How To: Mental Training On and Off the Wall for Peak Performance
(Warning: This article discusses curriculum for a new class. Whether you're interested in this class or not, please free to read on and enjoy the information!)
The best climbers I know aren't just climbers on the wall. They are climbers as a lifestyle. I'm not talking about the dirtbag lifestyle, and I don't mean these people train all the time. I mean that they practice the principles of effective climbing in their daily lives, and view their daily lives as practice for climbing.
This synergy between climbing and daily life is an incredibly effective recipe for growth. First of all, practicing new skills frequently and in different ways is an effective way to build mastery. These individuals go through daily cycles daily of trying, analyzing, and learning, and the result is a strong conceptual understanding and development of well-rounded intuition. Furthermore, by intertwining skill practice into daily life, individuals feel a sense of progress, success, and discovery on a daily basis. These positive feelings are motivating, which leads to more practice, and more sense of success, and so on. A positive feedback cycle, and a state that yogis might refer to as a practice.
As we return to climbing after a long break, we have the opportunity to rebuild ourselves as better, smarter climbers. One of the best ways to do this while avoiding injury is through the type of holistic skill practice I'm describing. This skill practice is fun and yields results, without pushing the body to its physical limits right away. The result? A better, smarter climber.
But what climbing skills can you really practice off the wall? The answer is, SO MANY! However, as a coach, there are three skills that I have repeatedly found to be particularly important. All three are crucial for climbers looking to perform at their limit, and all are often overlooked precisely because they require sustained practice both on and off the wall.
Breathing controls your mindset, manages your stress levels, amplifies your physical coordination, and determines your overall lifespan on the wall. Your breath is a toolbox that will help you tackle any climb, and each type of breath is a tool with a purpose. These tools are key for gearing you up for hard movement, dialing back your stress, managing your mental dialogue, switching between "thinking" and "acting" and much more.
While breath is a powerful toolbox, it's one that most of us don't effectively use. We may take some rest breaths when we find a good hold or release a power scream on a hard move, but for the most part we focus on other things and just let whatever happens with our breath happen. Unfortunately, all these other pieces of climbing that occupy our attention – movement, sequencing, emotions, etc. - are actually supported by our breath. Calm breath supports smart decisions and relaxed, fluid movement, while intense breaths support bursts of strenuous movement. When we stop using our breath intentionally it's like relinquishing control of the gas pedal in a car – we either apply way too much force and crash, or stall out and stop. Either way we don’t get where we want to go.
On the other hand, effective athletes intentionally lead with their breath. A fighter takes a few quick breaths to rev their engine and narrow their focus just before a round starts. A distance runner uses breath to maintain rhythm, and changes breath to create a new rhythm. A power lifter uses bracing breaths to stabilize their core for short, extremely high intensity movements. In all cases, the breath is intentional, and comes first – it is used as a tool to prepare for, initiate, and support an action.
The path to breathing intentionally is not complicated, but it does take work both on and off the wall. Here are five steps to becoming more intentional with your breath:
- Learn the Tools: Understand the tools that exist and the purposes they serve: Belly breaths to relax, intense breaths to rev up for a hard section, power breaths to execute movement at your physical limit, and stable breaths to maintain control in tenuous situations.
- Build Self Awareness: Start to notice your breathing habits, especially in stressful situations.
- Practice Breath Skills: Develop skill in actually wielding each type of breath.
- Apply Breath Skills: Refine the ability to plan ahead with breath, and to "sequence" breathing just like you sequence movement.
- Mastery: Put it all together in practice on and off the wall, and "stress-proof" these skills so that you're able to breathe intentionally and well even in stressful situations.
If you're interested in learning more about how to breathe intentionally, check out our Adult Peak Performance Team! A 4-week virtual program, led by a top El Cap coach, who will guide your small team of motivated climbers through new concepts and practice drills you can use on the wall, during other workouts, and in your daily life. The result? A team of better, smarter climbers! Learn more here.
We all use and interpret body language every day. However, just like with breathing, we can either let body language "happen", or we can intentionally use body language to affect our mindset and performance.
The first step to effectively using body language while climbing is to understand what you’re looking for. In terms of climbing, we can think of "body language" as...
- where your eyes are looking
- shape of your shoulders
- alignment of your major joints
- facial expression
- how you reach for chalk, shake out, or perform other small actions
- Hesitation (or lack of hesitation) in your movement
- a general sense of how "relaxed" or “stressed” you look
- and much more
Once you know what you’re looking for, start paying attention to your own body language on and off the wall. Try this drill: Imagine yourself on a “good” day, where you feel confident, excited, and focused (you can even look back to old photos of yourself for reference). How do you stand? How do you talk? What gestures do you use? What expressions are visible on your face? Now, try to imagine the same when you’re having a “bad day”, where you might feel tired, distracted, uncertain, or even defeated. What is different? When you start to feel stressed, what muscles become tight? When you feel uncertain, where do your eyes tend to look? What other differences would an observer notice? Chances are most of these observations are similar whether you’re on or off the wall.
The goal with this drill is to build a clear, detailed mental picture of what your body language looks like when you feel focused, clear-headed, and confident, and to understand how this picture changes when you become tired, uncertain, or distracted.
When you have a clear image of your own body language, you can use this image to support your climbing. By modeling your “confident” body language on the ground before a climb, you can get into the right headspace to perform. By noticing when your body language starts to become less confident in the middle of a climb, you get an early warning that physical or mental stress is building up before this stress overwhelms you. By manipulating your body language on the wall in sync with your breath, you can increase or decrease your intensity level to be maximally efficient. Finally, by paying more attention to small details in your body language (which also strongly reflect your mental dialogue) you have a much better chance of really understanding why you succeed or fail on a move or climb.
If you want to dive deeper into body language, and learn how to use body language to support your climbing, check out our Adult Peak Performance Team! This is a 4-week virtual program for motivated intermediate and advanced climbers, led by a top El Cap coach. You’ll work as a team to explore key mental skills, and to practice these each week with drills on the wall and in daily life. You will leave with new climbing friends, a broader understanding of climbing technique, and drills and exercises that you can continue to use on your own. Learn more here.
Self-talk refers to the words, images, and phrases that cycle through your head as you climb. Some of us have a constant stream of thoughts and words as we climb. Others have vague ideas or emotions, which lurk out of sight and sometimes culminate in specific words or phrases during moments of triumph, stress, or panic. A small portion of us just move, letting all but the smallest thoughts fall away. Realistically, most of us experience all these options at some point, and it can depend on the day. In the end, though, we all have some form of self-talk.
Just like with breathing and body language, we can either let our self-talk run freely or we can attempt to use it as a tool. For climbers, learning to use self-talk as a tool is tricky. Self-talk is an abstract concept. It’s hard to know where to start, and first attempts to use self-talk as a tool often feel forced and ineffective. After all, how many times can we notice ourselves getting tired, tell ourselves “you can do it!”, let go anyway, and still believe in the power of self-talk?
However, effective self-talk is usually more than just telling yourself “you can do it!” or “keep going!”. While these words aren’t bad, they are generic and usually aren’t enough to motivate us when we are very tired. This is because we have no emotional connection to them. Neither of these phrases remind us of something we really, deeply want or value.
Effective self-talk has two parts: Identifying an image that you connect with on a deep and personal level, and identifying a word or very short phrase that can immediately cue that image in your head. As you get tired, and your brain starts to lose focus and lose the ability to form coherent thoughts, you recall this one word. This in turn recalls a clear image that is powerful enough to cut through the fog of stress, fatigue, and distraction, and refocus you on your goal.
Your self-talk image might motivate you to keep going: the characteristic smile or voice of your training partner who you enjoy competing with. It might remind you of how it feels to execute a particular skill: the memory of a time you felt coordinated and utterly effortless on the wall. It might remind you to relax: the sensation of cool, flowing water washing over your body as you lay in a mountain stream. Regardless of what the image is and how you use it, what matters is that it matters to you, and that you have a single word which will re-connect you to that image when you need it.
Building these word/image connections takes a lot of time, trial and error, and honesty with yourself. There is often a big difference between what images you think should or will motivate you and what images actually motivate you. The images that speak to you also inevitably change over time as you do.
The good news is that even a little work in this area can go a long way! If you’re able to identify just one new motivational image, and a word that helps you recall that image, then you will have a very powerful tool on the wall and a fun direction to explore!
If you want to dive deeper into self-talk and learn how to use self-talk to support your climbing, check out our Adult Peak Performance Team! This is a 4-week virtual program for motivated intermediate and advanced climbers, led by a top El Cap coach. You’ll work as a team to explore key mental skills, and to practice these each week with drills on the wall and in daily life. You will leave with new climbing friends, a broader understanding of climbing technique, and drills and exercises that you can continue to use on your own. Learn more here.
Putting it all together -
The result? Deliberate Intensity and Contrast
The three tools of breathing, body language, and self-talk are all related, and when applied in unison give you the powerful ability to control your intensity level. Excellent climbers can look ahead (either from the ground or mid-route) to see what intensity level will be required, go from 5% to 100% intensity in just a couple moves when the climb calls for it, and then go back down to 5% in another move once that high intensity level is no longer needed. These climbers accomplish this with – you guessed it! breathing, body language, and self-talk. The overall result for the climber is efficiency (bringing out what is needed when it is needed and nothing more) and peak performance. The impression for an observer is “Contrast” - Obvious and dramatic changes in the climber’s intensity throughout a climb, which create an exciting and inspiring performance!
Deliberate intensity is an absolutely essential ability for any climber who wants to approach their true physical potential. Mastering this ability is a lifelong journey, and the skills involved go beyond breathing, body language, and self-talk. However, these three skills are an excellent foundation. If you put in the time to work on them, you will quickly see increases both in your performance and your understanding of climbing, and you may even have a lot of fun.
As you get back into climbing, whether that is now or months from now, you will likely feel physically weak and even awkward on the wall. You will be tempted to train your body – ARC, hangboard, laps, workouts, etc. This physical training isn’t necessarily bad – it makes us sweat and feels great, and at some point in returning to climbing it is necessary. However, physical training has two major weaknesses: The high risk of injury from overdoing it, and the high risk of building bad habits through repeating low-quality movement.
I would strongly suggest considering a different approach when returning to the wall: Take it slow, use this as time to have fun, and focus on mental training which you can do both on and off the wall. This approach lets you ease into climbing at a pace that feels natural for you, reduces your risk of injury, and builds a foundation which will help you throughout your climbing career.
If you’re ready to join a team and become a better, smarter climber, come check out our Peak Performance Team! Learn more here.
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My name is Jesse, and I’m the Regional Assistant Director of Programs in the Bay Area, CA. I have been climbing since 2006, and working at Planet Granite/El Cap since 2014 as a coach, program manager, and private instructor. I have been lucky enough to work with many amazing coaches and athletes in and outside of El Cap, ranging from brand new climbers and coaches to individuals coaching and competing at the national level. I’m still learning, and love being surrounded by coworkers who are passionate and excited to share their knowledge. Photo Credit: Megan Avila