Climbing “Practice” to Improve Performance

mental-practice-kingtut1-tfcEveryone gets into climbing because it’s an enjoyable activity that redirects attention away from the serious or stressful aspects of daily life. Interestingly, many climbers eventually come to take climbing too seriously and, therefore, find that a self-imposed pressure to perform comes to ruin the fun of climbing. A few people suffering this affliction have remarked to me that climbing starts to “feel like a job.”

As a wide-eyed beginning climber excited at the prospect of simply playing around on the climbing walls, you probably find it hard to believe that climbing could ever feel like a job! Well, just look around the gym and you’ll likely observe a couple of climbers (or more) losing their cool when they fall from a boulder problem or climb. Sure, it’s natural to be disappointed and frustrated when you fail on a route, but to throw a tantrum or spew expletives as some climbers do is a sure sign they are taking the sport too seriously. Ironically, the more pressure you place on yourself to climb well, the more difficult it becomes to think and climb proficiently. It’s a powerful climbing axiom (and paradox) that it’s easier to climb harder by not needing to!

The same goes for the process of learning to climb. Optimal learning of skills comes when you embrace a carefree practice perspective to climbing, as opposed to a more serious performance perspective. The neuromuscular system is most effective at coding new skill programs, called schema, when you are in a fresh, relaxed state. As fatigue and tension grow, it’s both harder to learn new skills and to perform up to your current ability.

Another vital distinction for effective learning is that you must strive to perfect technical movements, not just “get by” at them. This is true regardless of the difficulty of climb you are on, but it’s most important when climbing near your limit. The common approach is to call an ascent “successful” when you solve the crux and successfully ascend the route from bottom to top without falling. In doing this redpoint ascent, you might struggle and fight through the hardest moves-a good mental success-but with less than perfect technique. Becoming an outstanding technical climber comes only by means of a constant resolve to master every sequence with perfect economy. This goal may take a few more attempts or even a few more days to achieve, but in striving to succeed at this high technical standard you develop true climbing excellence.

Finally, make it a goal to foster a constant self-awareness of your changing mental and physical state throughout your climbing gym workout. Strive to break new ground-technically and mentally-during the first part of your session when you are feeling fresh. When you sense a growing level of fatigue or frustrated, however, redirect your efforts to another climb more within your capabilities. The bottom line: resolve to always have fun climbing, regardless of the quality of your climbing on a given day, and you’ll be on a steady course to becoming a better climber.