10 ways to improve your headgame

Some sports are technical, but not particularly athletic, like golf. Some sports are athletic, but not particularly technical, like running. It is commonly stated that climbing combines both elements in equal measure, but there is one quality which transcends both – mental ability.

When it comes to the technical and athletic aspects of training, most climbers know what they need to do – they boulder, they campus, they climb laps. But very few climbers have effective techniques for building mental resilience and agility. The mental aspect of climbing is chronically undertrained, probably in part because it is fluid and difficult to measure. As a result, most climbers fail not because a route is beyond them technically or physically, but because they are mentally weak.

I’m no Buddhist monk, but I have found several techniques to achieve Zen, occasionally in the midst of quite serious terrain. Here are some of my observations and tips on how to combat fear and sharpen mental acuity:

  1. Practice falling

To state the obvious, if you’re afraid of taking falls, you won’t commit to difficult moves above protection. Even slight reservations will drain part of the mental energy you could be using to focus on more important things like footwork or body position.

Taking practice falls can remove some of the jitters. Find some steepy steeps and clip at least three bolts… no ground falls please! Start by taking a fall with your hands level with the bolt, then work your way up gradually until you’re comfortable punting off with your feet above the bolt. Not only will this remind you that bolts work, it will allow you to practice the actual mechanics of falling, which is kind of an artform of its own.

Superclimber Alex Legos takes a mad whipper with a smile (Photo by Brendon Zyp)

  1. Make leading your default mode

Many climbers have trouble switching into “lead mode” if they become too reliant on top roping or seconding. There’s nothing wrong with top roping, especially if you’re trying to get a route dialled in, but you should aim to make it the exception and definitely not the rule. Try to get at least one lead in for every climbing session. If you normalise the act of lead climbing, it doesn’t seem foreign and scary when you jump back on the pointy end.

  1. Broaden your fitness

It might seem like a bit of a cop out to talk about physical fitness in an examination of mental ability, but the two are inextricably linked. It’s no secret that exercise and fitness are an essential component for mental health.

In any case, what I’m really talking about here is working your weaknesses and spending a little more time on the less sexy aspects of fitness. For example, finger strength gets a lot of press, but it doesn’t mean dick if you can’t open your hips. And many modern climbers like to poo-poo the humble old bushwalk, and as a result they’re shagged before they even touch the first pitch of The Governor.

Rounding out your general physical fitness will improve your general mental fitness. Try doing more yoga, stretching, running, hiking and working some antagonist muscles. Slacklining is also really beneficial.

Just kidding. Slacklining is a bunch of bullshit, as proven here.

  1. Trick your brain

Morag Stewart in a state of admirable tranquility, placing the only piece of gear in this spicy offwidth (P.S. It was a 0.1 Camalot…)

Your brain is amazing, but it’s also pretty dumb at times. It’s like one of those kids at school who had mad book smarts, but no common sense. I’m going to go a bit click-baity here and share ONE WEIRD TRICK to help control your mental state.

The brain saves time and energy by making assumptions based on repeated stimulus and past experience. Generally, when you’re scared, you’ll take shallow, rapid breaths. When you’re troubled, you frown. Your brain knows these things, in part controlling them but also responding to them as stimuli.

You can reverse the process. Next time you’re scared and pumping out, focus on taking a series of deep, full breaths and smile. You’ll feel (and look) a bit odd with a big fake smile on your dial, but just like Pavlov’s Dog, your brain will buy into the illusion. The act of smiling and taking deep breaths activates the neural pathways your brain associates with positive emotion.

This is not some hippie nonsense I made up, it has scientific proof. Try it.

5. Climb Trad

You’ll feel pretty good about taking whips on bolts after you take a few whips on gear.

  1. Bounce test your placements

It’s entirely possible that your introduction to trad climbing might actually take you down a few pegs on the mental ladder. If you’re new to placing gear, there are three things you can do to improve your confidence. The first is to spend a heap of time at ground level placing all manner of gear into all manner of cracks. The second is to find a good mentor to critique these placements. The third is to dabble in the dark art of aid climbing.

Placing gear and then gradually adding force to the placement will provide unerringly honest feedback. Start with a tug, then a firm tug, then use an etrier to apply body weight, followed by gentle bouncing and finish with a few stern bounces. Having a top rope belay is a pretty darn good idea.

  1. Practice visualisation

Most climbers think that visualisation is some sort of interpretive dance they perform whilst looking at the rock. This is partly true, but effective visualisation goes further than that. How do your muscles feel when contracted? What does the rock feel like? You should even go as far as imagining the ambient temperature and breeze. In order for visualisation to be most effective, it should incorporate all the senses and thus mirror the real experience as accurately as possible.

Again, this is not something I made up. It has been studied at length in sports science and is a technique commonly used at the highest levels. Good visualisation helps prime your brain for the experience, and where the brain goes, the body follows.

  1. Learn some Vertical Rescue skills

Morag wrote a great article on how a solid background in Vertical Rescue improved her confidence in adventurous terrain, so I won’t dwell on this concept. To my mind, a good foundation in this skillset is a must for any climber.

Learning some mad skillz with Rigging for Rescue in Red Rock Canyon

  1. Climb routes that you know you’ll fall off

The old adage that “the leader must not fall” is still a pretty decent mantra for trad, and may as well be an immutable law for ice, but sport is a different beast. On bolts, you can push your grade without too much fear (unless you’re climbing at Shadow Glen).

I sometimes get the yips on routes which I’m certain I can climb. Occasionally, I become worried that I’ll fall if I have a pre-conceived assumption of being able to onsight, or when I’ve passed the crux on a harder climb that I want to redpoint. This is a problem of the ego, and I need to work on it.

One method that can help is to climb routes which are completely above my paygrade. If I know from the outset that there is little chance of climbing the route cleanly, the stakes seem lower. Without the mental pressure of needing to succeed, I feel free to try moves I might otherwise balk on. Ironically, this approach can sometimes yield some unexpected victories, which suggests that Buddha might have been onto something with the whole “abandonment of desire” deal.

  1. Set Mental Cues

Following on from the whole “smile and breathe” deal, I have found immense benefit in setting myself some other Pavlovian mental cues. These form what Hunter S Thompson called a “psychological anchor”… a common reference that can evoke familiarity and comfort.

For me, my most effective mental cue is a simple and probably very common one – chalking up. As soon as I reach back into my chalk bag, it reminds me to relax, to straighten my arms, to soften my gaze and look around for my next hold. It stops me from going down the rabbit hole of panic. On the flip side, it can become a bit of a crutch, and therefore you can also create a useful mental exercise by intentionally denying yourself of your little safety blanket.

Mark Twight conditioned himself to automatically relax as a response to the aural cue of the click of a carabiner gate. I think this is a pretty neat trick, and if Mark Twight says it works, I believe it.

Agree? Disagree? What techniques do you use to improve your mental state? If you’d like to learn more, I suggest checking out The Rock Warrior’s Way by Arno Ilgner or 9 out of 10 Climbers make the same mistakes by Dave MacLeod.

Ryan Siacci, Esq.
December 2017

Thoughts? Opinions? Cries of dissent?