by Philip Sabado
The end of 2019 was a year of great climbing for me. I felt gains in my training with Climb Strong and I was breaking through a long plateau.
But when the pandemic hit, all hell broke loose, which forced every single climber to adjust their climbing and training.
I grew frustrated and impatient that the world was slowing down at a time when I felt the most success in my climbing. I was frothing at the mouth to progress, but was forced to carefully consider how my climbing and training fit into the life adjustments that the pandemic made for me. In my attempts to climb stronger during the pandemic, I had little time for climbing and I found myself making more excuses for why I couldn’t send a project or execute a hard move. Most of these excuses were centered around my height.
As a 30-something-year-old man, being 5 feet tall with a plus 1 ape index and 100 pounds soaking wet, this made reachy climbs the bane of my existence. I used to let my height dictate my performance. Over time, I came to understand that this mindset only further held me back.
2022 was a year of great climbing insights for me as a shorter climber. It took tremendous mental shifts and specific training to overcome my shortcomings (pun intended) while climbing. When I finally leaned into widening my climbing tool kit, practiced activating flow state, and developed a mastery mindset, I found fulfillment in my climbing that I never experienced before.
A common obstacle I worked through with my Climb Strong coach, Andrew Caraballo, was how to overcome out-of-reach movements while climbing. I struggled to learn how to command moves that felt dangerously close to my limit while also feeling far from grasp. I used to get really frustrated watching taller climbers send things with ease while I struggled to hit a hold.
My frustrations would manifest in statements of negative self-talk with the most common theme being, “I can’t wait to not reach that!”
But eventually, I found a lot of inspiration from Marina Inoue, who stated that, “99% of the time you’re not too short to do a move, you’re just not strong enough. And you can’t get taller, but you can always get stronger.”
From this, Andrew and I had to get surgical with my training sessions. With Andrew living multiple states away from me, we were forced to take advantage of our resources to create a partnership focused on feedback and understanding to get stronger in a specific way.
In working remotely with my coach, I would often film climbing attempts to help identify opportunities to train. This eventually led to specific training regarding dead points, campusing, dynamic movements, lock-offs, and hand-foot matches to close the distance in reaching for the next hold.
Understanding that I have more alternative courses of action to conquer these problems allowed me to think more creatively about my climbing. Now, I could take advantage of my smaller box and place a foot up to my nipple and lock off as hard as possible. I also learned that I could also use foot holds as hand crimps to ‘break’ the intended beta for a problem. I became more comfortable and confident in being dynamic in my climbing, while also preserving energy through static movements when possible. The horizons of my climbing became broader and I began to feel more comfortable in this child-sized body that I lived in.
Furthermore, using spray walls or add-ons became fantastic opportunities to practice moves like pogos, rose moves, or figure fours to be ready for when a climb would call for that. This process allowed me to be more varied in my climbing while also overcoming problems that felt impossible a year ago.
While working on my physical strength led to improvement in my climbing, I found the biggest contributor to my improved performance has more to do with my mental resilience this year.
Being able to access ‘flow state’ during hard climbs has been a constant journey. Before I had the words to describe this experience, I first felt this when projecting a climb aptly called ‘Riverside.’ I remember the sound of the river flowing softly behind me. This sound and the environment allowed for an elevated state of serenity and performance. Conversations on flow state by Hazel Findlay and Mina Leslie-Wujastyk have allowed me to ‘let the body climb’ and turn my focus inward; to quiet my mind and let my body move seemingly on its own.
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After learning about ‘flow state’, I would experience it again on a climb called ‘Flying Spaghetti Monster,’ where the time between pulling up on the start holds and reaching the top felt fuzzy to remember. It felt as if I had an out-of-body experience, yet my body was performing at its peak. There has been a ton of research done on this process. I’ve found that focusing on my senses has allowed me to access this state more frequently. Being conscious of my breathing, how the chalk feels on my hands, or the sounds of nature (particularly river sounds) around me get into the ‘flow’ when climbing.
Although accessing flow state outdoors tends to be easier for me, I still find ways to practice this when climbing indoors as well. The commotion of indoor climbing can be particularly distracting, but I’ve found a routine that allows me to reach this state despite it. When it’s time to ‘drop the clutch’ and reach optimal performance I reach for the formula that has been pivotal in my progression: I’ll chalk up my hands, pause to allow myself to feel the rush of air entering and exiting my lungs, hit play on my headphones which begins the melodic tunes of mother nature, and give into what my body does best. Mitigating distractions allows me to leave everything between me and the boulder.
When thinking about how ‘flow state’ fits into my overall climbing journey, writer and researcher Steven Kotler stated it best, saying, “Motivation is what gets us into the game, learning allows us to continue to play, creativity is how we steer, and flow (which is optimal performance) is how we amplify all the results beyond all reasonable expectation.”
In combination with accessing flow state, I’ve also learned to maintain a ‘mastery’ mindset as opposed to a performance mindset.
In part, the reason why I believe I was stuck in a climbing plateau for so long is because I was almost exclusively focused on the results of my performance. I felt like I was owed the grades due to the amount of time spent training while watching others seemingly overcome similar obstacles with ease. Every climber goes through this in some way. V grades are important measures of progress, but I’ve also learned to accept the ‘smaller’ victories for my climbing fulfillment.
I used to plan outdoor climbing trips where the success of the trip was deeply rooted in sending a project, which drastically narrowed my ability to enjoy the trip if the send didn’t go. In this performance mindset, I was easily frustrated, and in all honestly, probably not fun to climb around.
Comparison is the thief of joy and the intrinsic motivation in a mastery or growth-oriented mindset allows mistakes to be learning opportunities, instead of negatively critiqued.
I’ve learned that the boulder doesn’t owe you anything and that learning to be satisfied with a good attempt or slight progression has become enough for me. In applying this mindset to climbing, I would often seek out solo climbing sessions to minimize distractions and increase the possibility of flow state. In these sessions, I would also attempt to do ‘perfect’ repeats of challenging climbs to allow muscle memory to set in for specific movements.
These ‘perfect’ repeats have been a form of ‘practice for practice’s sake.’
Although my training with Climb Strong kept my physical body strong, I found in this past year that the true strength of my climbing had little to do with my body.
When the pandemic first hit, I thought the following years would be periods of building back up to what I once was. But this time allowed me to be deeply introspective and intentional about my climbing. The wonderful partnership I’ve created with my coach, and the insights we’ve found together have allowed me to climb stronger than I ever have before.
I know now that when things feel out of reach, I have more movements to play with thanks to my training; both mental and physical.
My physical strength in combination with the mental states of flow and mastery has made me into an overall better climber, but more importantly, a person. I’ve found a level of peace and fulfillment in my climbing that I’ve never had the opportunity to experience before, and because of that, I now crave it.
But of course, it remains my responsibility to make it last.
Phil has been bouldering for five years and working with Climb Strong for three. In juggling a full-time job, he tries to find time to boulder outdoors in the Southeast with plans of exploring the West. Phil currently lives in Northeast Florida with his wife, Catherine, and their dog, Aria.