Tag Archives: mental training

Rethinking the Concepts of Right and Wrong for Climbing, Training, Yoga and Life

Photo courtesy of Jay Em Photography

Photo courtesy of Jay Em Photography

“Am I doing this pose wrong?”

“I did that move wrong.”

“That’s the wrong way to train.”

It happens in climbing and yoga, both, as well as in so many other human interactions – an overly harsh judgement of self and/or others as categorically wrong, often followed by a defensive, angry reaction and a shut-down to any advice, no matter how well-informed or well-intentioned the advice-giver might be. This closing off can lead to a person giving up on the activity at hand entirely and deeming themselves hopelessly “bad” at it, or conversely, on the person moving even more staunchly toward his or her initially held but perhaps less efficient/less effective means toward making significant progress in whatever area is in question. Both of these responses can lead to a less-than-desirable outcome, an outcome where a person sabotages their own deepest desire to improve at a particular activity.

I have long preferred to use the terms “more efficient” and “more effective” rather than “wrong” to describe how to perform particular climbing moves. After all, if you’ve completed the move, you’ve done it, so it can’t be completely “wrong.” It’s not so black and white. What is true is that there might be a more efficient way to do that particular move, and that increased efficiency will likely be a more effective way to climb through this move, decreasing your energy output and giving you more energy to climb the rest of the route. But what’s efficient and effective for one climber may not be the same as the next, since every body is different in terms of height, reach, composition, age, experience, strengths, and comparably not-as-strong areas, and so forth. It’s up to each person to be willing and open to explore new approaches to climbing beta, knowing all of the above plays into each outcome.

In a comparable fashion, more efficient/effective training for climbing has become my aim. What I seek in guiding my own and others’ training to improve at rock climbing is the quickest sustainable path to seeing a tangible increase in climbing ability level. Does this mean that other, possibly contradictory or conflicting training methods are absolutely wrong? In most cases, not categorically (though there are some exceptions to this, just like with yoga there are some ways to do certain asanas, or poses, in a potentially injurious fashion). But for the most part, any type of fitness training is better than no training; any type of sport-specific training is better than no sport-specific training; and any sport-specific training designed to address your own particular areas that hold you back is better than non-individualized sport-specific training. Training isn’t summarily “wrong” unless it makes you injured or worse at what you’re trying to improve at.

Similarly, I tend to believe that yoga poses and practices aren’t unconditionally “wrong” unless they cause injury – but refining poses and practices so that they  better address the areas they can help open, balance, and strengthen more is a worthy endeavor. As Donna Farhi says in “Bringing Yoga to Life: The Everyday Practice of Enlightened Living,” “The only ideal practice is the one that works for you.” Pushing and forcing the body-mind to align in a way that it isn’t open, flexible or strong enough to align in yet is therefore not recommended. Staying with the body-mind where it is presently, and gently working to move step by step toward the next level of deepening the asana or practice in question makes much more sense – without ever labeling oneself harshly as “wrong” for not looking or feeling like an accomplished and experienced yogi in every pose or practice right out of the gate, or for not being able (yet) to follow along when a yoga teacher makes a suggestion for how to deepen or refine a pose or practice.

Photo courtesy of Louis Arevalo

Photo courtesy of Louis Arevalo

So why do so many of us have a knee-jerk reaction when a teacher gently suggests a new approach to a familiar pose? For the same or a similar reason why, I think, people get offended and argumentative sometimes about the validity of certain proven and widely accepted (in general sports training arenas) athletic training techniques and methods that might not be what they expected to do, wanted to do, or have long-held the belief that they should or should not do to improve at climbing. And for the same reason people sometimes resist trying new beta for a climbing move, even when they are struggling with their own beta repeatedly. When someone calls into question something that we hold to be true, such as “I’m this advanced in this yoga pose,” or “This is what I’ve always done to train for climbing, plus this other really talented climber agrees with me,” or “My beta is right for me,” we feel threatened.

On some level we might not even be aware of, we don’t want to be “wrong,” so we fight like hell to prove that we are right, often resisting the suggestions of the other person or people, however much more well-informed they may be or however helpful their intentions might be, because we don’t want to get out of our self-made comfort zones of rightness. But what if we could just dump the damning labels of wrongness and rightness entirely, clear our heads, and start with beginner’s minds, without the verbal chit-chat that arises when someone calls into question our well-worn pathways or methods of executing a pose/practice or training plan or climbing beta (or any other area)? How much more would we stand to improve if we stopped and truly listened to others, particularly to those who have spent years studying, researching, experimenting with, and testing the area(s) in question, and particularly if we ourselves have spent relatively little to no time researching or working with the area(s) in question?

In my yoga teacher training to earn my RYT-200, my teacher did not mince words about our asana practice as a whole group. It was a great cleansing of ego and opening of beginner’s mind to reexamine and refine the poses and sequences I think we all thought we “knew” upon arrival. Repeatedly we experienced a deep refinement, step by step, of familiar poses and sequences. I learned all sorts of details that I’d never even thought of or understood before about asana practice. Did I leave my 200-hour training feeling like an accomplished yoga expert, though? Nope – I felt like I’d only just scratched the surface. Honestly, I still do.

Since then, I’ve had people sadly inform me when I make a refinement suggestion that I’ve “taken all their progress away” in a yoga pose – which is the exact opposite of what a refinement suggestion is supposed to make a person feel. A suggestion by a teacher to change one’s approach to a pose is an offering to help the student find a deeper connection and benefit from the asana, not a harsh judgement of wrongness. In terms of climbing movement, the same as above is true – a suggestion to modify or change the way a person does a climbing move is an effort to help that person climb more efficiently and effectively, not a harsh judgement of wrongness. And in terms of climbing training, the same as above is true – a suggestion to improve the efficacy and efficiency of a person’s training program is not a personal attack on that person or the climber/trainer they’ve been working with previously; it is a genuine effort to help that person improve at climbing more efficiently and effectively.

Notice that none of the above are personal; they are not about attacking a person’s inner self or finding fault or wrongness with that person’s intentions or efforts. Rather, they are (or at least, should be!) offered by teachers and guides in an effort to assist another person to get more out of their chosen activities. And, as always, a person on the receiving end of this advice has a choice to make, and that choice is his or hers to make alone. I have definitely had refinements suggested for yoga asanas or practices that I’ve decided I don’t agree with for myself as a individual, along with the many refinements that I have incorporated into my own personal practice and teachings. Ditto for climbing moves and for climbing training methods. For me, it comes down to what makes the most logical sense in any given situation, taking into account the background of the information giver, the way it feels in my body/being, the results I see in my practice or training or performance, how it works (or doesn’t work) for others, and the support I can find from other reliable sources about the suggested piece of information.

This doesn’t mean we become automatons or minions of those who have studied more than ourselves or who possess deeper experience with whatever area we’re talking about – not at all. Asking questions about why such a modification or change might be desirable is always a good plan, and most responsible teachers, guides, friends and coaches will be happy to try to provide sound answers and supportive explanations and sources for the reasons behind why they choose to approach yoga, climbing, training, or whatever else you might be exploring the way that they do. It’s up to each of us as individuals to keep our minds open to new ideas and concepts while keeping our discernment and healthy discretion alive and aware as well. In this way, we can continue to learn, grow and change in positive directions and expand our potentials as human beings in whatever areas we wish to grow without losing our core sense of inner trust in our own abilities to weed out what doesn’t work for us and to celebrate and share what does.

Plateauing on Your Climbing Project? Try This! Suggestions to Help You Send (4)

Photo courtesy of Louis Arevalo

Photo courtesy of Louis Arevalo

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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!
  9. 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.
  10. 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

Move of the Month 2: Straight-Arming Your Rests (Improve Your Climbing Series)

Kevin taking advantage of a great rest by lowering his body weight, bending his knees, and straightening his arms, allowing him to relax and shake out while looking ahead at what's coming up.

Kevin taking advantage of a great rest by lowering his body weight, bending his knees, and straightening his arms, allowing him to relax and shake out while looking ahead at what’s coming up.

This month’s move is a simple one, yet one that often goes under-utilized by climbers: straightening your arms at rests while you’re climbing. It’s a very common tendency for climbers to “rest” with their arms quite bent and with rod-straight legs — especially on slightly less-than-vertical to vertical to slightly overhanging terrain. The more overhanging terrain becomes, the harder it becomes to get away with feeling like you’re truly resting while keeping your arms bent. In other words, super-steep climbing tends to force the issue a bit more, resulting in straighter arms on rests or quicker, more obvious failure from not using rests as efficiently as possible.

Instead of keeping the arms in a powerful, bent, locked-off position during a true on-route rest — a place where you’re still climbing (not hanging), but you can shake out both hands alternately — try to lower your body weight down so that your legs are bent and your arms are as straight as possible.

At the same resting spot pictured in the first photo, here Kevin shows how he can miss out on this rest by keeping his arms bent and his legs straight while looking ahead.

At the same resting spot pictured in the first photo, here Kevin shows how he can miss out on this rest by keeping his arms bent and his legs straight while looking ahead.

The next time you find yourself on a set of handholds that feel good enough for you to take a rest and shake out each hand alternately on a route, experiment by lowering your body weight down on the holds until your arms are straight. Try to make this a habit in your climbing, looking for ways to straighten your arms and alternating which hand you can let go with while keeping the opposite arm as straight as possible. Sometimes this requires a shift in foot positions in order to find the most efficient rest for each arm.

Be careful about not taking the rest to its full advantage, too. What do I mean by this? As shown in the photo below, this most commonly happens when you straighten your arms but fail to bend your legs. In this type of position, you get somewhat of a rest, but not the fullest rest you could potentially get from a great resting spot like this. It takes more energy to lean back like this and keep your legs straight rather than bending your legs and letting your body weight sink down. It’s also way harder to shake out while leaning back like this.


There will certainly be times when you take a much-needed (often very quick!) rest (a “quick shake”) while climbing when you will not be able to find a straight-armed position, or when you’ll only be able to shake one hand and not the other.  And, you will sometimes need to pull up out of a rest to feel out or get a visual of what’s ahead, particularly when you’re onsighting and you can’t see clearly what might be coming up from your most efficient resting position. However, it’s a good idea to make it a habit of trying to find the most straight-armed, least-fatiguing positions possible when you rest on your warm-ups, onsight efforts and projects — so long as amazing no-hands rests aren’t available, of course.

Recovering by resting efficiently while climbing is a key tactic that can make or break your send of a route, and strategically managing your rests to be as effective as possible can help you achieve this end. Finding resting positions that require the least amount of energy and that are the most truly restful positions for you is a major way to make the most of your on-route resting, and seeking straight-armed positions in which you can lower your body weight so that you’re hanging down (not out) by bending your knees usually supports this effort, allowing you much more ease in shaking out each arm in turn as you rest and contemplate what’s ahead.

This multipart series of 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!