The Mind Muscle
by Anne Struble
The mental aspect of sport climbing is often dismissed quickly and without a second thought, especially when in mixed company with trad climbers, ice climbers or alpinists. While sport climbing does not have the danger and fear factor that are often present in some of its more “adventurous” cousins, I still believe the mental component is a huge factor in sport climbing performance. Just as in other climbing disciplines, the fear factor does still exist, even if the risk of injury or mortality is low when correct safety precautions are followed. It’s not the fear component, however, that I’ve been thinking about lately in terms of improving my own mental performance. Rather, I’ve been focused on aspects of mental strength such as grit and perseverance, that when present, allow us to perform to the best of our abilities.
A podcast I find particularly inspiring in this realm was one created by Michael Gervais as part of his “Finding Mastery” series. He interviewed Valerie Kondos-Field, or “Miss Val”, the head gymnastics coach at UCLA. A general theme in Miss Val’s approach to coaching is reframing negative perspectives into an optimistic outlook. She takes ideas that are well established in our minds, and then turns them completely around. For example, one concept she presented that really resonated with me was the idea that “Failure” does not exist. In sport climbing, the manner in which we think about failure and success is often very cut and dry. When we fall we’ve failed, when we reach the chains with no falls, we’ve succeeded. What Miss Val suggests is that not only is there no failure if we don’t clip the chains, but we also haven’t failed if we don’t reach mini-goals that we may have set (one hanging, linking a particular sequence, etc..,), there is no failure.
I found this conceptual outlook quite refreshing. The fundamental idea is that we should be focused on the effort we apply to our attempts. Are we committed to our actions? Are we present and focused on our movement? Are we doing the best we can? If so, then we are exactly where we’re supposed to be. Yes, it may be very challenging and yes we may fall repeatedly, but this is how we learn, grow, and become stronger and better climbers. If we were to just float up every climb we attempted, there would be no opportunity for learning and improvement.
A helpful tool to get to the mental place where no failure exists, and also one Miss Val discusses, is gratitude training (although she doesn’t use that name). Gratitude training is making a regular practice of being purposefully grateful for something. The object of gratitude is not necessarily important, although Miss Val has her athletes choose something that they have had no role in acquiring. For example, my thoughts of gratitude while practicing climbing are something similar to the following: “I get to be here, outdoors, in a beautiful place, working on this climb. I get to fall on this move repeatedly, which gives me the opportunity to learn to be a better climber and to practice perseverance.” These thoughts immediately remind me of how incredibly fortunate I am and always leave me in a better spot mentally.
To some extent these ideas might sound silly or weak, but keep in mind that Miss Val’s Bruins have won 7 National Championships. I suggest just giving it a try next time you’re training in the gym or outside for a weekend. It’s hard for me to judge how much my climbing has improved, but I definitely enjoy my days on the rock more fully and handle frustrations more easily.
If interested, here is the link to the podcast I referred to.
Anne Struble is a former competitive diver, sport climber and Beal athlete currently based in Salt Lake City.