Improve Your Sport Climbing (14): Mental Training, Part 10 (HARD)


Cultivating an Ideal Training Mindset

Training for climbing beyond just climbing to train for climbing isn’t for everyone. This is not because most climbers wouldn’t stand to benefit from employing some climbing-specific exercises in the weight room (for example), but because for some folks, this kind of training takes all the fun right out of climbing, period. And that’s 100 percent fine, of course. Anyone who is happy with their current climbing level and the way that climbing/bouldering as a training method serves them/enables them to improve or stay at the same level should stick with that, because if it’s not broken, there’s no need to fix it.

However, if you, like me, discover that using climbing-specific training methods beyond simply climbing can and does help you reap tangible benefits, learning how to cultivate a solid training mindset can enable you to reap even greater rewards from each session. (btw, I don’t consider this “cross-training,” because the exercises are climbing-specific; in my mind cross-training involves training by participating in other sports/activities not specific to climbing, and it isn’t really applicable or effective for sport-specific training programs, but more on that in another entry!).

After you’ve identified what areas need the most attention in training and have a sound training plan in hand, you have to actually be able to commit to the program to make it worth anything. In other words, the most awesome training program in the world on paper is worthless if you cannot adhere to it enough to see results in your climbing ability. This is where personality (partially determined by your genetic predisposition) and life circumstances/schedule can really come into play as far as what will work for you. Are you internally motivated? Externally motivated? Do you need a coach/training partner/both, or do you prefer to train alone? How much time do you have to train? Do you have the right equipment? Do you have the discipline to push hard in training but also, to know when to blow the whistle on yourself and to stop before you’re injured?

The toughest part of training for me at first was learning to really embrace what I “hated” and to realize that I hated it because it was what I needed to work on the most. I’ve observed that it’s a common tendency for humans to gravitate, consciously or subconsciously, toward what we’re good at and to avoid or skip over what we’re not as good at. However, if we can stare what we are relatively not as strong at right in the face and attempt to make it stronger with time and dedication, it can gradually become something that we don’t mind as much – and that possibly, in time, we learn to love.

This has happened with me – I love steep climbing now and slopers and dynamic movements and pinches, and I also enjoy doing pull-ups(!) and lifting weights; all of these things I didn’t used to like much at all (understatement), but that’s because they were hard and painful and not fun. It’s happened with people I coach, too. Now, when I find something (a motion or type of hold, for example) I don’t like that relates to my climbing ability, I know that this most likely means I need to work on it in order to enjoy it more, if this is involved in an aspect of climbing I want to improve at.

As an aside here, there’s absolutely no problem with people deciding they don’t care to be good at a specific angle or style of climbing. It’s totally a personal choice. For example, if I’m never good at granite friction slab climbing, I’m okay with it. But a part of me always wanted to learn how to enjoy steep, dynamic, thuggy climbing, because it looked so fun – and that’s a different thing, to want to be good at something but not putting in the time/effort/proper training for it, rather than not caring to improve at it or wanting to master it.

Along with cultivating the right set of circumstances to promote your adherence to a smartly planned training program informed by your own individual goals, strengths, lifestyle, schedule, current fitness level, and climbing-related areas that need work, you’ll most likely need to make a longer-term commitment to training than you might expect or want to. Seeing real-world climbing-performance results from training takes time, and jumping from program to program or only training sporadically with no real consistency will not yield the most effective, efficient results – nor will rigid adherence to a schedule no matter what. A disciplined and committed but also flexible and malleable approach that involves consistency in training along with an understanding that missing one or two workouts here and there really doesn’t matter is the best approach. Too much commitment and a set-in-stone mentality about training can lead right into overtraining and overuse injuries – the topic of the next series.

Training smartly is a long-term endeavor that will always be a work in progress, and you’ll have to have faith that what you’re doing is worth it and will help you improve your climbing ability. Your program will change with the seasons and with your gains from training and with any new knowledge acquired from your not-sends and struggles, too…but at the same time, you’ll want to keep it somewhat consistent so that you do, indeed, see gains in the areas that need the most work. For most people, myself included, the first year or two of training using a more structured, less-“climbing-is-the-only-training-I-need-for-climbing” approach is the most difficult time; it requires a leap of faith because you’ll give up some climbing time, and it also takes a serious amount of time for most people to see real, tangible, on-the-rocks improvement – but boy, when you do, you’ll be likely to get hooked. I certainly did!

Read more about the latest advances in sports psychology in Evidence-Based Applied Sport Psychology: A Practitioner’s Manual. It’s an information-packed (read: dense) and fascinating read on the mind-body connection and why different people benefit more/less from different approaches for mental training.

This multipart series of blogs and articles starts here, in case you have to catch up – you’ll also find a full table of contents, complete with links, in that entry. My designation of each area as “easy,” “medium” or “hard” is purely subjective. I’ve arrived at the designations from my personal experience garnered from 20+ years of climbing along with observations I’ve made as a climbing coach/certified personal trainer. You may find some of the areas harder or easier to change. You also might not agree with me or my take on things. That’s fine – feel free to take it or leave it as you wish! Also, remember that the information I provide here is purely offered as advice and that no exercises or training program should be undertaken without receiving medical clearance from a healthcare professional.

One other caveat: As will be true for all of the entries and articles in this series, if you’ve already mastered or maxed out the topic at hand to the best of your ability level, you’ll reap far fewer benefits or none at all from my suggestions – good for you that you figured it out, but sorry I couldn’t help you out more. Happy climbing and training!

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