus on the climbing itself. When your attention is directed to learning, your anxiety over your performance dissipates. With enhanced focus, you move with more efficiency and precision and don’t get as pumped. With enough repetition, you start thinking: hmm maybe I’m not so bad at steep climbing… you trust your movement more and you start enjoying it more. And eventually you believe: I am pretty good at steep climbing! Because you have actually improved. A slight shift in attention changed your behavior, leading to a belief change, resulting in a performance change.
So how do we make that shift?
In 2016, I was, at least from an external perspective, at the peak of my climbing career. Almost every time I went out, I was climbing something bigger, harder or faster than before. I had my eyes set on first ascents and speed records. But climbing wasn’t fun anymore, in fact, most days I dreaded going. I had just finished a three-year tenure working on the Yosemite Search and Rescue team, where I had regularly responded to climbing accidents and hikers falling from high places. The combination of performance pressure and vivid memories of accidents made climbing extremely stressful. On one occasion I just froze. I was on the sixth pitch of a new route and on easy enough terrain, but was unable to commit to the moves upward or the idea of downclimbing and bailing. I just couldn’t make a decision. For the first time since I was a beginner, my climbing partner had to talk me down. It was then I realized I needed to do something different. I began studying performance psychology and neuroscience. I hired a mindset coach and I intentionally trained my mindset. This article shares the methods I used to go from having extreme anxiety every time I climbed, to setting speed records, sending my hardest routes and, most importantly, loving climbing again.
This article offers a three-part mindset training system to engage your attention, improving the quality of your climbing experience: 1. Acknowledge: acknowledge your attention to build awareness of instinctual and habitual responses. 2. Compose: manage your responses to gain composure. 3. Engage: trust your skills and decision making to engage attention for optimal climbing performance.
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Mindset training begins with acknowledging where our attention is directed and where we would like to direct it. It is helpful to spend a few climbing sessions intentionally developing awareness of your thoughts, emotions and behaviors and how they positively and negatively impact your experience. What thoughts do you have that make you feel motivated, stressed, frustrated, etc? How does this affect how you behave? Do you avoid certain climbs and get excited for others? Do you get more stressed when onsighting or redpointing? Do you commit to some hard moves and back off of others? Why? Most answers are based on our stress response and/or motivation. I recommend reflecting back and taking notes at the end of each climbing session. It can also be helpful to discuss these details with your climbing partners.
Understand your stress response:
The experience of stress has three components: a cue, our response to the cue and the outcome of the response. Climbing is riddled with potential stressors, which can cue physiological and psychological stress responses. How we respond to these stressors is a blend of innate and conditioned reactions. For many of us, fear of heights is innate and the need to perform well was culturally conditioned early in our lives. These are the common foundations of the subconscious beliefs that falling and failing are threats to our survival. The possibility of falling and the pressure to perform can therefore be powerful stress cues. Many climbers have additional conscious thoughts that enhance these stress cues, such as: I’m not strong enough, I don’t remember the beta, I’ll break my legs if I fall, etc.
Our nervous system and our behaviors both play a part in our response to stress. When confronted with a stressful situation, our autonomic nervous system doesn’t differentiate between physical threats and psychological threats. In either situation, when we perceive a threat, the sympathetic nervous system readies us to respond to danger: it elevates our heart and respiratory rates, increasing the delivery of oxygen rich blood to our large muscle groups, in order to fight the danger or run away – the “fight or flight” response. Our vision narrows to focus on the threat. Higher cognitive function diminishes, because in a life threatening situation there’s no time to be making complex decisions – we must act now! As the body allocates resources to only what is necessary in that moment to survive, the digestive system doesn’t make the cut either. This can cause a sense of tightness in the gut, nausea or the need to run to the bathroom. A few examples of habitual behavioral responses to stress include: adjusting our grip repeatedly, climbing up and down, not committing to a move, grabbing the quickdraw instead of falling, avoiding leading in the first place, etc. The outcomes: simply put, the quality of our climbing is diminished. We perform poorly and the fun is drained out of the experience.
Armed with a little info about how stress works, take time to observe your stress responses. Do you notice any habits or patterns of when and how stress affects your climbing? Can you describe the thoughts and sensations that you experience? How do you behave when stressed? Work on articulating stress cues, responses and outcomes. Recognizing stress response habits, particularly noticing early warning signs of stress is the first step to managing stress.
Define your motivation:
Motivation is the other big thing that impacts our attention, either by diminishing or improving focus. Do you know what your motivation is for climbing? To make motivation work for your attention, take the time to define why you climb. Try reflecting back on a favorite climbing experience: Where were you? Who were you with? What was going on around you? How did your body feel? Were you focused on a specific goal or excited about something? Why was this experience a highlight?
With clarity on your motivation for climbing, it’s easier to see when your attention is serving your purpose in climbing and when it is not. Next time you climb, take inventory of your attention before, during and after:
- Do you feel pressure to perform?
- Does pressure make you more or less motivated?
- Do you get easily frustrated when faced with a challenging climb or crux sequence or do you feel driven to figure it out?
- How do your climbing partners impact your motivation (either positively or negatively)?
- Is your attention during your climbing session aligned with why you climb?
- What detracts from your motivation and what can you do to change that in your everyday climbing?
- What adds to your motivation and how can you bring it into your everyday climbing?
In order to engage attention in an effective way, we have to start from a place of composure. Again, the thoughts, emotions and behaviors that derail our attention are usually stress and/or motivation related. Once we acknowledge where our attention is directed (stress, frustration, etc) and where we would like our attention to be directed (why are we climbing, what is the current objective?), then we can apply methods to gain composure of stress and/or motivation.
Composure under stress:
Our autonomic nervous system functions as a two-way street. A perceived threat can cause a sympathetic response: elevated heart rate, elevated respiratory rate, narrow vision, decreased cognitive function, uncomfortable tightness in the core, etc. On the other hand, if we consciously do the opposite of these automatic responses, we can signal a sense of safety. When you’re feeling stressed, try these tactics: slow your breathing, particularly focusing on extending the duration of your exhale; look out at the landscape, using a soft focus with attention to your peripheral vision; engage your cognitive function by labeling your stressful thoughts and feelings and what is causing them; focus on your core, relaxing your abdominal muscles. These can all counteract the sympathetic nervous system response. It is also helpful to plan an alternate behavior in place of your usual habitual behavior, such as committing to a move and falling rather than grabbing the quickdraw.
I discuss rehearsal in the next section of this article: “Engage,” so I won’t go into it in detail here, but these tools can also be helpful in reducing stress cues, specifically: rehearse moves to reduce performance anxiety, rehearse falls to reduce the fear of falling, use words to a sense of cue calm rather than stress. Reducing stress cues by rehearsal is particularly useful for projecting.
If you notice a motivational distraction, such as frustration, lack of interest or avoidance of specific aspects of climbing, gaining composure can usually be done by reframing. Remind yourself why you’re climbing, both in the big picture and the objective for this particular session. Ask yourself a few questions, such as: How does this objective fit into why you enjoy climbing? How is this session serving your climbing in the long run? What is causing you to feel/behave this way? What is one small action you can take to find success in this session?
The ability to compose yourself on command doesn’t happen overnight. Often stress and motivation simultaneously contribute to inattention. It’s useful to practice a combination of methods to calm your stress response and reframe your motivation. Keep working on these skills and take note of what works best for you.
Engaged attention enables us to be present with the movement of climbing, allowing for optimal performance and enjoyment of the experience. We are able to be present with rock climbing when we show up composed and we trust our movement and our decision making. Training to engage your attention is therefore focused on increasing self trust while climbing. This can be done throughout a climbing session, from beginning to middle and end.
Warm up with intention:
Some type of warm up is probably already in your climbing routine. Utilizing this solely as a physical warm up is a missed opportunity. Warm ups are a time to warm your mind up to being present with rock climbing movement. Begin with intentionally cuing a sense of calm with breath, soft focus and relaxed core. Check in with your motivation. While climbing, focus your attention on moving well and trusting your intuitive climbing movement. Here are two specific warm up drills that can help you tap into your sense of trust in movement:
- No adjustment: wherever you place your hands and feet, move off of them in that position. If you’re warming up on easy enough terrain, you shouldn’t need to adjust. Moving thisway will improve your confidence and transfer to harder climbs.
- Foot placement: after you move your hands, you will look down to move your foot. Focus on the first place your vision falls and place your foot exactly there. We have an intuitive sense of where we need to put our feet for optimal balance based on our hand position and this is where we will look. However, usually we will then look around a little more for a better foothold. If you’re warming up on easy enough terrain, you shouldn’t need a better foothold. Just place your foot and move!
As climbers, most of us are familiar to some degree with rehearsing sequences. We often rehearse crux sequences on projects to refine the moves, in order to execute them as part of the longer sequence of the route or boulder. As a method for improving attention this is helpful, because it removes the distraction of needing to make decisions while climbing and it boosts confidence because we know what moves to do. However, simply rehearsing which hand and foot goes where in which order, falls short of complete rehearsal. In addition to knowing what moves to do we need to know how to do the moves. Below are components to incorporate in rehearsal:
- Sequence: the classic, which hand and foot go where in which order.
- Tension and position: pay attention to which muscles need to be engaged and in which positions as you move through the sequence. (This requires a good amount of proprioception and can be refined down in ever smaller increments. It can be very useful to film yourself and/or get some movement coaching.) Don’t forget to
include your clipping positions within this rehearsal!
- Resting and breathing: pay attention to where you rest and how to relax as much as possible in that position. Practice breathing: full, deep breaths with prolonged exhales help to slow your heart rate and calm you down to more effectively recover during a rest.
- Feeling: If you’ve mastered your awareness of your stress response, you can probably start recognizing how you feel in your body when you’re stressed versus calm. Before rehearsing a sequence, remind yourself why you’re there, what you enjoy about climbing, cultivate the feeling of enjoying the experience, trusting your movement, etc. As you rehearse how to do the moves, also rehearse how you want to feel doing the moves: strong, powerful, confident!
- Words: these can be in the form of thoughts as internal dialogue or “self-talk” or verbal prompts from your partner. In an ideal world, when executing a hard sequence, we should just be climbing, not thinking. However, the complete absence of thought is fairly rare to achieve throughout the length of an entire climb. Verbal cues can be very useful to remind you of something critical. This can be a reminder about a subtle piece of tension/position beta, such as: “shift your hips to the left” or it can be a mental cue, like: “the fall is safe” or “trust your foot.”
- Falling: if the thought of falling ever enters your mind while climbing, it distracts you, taking some focus away from optimal performance. I want to acknowledge that not all falls are safe to take: you need to decide in every circumstance if the climbing is worth the possible consequence of falling. With that noted, if there’s a fall that you worry about on a route that you want to climb, you have two options of reducing this distraction: practice taking the fall, so you know how it feels and that it’s ok to take it OR refining the beta on top rope to a point that you feel like the likelihood of you taking the fall is low enough (for your own risk tolerance), given the possible consequence of the fall. Again, this is a decision you need to take the responsibility of making for yourself in every circumstance! If you decide you want to rehearse the fall, here are a few tips: 1. Make sure you have a belayer you’re comfortable with (especially that they are good at giving soft catches!). 2. Don’t just rehearse falling, rehearse feeling the way you want to feel when you fall. If you take a bunch of practice falls, but you’re stressed out every time you take them, you are just conditioning yourself to be stressed when you fall. This won’t help reduce the distraction of falling and at worst it may even be counter-productive. Instead, practice getting into a calm, confident state, then take the fall. 3. If it’s stressful for you to take a particular fall, start small with something you are comfortable with and incrementally increase it.
- Visualization: visualization can help solidify what you've rehearsed in real life. It can also help you discover what information is lacking from your rehearsal. Are there moves you can’t quite remember when attempting to visualize? Make sure to focus on these components next time you’re on the climb in real life. Within your visualizations remember to include how you want to feel while moving on the rock.
Many climbers use rehearsal for projecting, which improves the ability to engage attention specifically on that climb and therefore send the project. To improve attention engagement as a general skill for your climbing, I highly recommend using these methods on repeats of onsight level climbs (or a grade or two harder, but easier than your project limit).
Always find success:
If you climb a lot, you know: not every climbing session is going to be “good.” In order to maintain motivation to keep trying hard things and trust your movement and decision making, it’s important to consistently experience success. It’s easy to get caught up in the mindset that falling = failure and success = sending. If you stick with these narrow definitions, you’re probably going to have a lot more sessions of climbing that are not “good” (and probably a number of sessions that are downright bad). If you are familiar with your motivation for climbing, you can find success in any number of things that feed that motivation. Let’s say learning and improving are reasons why you climb. Before climbing ask yourself: what do I want to explore on this climb? Afterwards, reflect back: what did you learn? How can you apply it to the next climb? By reframing goals for our climbing sessions and then reflecting back with those goals in mind, we can almost always find success!
FINAL NOTES ON MINDSET TRAINING
Mindset training doesn’t mean we stop experiencing unhelpful mindsets. It’s easy to fall back into old habits. Sometimes falling scares me. I get frustrated when I fall off my projects repeatedly. When I’m getting ready for a big objective, I still feel that sense of anxiety. A year into mindset training, the dread of climbing resurfaced after I watched my climbing partner fall 100 feet, suffering from life-changing injuries. But because of mindset training, those old habits don’t take over the whole experience. I can calm down and quickly assess the actual risk of a fall and decide whether to commit. Frustration usually only lasts for a few moments, before I acknowledge it and refocus my attention. When I feel anxiety prior to big days, I spend some time calming my nervous system, reframing my motivation, visualizing how I want the day to go. After the accident, I gave myself a break. I just top-roped for several weeks and I didn’t try anything hard until I felt my sense of trust return. Having a system has allowed me to move through unhelpful mindsets more efficiently and re-engage with climbing.
The process of acknowledging attention, gaining composure and engaging attention can be scaled across multiple situations in climbing. Consider these concepts in planning your climbing trips, projects, training schedule, etc. Where is your attention directed and where would you like to direct it to serve your climbing goals? What do you need to manage to maintain “composure” (ie reduce stress and increase motivation) for the long haul? What do you need to incorporate in your sessions regularly to keep building a sense of trust and presence in your climbing? On a smaller scale, use these methods throughout individual climbing sessions (as described in this article). As you refine the techniques, they can be applied more immediately in the moment, for example, at a rest before executing a hard sequence: acknowledge where your attention is directed, compose yourself, know that you trust your movement and decision making and engage by being present in the climbing movement. Finally, to get results with mindset training (just like with physical training!) consistency is key. Keep training!
ABOUT JOSIE MCKEE
Josie is an adventure athlete and mindset coach, who splits time between her home in Lander, WY and traveling to climb big walls in Yosemite. Through years of her own struggle with the inherent stress in adventure sports, along with study of performance psychology and neuroscience, she came to understand that the focus required to perform under stress is what creates peak experiences within these activities. She founded Mind Athlete to provide mindset coaching and training resources, helping athletes find enjoyment in peak performance.