Articles

Mental Training: Six Fixes to Increase Performance

mental-perform-devilshead

Rico Suave sending at Devil's Head, South Platte, CO.

The quickest way to enhance your performance in almost anything is to improve the quality of your thinking.

This is definitely true in climbing whether you’re working a high-ball boulder problem, sport route, multi-pitch traditional line, or alpine route.

All performance operates from the inside-out–your beliefs, focus, emotions, and confidence form the foundation from which you will either succeed or fail.

While off-season strength training and year-round technique training are paramount for progressing into the higher grades, during the climbing season your biggest breakthroughs will come from toning and flexing your mental muscle. To this end, I have outlined below six mental strategies and skills that will help elevate your performance and enjoyment.

Practice them with the same dedication and resolve as you would a new strength training program, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the results. Obtain the greatest payoff by applying these skills all the time, not just when you feel like it. For some, an almost instant breakthrough will follow on the rock, while others will need to persist and let these mental skills build to a critical value before they will produce a noticeable impact in your climbing.

(This depends upon the current degree of “tone” or “atrophy” of your mental muscle.”) Recognize that these six mental training skills are interlaced and can produce a powerful synergy when all are in practice. In aggregate, they may produce an effect similar to unloading a 10-pound weight from your back that you have unknowingly been hauling up climbs. I call this using your “mental wings.”

1. Separate your self-image from your performance.
If you are reading this magazine, then climbing surely plays a major role in your life. Unfortunately, when your self-image is tied too strongly or singly to this role, it translates to an overwhelming need to perform perfectly every time in order to prove your worth in that role and, thus, as a person. The subsequent pressure can become stifling and is maybe the single greatest cause of frustration in this sport (or in any endeavor).

Human beings perform best in a process-oriented, not outcome-oriented, frame of mind. Detaching your self-image from your climbing performance allows you to enjoy climbing regardless of the outcome. More importantly, it liberates you to try new things, take chances or, say, throw a dyno that might be required to get through a crux sequence. Bottom line: self-image detachment will reduce pressure and anxiety and, paradoxically, you’ll climb better by not needing to!

2. Surround yourself with positive people.
There is an aura or influence that surrounds each of us and its effects are based on our personality and attitude towards life and its events. Your thoughts and actions will affect the thoughts and actions of those around you, and vice versa. As I see it, there are three options-either climb alone, climb with upbeat and positive people, or climb with cynical and negative people. Why would you ever want to climb with the “complainers” out there? Their negative aura impacts your climbing and enjoyment whether you recognize it or not. Vow to either climb with positive individuals or by yourself-both can be hugely rewarding. However, if pushing your limits is the goal du jour, then take advantage of the synergy afforded to you by having creative, motivating and positive people on your side.

3. Stretch your comfort zone.
To improve in anything, your goals must exceed your current grasp and you must be willing to push beyond your comfort zone in your reach. In performing on the vertical plain, this means climbing onward despite mental and physical discomfort; it means challenging your fears head on by doing what you fear; it means attempting what looks impossible to you through your current set of “glasses.” Through this process, you stretch the envelope to a new dimension and reshape your personal vision of what is possible.

4. Assess and proactively manage your risk.
Climbing is an activity with obvious inherent risks, and the desire to climb harder requires taking additional risks. These risks can come in the form of obvious physical danger such as a potentially injurious fall or as invisible mental risks like opening yourself up to failure, criticism and embarrassment. It’s interesting to note that for some climbers the physical danger feels more benign than the aforementioned mental dangers. Consider the climber who continues upward on a horrendously dangerous route he’s not prepared for because he’s afraid of being dissed by those standing safely on the ground!

Make it your goal to always assess the range of possible risks before you ever start a climb. By objectively analyzing the risks ahead of time, you’ll often be able to lower the risk of the climb (e.g. taking other gear or rigging a belay differently than you normally would) and, at the least, be aware and able to respond to the most critical risks as you climb. As for the mental risks, see Mental Wings Strategy #1.

5. Fortify your confidence.
Your degree of self-confidence is primarily based on your self-image and the thoughts you hold minute-by-minute and day-by-day. Thoughts of falls or poor performance in the past and self-talk loaded with words like “I can’t”, “don’t”, “possibly”, and “try”, lower confidence and are the seeds of failure. Conversely, focusing on past successes by actually visualizing and feeling the process and exhilaration of positive action leads to tremendous feelings of confidence. Using visualization throughout the day, everyday, to re-live great events in your past–climbing and non-climbing–is the best way to reshape and fortify your self-confidence for success in all future endeavors.

6. Be happy regardless of situations and outcomes.
Superior traits of all real winners is resilience to bad results and/or criticism, and unwavering belief that success will come with time, effort and patience. Attitude is the wild card in the “climbing performance equation” that can often compensate for what you are lacking in strength, technique or reach. I can’t understate the importance of always having fun. We all get into climbing because we love the outdoor experience and the feeling of moving over stone, yet in time far too many climbers become Grinches who have fun only when they are winning.

The biggest secret for better climbing is to love climbing unconditionally. Vow that any day of climbing is a great day regardless of the results, and you will usually get the results you desire.


In my 25 years as a climber, perhaps the biggest breakthrough occurred when I realized that almost all the mental skills and strategies I learned through climbing could be applied to other areas in my life. (Read the first line of the 6 tips above–don’t they all apply equally well to your non-climbing life?) I believe the process of climbing reveals the ultimate metaphors for life and, if you transfer the many lessons and mental skills to other areas of your life, you’ll ignite breakthroughs there as well. I wish you the best on the rock and in your pursuit of your own personal Mount Everest!


Copyright 2004 Eric J. Hörst. All rights reserved.