The biggest breakthroughs depend on the quality of your thoughts. Learn ten mental strategies to achieve extreme success in climbing (and the rest of your life to boot)!

(This article was originally published in March of 2021, but these mental strategies don’t have an expiration date!)

Mental fortitude in climbing is just as important as physical strength. The quickest way to enhance your performance in almost anything is to improve the quality of your thinking. Great performances stem from bulletproof confidence, singular focus, positive emotions, and a tough—yet agile—mindset. While strength and technique are crucial, your biggest climbing breakthroughs will come more from flexing your mental muscle. Use these mental strategies to give your true potential the chance to shine.

Build a bank of mental strategies to enhance your physical abilities as a climber.

Build a bank of mental strategies to enhance your physical abilities as a climber. Photo by Fionn Claydon.

1. Separate self-image from performance.

If you’re reading this, climbing likely plays a major role in your life. Disassociating your self-image from your performance on the rock is crucial. You’ll perform best in a process-oriented mindset rather than one fixated on the outcome. Strive to focus on what you do (i.e. your warm-up, mental rehearsal, gear selection) rather than what you want to happen. As you climb, concentrate only on the move and sequence at hand. Refrain from jumping ahead. Accept the feedback the route gives you without frustration or judgment. From there, liberate yourself to try new things, take chances, and fall—a lot! Through prioritizing the process, you’ll reduce limiting pressure and anxiety.

2. Surround yourself with positive people.

As with anything in life, your thoughts and actions will affect the thoughts and actions of those around you (and vice versa). Another way to summarize this powerful concept is that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.

Consider this when deciding who you train and climb with. Spending time with excuse-making, low-energy, or generally negative individuals will adversely impact your climbing. That goes for both your enjoyment of the process as well as your ability to improve and achieve. If you’re looking to optimize your mental state, vow to either train and climb with energetic, positive individuals…or go it alone. Both approaches can be hugely rewarding.

3. Stretch your comfort zone.

To improve in anything, you must be willing to push beyond your comfort zone. In other words, you must be able to climb onward despite physical and mental discomfort. Challenge your fears head-on by doing what you fear and trying what seems impossible. Through this process, you’ll stretch your abilities to a new level, redefine your belief system, and reshape your personal vision of what is possible.

4. Anticipate and proactively manage your risk.

Climbing risk comes in two forms: physical and mental. As you pursue harder climbs, you often take on more risk in the process. This can come in the form of obvious physical dangers or less tangible mental risks like opening yourself up to failure, criticism, and embarrassment. Be aware of all potential risks before starting up a climb, and anticipate how you’ll respond to new emerging risks as they present themselves.

5. Fortify your confidence.

Your self-image dictates your degree of self confidence. Peak performers use mental strategies to consciously narrow their thoughts and focus onto things that will fortify and build confidence. If you want to fortify your confidence as a climber, take mental inventory of past successes. Use those to review and believe in your skills and strengths, while acknowledging your preparation and investment in training.

6. Use visualization to enter a peak performance zone.

A peak performance zone is a state in which everything comes together for a perfect ascent that seems almost effortless and automatic. The trick is to be able to create this state on demand, despite stressful conditions. Use visualization to reenact the positive feelings of a good performance. Create about a short mental movie of this past event using all your senses. Now you can begin a mental rehearsal of the upcoming climb. Close your eyes and climb the route in your mind’s eye. Feel the moves play out successfully to create a mental blueprint for action. Now, you’re ready to take on the route in real-time.

7. Use pre-climb rituals to create an ideal performance state.

The things you think and do minutes and moments before you climb form the foundation of your performance. Thus, a solid pre-climb ritual gives birth to a solid performance. Your pre-climb ritual can include mental strategies like visualizing the route, dialing in your breath work, and honing your final thoughts before you pull off the ground. Develop your rituals based on past experience. What did you do before some of your best ascents in the past? What was your diet and sleep schedule like? What key thoughts help narrow your concentration? Once your rituals become tried and true, stick to them!

8. Control stress and tension before they control you.

Excess tension kills climbing performance. There are two main mental strategies to control tension and stress on the fly. First, direct your thinking away from pressure-producing thoughts and focus only on the process of climbing. Stay in the moment. Second, use rest positions to direct your thoughts inward for a tension check. Take a few slow, deep breaths; return to center; then execute!

9. Engage in positive self-talk.

Controlling inner self-talk is fundamental to tailoring our attitude for peak performance. Inside of our heads, everyone has a “critic” voice and a “doer” voice. The “doer” voice compels action, keeps us positive, and helps us perform effectively. Ideally, the “doer” voice occupies your brain 95% of the time (or more). If that’s not the case for you, work to eliminate any self-destructive internal dialogue. Heighten your awareness of what self-talk goes on in your head, and make sure the “doer” voice is in charge  most of the time. Turn useful critical thoughts (not trash talk) into positive statements that emphasize your capabilities.

10. Love climbing, no matter what. 

Climbing is about the journey, not the summit. Vow to love the process of climbing and all it entails, whether that’s a perfect send or a painful struggle. At the end of the day, it’s the arduous journey that fosters better climbing and growth as a person. The bottom line: Love climbing unconditionally and you will always have a great day on the rocks!

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