The ability to narrow and maintain focus is a crucial sports skill, especially in an activity like climbing where elements of danger exert a constant pull on diverting focus from the task at hand. Think of “focus” as a narrowing of your concentration down to a single point–imagine a laser pointer highlighting a spot on the wall. In climbing, you must be able to consciously direct your focus to the single task most critical to your performance; for example, sticking a shallow pocket, toeing down on a tiny edge, pulling on a manky finger jam, or shifting your weight to just the right balance point. Think about anything other than this critical task, and you’ll likely catch some air time.
Fortunately, you can train focus just as you can train any other technical or physical attribute. Simply dedicate some of your gym or outdoor climbing to this special focus drill and you will improve focus and climb harder!
Select a route a couple grades below your maximum ability and attempt to top-rope (or lead) the entire route by focusing solely on one aspect of movement. For instance, try to do a route with your complete focus on just hand placements. Find the best way to grab each hold, use the minimum amount of grip strength necessary to hang on, and feel how your purchase changes as you pull on the hold.
Place as little focus as is safely possible on other areas like your feet, balance, belayer, etc. For now, let these areas take care of themselves-allow your sixth sense to determine where your feet go and how your balance should shift.
Chances are, you’ll find this exercise quite difficult. Your thoughts will naturally wander to other tasks or even be directed to distractions on the ground. If this occurs, simply redirect your focus to the predetermined task, in this case, the handholds. It is this process of becoming aware of your lost focus and returning it to the critical task that you are after. Sharpened awareness of lost focus is tantamount to gaining control of focus.
Repeat this exercise regularly but change the focus (e.g. foot placements, weight shifts, etc.) each time. Work on increasing the length of time you can maintain a singular focus-this helps build mental endurance. As you become more skilled, convert this “singular focus” drill into a “dynamic focus” drill where your focus constantly shifts to the most critical task at any moment. The goal is be able to shift your focus quickly between the various tasks involved in doing a route, like the flickering beams of a laser light show.
With practice, the process of directing and redirecting focus will become largely unconscious. On the rare occasions when your focus does wander away from the task of climbing, your well-trained mind will instantly recognize this “loss” and redirect the focus onto the climb. In this way, becoming constantly engaged and “automatic” on the climb helps in achieving the highly desired “flow” state.