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Mental strategies to improve your climbing

March 13, 2020

Found in Activities, Skills and tips

Whether you’re new to climbing, a 20-year veteran or somewhere in between, it’s important to develop an internal dialogue that helps motivate you to reach your full potential. Just like you can train your muscles, you can train your brain.

I’ve been working on reframing thoughts and I’ve noticed how it changes the way I approach climbing. Here are some thoughts I’ve found myself repeating, and some tips to flip the script.

Comparing yourself to others

If you think: “Wow, that person’s really strong. They just sent that problem so easily. How’d they do that? I’ll never be that strong.”

Essentially, this thought comes down to walking into the gym and feeling like everyone around you seems to know what they’re doing – except for you. But the reality is that everyone around you was once a beginner or new to a tough climbing problem too. Instead of focusing on what you can’t do (now), think about how much work and practice that person put in to get to where they are, and challenge yourself to do the same.

New way of thinking: “Wow, that person’s really strong! They just flashed that problem. I want to get better too, so I’m going to keep on trying and training.”

Climber hanging from a hangboard

Feeling stuck (and alone)

If you think: “I’ve tried this problem a million times and I’m not getting anywhere. This is so hard – I can’t figure it out. What am I doing wrong? I want to send this before that other person does.”

While it’s human to feel competitive and can motivate you to push yourself, there are times when those feelings can actually work against you and cause you to miss out on real benefits of collaboration with your climbing peers. When you open yourself up to work with other climbers who are at your level (or even a little stronger), you’re able to access their skills and strengths that you might not have yet.

New way of thinking: “I’ve tried this problem a million times and I’m not getting anywhere. That person is doing nice work on that cross move. I’m going to ask them how.” … “Hey – how did you bring your left hand up? I’m going try that, thanks!”

Two climbers sitting at a bouldering gym, pointing at a route

Feeling stuck (and maybe a little jealous)

If you think: “Ugh, they flashed that problem. I’ve been working on it all night and they just flashed it.”

Yes, it’s hard to spend an hour trying the same problem and not make any progress, only to have someone walk up and do it without breaking a sweat. It can almost feel like they’re shoving it in your face. However, a good climber who wants to improve will set those feelings aside to carefully watch what that person is doing and pay close attention to how they move between the holds. Then, take all that beta and try to apply what you’ve observed into your own climbing.

New way of thinking: “Wow, they flashed that problem. They turned their right hip in and dropped their left foot to get to that right hand hold. I’m going to rest for 10 minutes and give that a shot.”

Climber in a gym, looking up at a big blue climbing hold

Putting yourself down

If you think: “This is so hard. I suck.”

While thoughts like this may seem inconsequential in the moment, they can keep you from getting better at climbing if they become a habit. It’s normal to feel frustrated, especially when your brain knows what it wants to do but your body has other ideas. It’s important to take a break from the problem or route when it gets to the point where you’re putting yourself down. Goof around with friends, listen to music or try another climb. Get out of your own head, and if you come back to the route, you’ll feel less weighed down by your own expectations.

New way of thinking: “This feels so hard. Let’s get some music going and go for a walk. When my brain feels less weighed down, I’m going to give it another go and whatever happens, happens.”

Sabrina Chapman climbing outdoors, looking up

Zeroing in on bad holds

If you think: “Okay, redpoint time. I’m cruising through these moves. Ugh – I hate this hold. I should readjust. No, no good, my left hand is getting tired. Where are my feet? I’m screwing this up, why is this hold so bad? I’m pumped, I’m off!”

If you’re ready to redpoint your project, you should have a good understanding of the holds you’ll be grabbing and the moves you’ll be making off them. I find it helpful to envision myself climbing the entire route from start to finish. I picture getting to that bad hold, already knowing that it’s not going to feel as good as I like, accepting that and committing to holding it and moving on. I prepare myself to not spend too much time readjusting, since I know that will only tire me out and there’s nothing more to be had from it.

New way of thinking: “Okay, redpoint time. I feel good, I’m cruising through these moves. Left hand hold, right foot out, catch that right hold! Yeow, that felt good!”

Sabrina Chapman climbing outdoors, looking focussed

Climbing is a strength and skill based sport. While it’s easy to get caught up in the latest party tricks posted on Instagram, putting work into observing your thoughts and working on changing your mental game for the better will help bring your climbing to the next level. Which may be just as satisfying as doing a one arm pull-up. Maybe.

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