We often train our bodies religiously, but it’s easy to forget about the mental aspect of things. No matter how good you are, cultivating a strong, positive climbing mentality that exists independent of your “success” or “skill” in our sport is important.
You might be bomber today, and be injured tomorrow. You might end up recovering from injury or illness over a period of months or years, and find it hard to still get on the wall, a far cry from the climber you once were. You might not have the cash to pay for your gym membership, or get busy, and fall out of shape. You might be getting older, and feel like you aren’t able to project as hard. Maybe you love climbing, but are constantly surrounded by people who are ticking grades a bit higher than yours, and it gets in your head sometimes.
I’m not particularly strong, but I am a happy climber and one who thoroughly enjoys his time on the wall—route grade, success, or surroundings notwithstanding. Here are a few mental training tips that have helped me stay stoked and enjoy my climbing throughout life’s ups and downs.
Part 2, which will contain five more tips, will come next week and include my #1 Tip for Happy Climbing, which has helped me stay positive and enjoy my climbing experiences even through nearly a decade of chronic pain and illness.
Top-Rope a Warm-Up Route with Your Eyes Closed
The first time I ever did this was in a crowded SoCal gym. There were probably thirty or forty people on the mats and walls around me. Everyone was yelling “Take!” and “You got this!” and “Falling!” and “Stick it!” to each other, and the industrial lights were extremely bright, and it just felt like a lot, especially because I grew up climbing at podunk Alabama crags where 90% of your spotters are mosquitos.
It wasn’t that I was self-conscious or nervous to climb, I just wanted a little peace, and I wanted a little extra challenge. So I closed my eyes. This might sound like a dumb idea, since and I could still hear everyone yelling and laughing and talking, but it was pretty unique. Climbing with your eyes closed is both humbling and empowering. You aren’t focusing on how far up the route you are or what the holds look like or what the next few moves will be like or who is watching you. You’re just scrabbling around for the next hold. That’s it. Sometimes easy moves take eons. Sometimes they’re impossible.
On one hand, it helps you feel a bit more “present” and “grounded” on the wall, focusing only on the sensation of touch as opposed to sight. The real benefit here, however, is that it reminds you how hard climbing really is (and you also gain a lot of respect for badass blind climbers who have to do this every time they get on the wall).
Oftentimes we become so accustomed to lapping 5.11 or 5.7 that we forget how much we once struggled on it. This shit is tough! When you lower off the wall after working an “easy” route with your eyes closed, it can help remind you how far you’ve come and how strong you really are, and that goes a long way towards keeping up your spirits when you’re struggling on harder climbs.
Eat for Pleasure
Most climbers could benefit from cutting back on the strict performance dieting every once and while, if possible. Healthy eating leads to great physical performance, but conversely, a little bit of your happy food now and then can go a long way to boost your mental performance and get you stoked. Everyone’s different, of course, but I clip chains way faster if I’m thinking about some after-sesh burritos as opposed to a bowl of raw okra (but if okra’s your happy food, that’s fine too, of course).
Obviously this advice isn’t intended for people who diet for ethical or health reasons. That said, I’ve struggled with autoimmune issues and chronic pain for my entire adult life. As a result, I’ve spent many many years strictly adhering to various anti-inflammatory diets to decrease my symptoms. Even taking the occasional break from those diets has had a major benefit on my mental health. We all deserve an ice cream cone every once in a while.
Cut Off Social Media
This one is fairly well-known and acknowledged, but social media, and Instagram in particular, is a highlight reel. Climbing social media channels are no different. When you’re scrolling through feeds of people doing one-arm pull-ups or people crushing their projects, you’re only seeing the best of people’s days. What social media often leaves out is the struggles we all face. The days where we don’t get on the wall or don’t send anything or just feel weak and shitty in general.
This is easier said than done (I think I spent like an hour on Instagram yesterday) but taking a break from social media and focusing on your climbing and your experience on the wall will go a long way towards boosting your stoke level.
A good way to do this if you have an iPhone is to use the “Screen Time” function to set time limits on your social media. I, for example, try to limit my Instagram usage to 15 minutes a day. You can always override these limits (like I did yesterday), but it does give you a nice little reminder of how much time you’re spending scrolling.
Read About Climbing (No Fast Media)
Maybe I’m biased because I’m a writer, but I find that something about fast media lends itself to toxicity. The podcasts, the videos, the bite-sized posts. The content that can be consumed in two-minute intervals while doing three other things at once. It’s often very one-sided and/or shallow content, by nature.
My passion for climbing has become much more even-keeled and independent of my own success as a result of reading climbing literature. Books and longform essays or stories. Reading the words of other climbers of all disciplines helps me do a deep dive into why exactly climbing makes me feel happy and fulfilled. No matter your own preferred climbing discipline, whether you’re reading mountaineering epics or humor bits about sport crag mishaps, chances are you can relate and learn from something in the words of other climbers (words that weren’t typed out on Facebook or Instagram in 35 seconds while eating a slice of pizza).
Touching on #3, long-form climbing writing has the added benefit of not being a “highlight reel” like social media. If it’s good, honest writing, you typically get the good, the bad, and everything in between. No Picnic on Mt. Kenya by the Italian author Felice Benuzzi was a recent read that I loved.
Socialize Outside of Climbing
At certain times in my life, 99% of my social circle has consisted of other climbers and 99% of my socializing has been at the gym or crag. With COVID-19 that has changed a lot, obviously (though now I’m simply not socializing with anyone at all), but the point still stands that we can get trapped in a little “climbing” social bubble fairly easily.
When you only spend time with other climbers, it gets easy to start comparing yourself to other climbers’ progress and goals, and lose sight of the reason that you want to climb in the first place. Having some hobbies and friends outside of climbing can go a long way towards making you happier both on and off the wall, particularly if there are periods in your life when, for whatever reason, you may have to take a step back from climbing.
Feature image by Daniel Gajda/IFSC
Owen Clarke is a writer currently based in Tennessee. He is a Contributing Digital Editor at Rock and Ice and Gym Climber. He enjoys Southern sandstone and fish tacos, and is afraid of heights.
Follow him on Instagram at @opops13.