by Heather Weidner, HeatherClimbs.com
In a sport like climbing, so dependent on mental fortitude, where is all the information on training the mind? I find it crazy how many resources there are about fingerboarding and campus workouts, but so few on how to deal with fear and the ego? Am I alone with these feelings of negative self-worth in the world of performance rock climbing? What can I do to improve my mental strength?
Pro-climber and bold British badass Hazel Findlay feels similarly. “I think climbers get totally bogged down in the physical aspect of climbing and never pay attention to the mental side of climbing,” she claims on her interview with the Enormocast. “I mean, how many books and blogs are there about finger-boarding, about your weight, or like endurance training or something and there’s hardly anything about how to deal with falling off at the climbing gym. It’s such a bigger hindrance to performance than whether you can hang on a mono with one finger. I think people should pay more attention to it.”
I sat down with Jonathan Siegrist, one of the nation’s best sport climbers, during his stay in Vegas. He had just been in Spain trying to redpoint Pachamama, 5.15a. He put in 8 continuous weeks of effort on this single route without sending- the most work he’d ever continuously put into a single pitch of climbing. I was curious about his head space and how he dealt with this repeated failure.
“My first impression (of Pachamama) was simply that the route was too hard for me, especially based on my previous experiences with projects. It took me several days to even do all of the moves, and weeks to begin to make significant links. But I was making just enough progress every day to remain motivated. In the end I got heartbreakingly close, but it took a month of beating my head against the wall to reach this point.”
I’d say the majority of us struggle mentally in the world of climbing- not to mention with work, day-to-day life, or in relationships. In the face of repeated challenge how does one maintain a positive attitude?
Jonathan explains, “In all honesty I don’t always maintain a positive attitude. There are always downs and this is just part of the process. I think it’s unrealistic to feel optimistic all of the time, and stoked about negative progress or bad conditions or torn skin. I just try not to sink too far into that space, and let those low moments pass over me.”
I know that dark space, and it’s tough to avoid.
For the past five years I’ve set one big climbing goal for the year, usually around the holidays. It’s typically been a big project that I’m not sure I could actually do- a climb that is close to my physical and mental limit.
These goals have allowed me to send my hardest routes over the years- but not without significant sacrifice.
My achievement-based motivation often led to frustration and stress. These projects would sometimes take months- if not years- to complete and involved a large amount of failure. Dealing with that repetitive failure led to an ego crush- I never felt good enough. Ultimately, my negative self talk and self-loathing behavior advanced to the point that it affected my relationships. And sometimes climbing just felt like work.
“Once I get in too deep I think the reality is that I need to step back,” Siegrist explains. “Take a break, go back to training or change the route or the environment. I’m learning the hard way but I think it’s better to avoid trying too much for too long. Get some other sending under your belt and lift your stoke levels up before a strong return.”
I needed to step back, too. The kind of relationship I had developed with myself and climbing was not sustainable. I had to change something about my redpoint process.
So this year, I have a different goal, and it doesn’t involve climbing (at least directly). Instead, my goal is a mental goal- to develop a free mind.
What is a free mind? In sports it’s that magical flow-state you get when you’re fully “in the zone” on a rock climb, or when you’re immersed in painting or playing music. Time seems to go so fast and you’re completely in the moment, free of distractions. There’s no inner voice nagging at you or thinking about what you’re going to eat for lunch or that you’re not strong enough or smart enough. Just you, your breath, body, and laser focus. (For more details on free mind visit: http://warriorsway.com/the-ultimate-goal-a-free-mind/)
This mental-driven shift started for me shortly after running into Arno Ilgner, author of The Rock Warrior’s Way at the OR show last summer. I had just sent China Doll, a send which I felt was my proudest accomplishment as a climber, and I still just didn’t feel “good enough.”
Arno was interested in picking my brain about my redpoint processes and putting together a mental plan for more advanced climbers, Arno hopes to develop mental training programs for elite rock climbers in the future, expanding beyond one of the main focuses of his clinics which is catered to more moderate climbers tackling the fear of falling. In return for working with Arno I would benefit from mental training directly from the warrior himself.
Since last fall, every week or two Arno and I are in contact. He has given me mental drills, such as meditation, journaling, and intentional breathing to name a few. We talk on the phone about mental processes, what I’ve been up to, and how my drills are going.
Because I’m in the thick of these exercises and talks with Arno, I honestly don’t have an answer to the most common questions I get from climbers like, “what is the point of all these drills?” and “is it working?”
What I know is that my awareness has increased tremendously. I can’t say I never get upset when I can’t do a rock climb or that my feelings of self-loathing magically went away. But I can say I notice my inner voice more, and I now have some tools to use in order to deal with dips in self-confidence and worth in the face of climbing (and life) challenges.
Setting a goal centered around mindfulness instead of achievement- like a specific climb- is a big change for me, and honestly it’s scary. After all, we live in a world where great achievements are highly praised. Will I get worse at my favorite sport? Will I lose motivation?
Creating new habits in the face of mental addictions feels like work. For me, focusing on being attentive to the learning process has been the key to sticking with my mental training every day. In this way, it is quite simple- but certainly not easy.
Siegrist believes, “To be critical and open-minded is most important. Write things down, speak with others around you, and try to be realistic about your experience. Try to be humble to the process and recognize a learning opportunity. I think everyone could benefit from carefully considering their climbing attitude…
Every time I go climbing it is mental training!”
And maybe that’s why- in part- we keep coming back for more.