Discussing mental training tactics is a murky pond at best; nothing illustrated this to me more clearly than reading “Evidence-Based Applied Sport Psychology,” and my ensuing interview with premier sport psychologist Dr. Roland Carlstedt. What works for one person perfectly might actually screw up another’s performance. Add to this confusion that athletes are often quick to blame mental issues as a reason for compromised performance, when in fact physical or technical deficiencies lie at the root of those supposedly mental issues. Add to this confusion yet again the reality that you can’t simply separate the head from the body and treat it as a separately operating entity, despite our cultural tendency to do just that, albeit often unwittingly. What a recipe for mucking everything up by suggesting any sort of specific mental training tactics, especially in any sort of blanket way, right?
Despite this, I’ll do my best here to hone in on 10 areas that involve using your mind more effectively that may help you send more quickly or break through a plateau (keyword: may!). These include the following:
- Don’t set a deadline or an expectation of outcome for any given day. It’s great to have a goal, but don’t expect or anticipate linear progress (i.e. improvement every single day) on your project. By the same token, don’t put an expected sending deadline on your project – even if you’re traveling and are time-limited. Work to enjoy the process of climbing every day without a sense of pressure, unless of course, you work well under pressure and enjoy it (I don’t). This comes down to knowing how you work best and what’s enjoyable to you. Either way, being okay with sending/not sending makes it more likely that you’ll have fun no matter what the outcome. Remind yourself that a year or five years from now, you probably won’t care nearly as much about whether you sent or didn’t send this particular route.
- If you struggle with distracting mental chatter while you climb, try giving your mind something to fixate on other than the outcome of your project efforts. One of the simplest tactics involves focusing on the breath, starting to breathe consciously and fully when you step off the ground, and keeping that breath going steadily throughout your climb as a kind of metronome for your movements. If this does not suffice, try repeating words to yourself that can drown the distracting chatter, such as “strong and relaxed,” “calm and strong,” or whatever works for you to cultivate the proper pacing and movement on the route.
- Set small daily goals, and have a number of them in mind each day you head out to attempt your project. Maybe you want to eliminate a hang, or refine some beta, or get a high point, or link a section that you haven’t climbed through before – or all of the above. If you achieve anything that represents progress, consider your day a success.
- Conversely, if progress on a given day isn’t possible, make a smart decision about what forcing the issue by continuing to climb when you’re too tired to progress will result in, and consider it a successful day if you pull the plug on climbing and opt for recovery and rest instead. Keep a big-picture perspective and understand that if you start to consistently low-point your project, you probably need more rest. Be disciplined and strong mentally about this. Rest.
- Be okay with whatever happens, and be logical rather than emotional in assessing a less-than-desirable outcome. Example: you fall off a move you have dialed. Instead of freaking out and saying, “I can ALWAYS do that move, what the heck is wrong with me?” and then proceeding to beat in the already-dialed move repeatedly and angrily, consider why you might have fallen. Were you tired? Not concentrating? Did you make a movement error? Were the conditions poor? Respond logically to the situation, not emotionally.
- Visualize the project while you’re away from it or right before you attempt it, or both. Visualization works better for some people than others, so you can feel free to experiment with whether running through the climb in your mind while you’re away from it or just before you attempt it, or both, works for you.
- Memorize the beta – all of it! More importantly than off-route visualization (in my opinion, anyhow), is to know that you have all of the beta dialed in and memorized, including the “easy parts” of the project. You want to know what to do on every part of the climb, to have it all worked out efficiently, so that you don’t waste your energy fumbling around figuring out what to do the first time you get through the crux.
- Cultivate a flexible mind. Even if you have the beta memorized, being able to quickly realize when what you’ve worked out isn’t going to work on the redpoint go and being willing to compensate and just try anything rather than taking is ideal. Just climb until you fall (so long as the fall is safe, as always), regardless of whether you’re out of sequence or doing something different than planned – you might surprise yourself and send. It happens!
- If you stop having fun, it’s okay to walk away from it– for a week, for a month, for a season, or forever. Remind yourself of this truth. You chose this project for yourself, probably because you thought it would be fun. If it starts to feel like a job or a chore, take a step back and ask yourself if it’s worth continuing, or if a break might be warranted. Calm your mind about “losing everything;” unless you stop climbing or stop trying hard routes completely for the rest of your life, you will probably gain much more out of trying something different for a while. A shift in perspective can be a valuable asset.
- Having more than one project at a time can be helpful in keeping the mind (and the body) from feeling stuck in a rut. Even if you have one main, harder project, having another or several other climbs that you can play on or attempt if you’re not feeling the love or the energy on any given climbing day can help keep a fresher perspective while simultaneously keeping the body from being trained to only one set of moves (and consequently more exhausted and at-risk for overuse injuries from repeating that particular set of moves).
Next Up: Plateauing on Your Climbing Project? Try This! Suggestions to Help You Send (5): Off-Season Training