Sports Psychology/Mental Training

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  • #4128

    I know it’s a huge subject, but does anyone have any recommendations as far as sports psychology resources go? I’m mostly interested in topics somehow relating to keeping lead head together during runnout climbing and keeping it together during big, exhaustive alpine routes. I know the obvious is rock warriors way, but what else has given people success?

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    nathanols on #4129

    Well, I do feel strongly that runout climbing and big alpine routes require different mental skills. I’ve read RWW and while I think it offers some useful ideas for navigating hard runout leads, I find a different skill set is needed for long alpine climbs. Where the decisions made on lead are relatively short term, longer alpine climbs seem to me to require very strategic thinking and discipline. I’m afraid I can’t offer much more in explaining that, but would say that I feel I’ve gained a lot from reading Steve and Scott’s book, as well as earlier writings from Mark Twight.

    Mariner_9 on #4130

    In other activities that involve risk taking, there are a number of techniques I know that people use, including meditation/mindfulness/breathing exercises (mostly for emotional regulation), affirmations (i.e. positive thinking), visualization, and scenario planning. I can’t think of any specific books/blogs etc. but perhaps some of the topics are worth investigating.

    Colin Simon on #4131

    I really like the fear of falling section of “9 out of 10 climbers make the same mistakes” by Dave McLeod. It takes a very different approach than Rock Warrior’s Way, and to me seemed easier to apply. The short version is that the best way is whipper therapy. I found that whipper therapy when sport climbing transfers to a more relaxed state during runout climbing as well.

    Also I found Stephan Siegrist’s essay, “The Unbreakable Will” in New Alpinism to be really good.
    If you emotionally invest yourself for 6-10 months for a trip, and dream and visualize it the entire time, you will probably not mind very much when an obstacle comes.
    A huge plus side of all the monotonous aerobic training is you can obsess deeper and deeper about your objective, and show up amazingly stubborn.

    The other obvious choice is Kiss or Kill. Whether you care for the suicidal metal bands or not, I have yet to find anyone write as passionately about climbing.

    Steve House on #4137

    Hi Nate,
    Great question, but I’m afraid I won’t be able to answer it, not exactly.

    First, let me try to rephrase what you’re asking for. Correct me if I’m wrong, but what I hear in your two examples could be boiled down to ‘mental toughness’, keeping it together in tough and potentially dangerous situations.

    This capacity can be improved through a number of approaches, that separately, aren’t nearly as useful as they are together. Secondly, everyone is different and each of us has different strengths/weaknesses and needs in this arena. Thirdly, the resource, is you.

    So let’s get started. I want to point out that I will not get to everything in one post, but I think this is such a valuable discussion that I’d like to come back to it as I (or any of you) are inspired.

    First up is fear. Fear has its origins in not knowing. You don’t know if you can make the move or not, and suddenly you’re afraid, right? But the fear-inducing-not-knowing in the situations you’re talking about is much more complex. Think about this as it pertains to you personally. What is it that elicits the fear/anxiety. Is it the weather? The hold breaking? Being too tired to finish the pitch? Getting into a dangerous position on a pitch and not being able to reverse the moves? This list, in terms of alpine climbing, could be virtually endless but I’d bet that you have a few that are particularly poignant, or scary, for you.

    Now you’ve got your task list. That means that you need to figure out how you’re going to address each of those situations if and when they arise. In many if not all cases, the answer won’t be concrete. There is no answer such as jumping off a sport route onto a good bolt to feel better about falling onto bolts. This won’t (and shouldn’t) make you feel more comfortable about falling on potentially inadequate gear in limestone high in the alpine. But, learning (by experience) that you can place good gear in limestone and that when there is no good gear you can and will change plans and/or bail safely, is a valuable coping mechanism for your fear of getting into a dangerous runout pitch and getting hurt. It comes down to ‘know thyself’, meaning knowing (or deciding) that you’ll exercise good judgement for you on that day and either find and place good gear to protect you before you launch or you’ll come down.

    In my early/mid 20’s I would have tons of anxiety going up on big alpine objectives. I’d stare up at those walls and gulp, seriously wondering if I’d come back alive. But, I remember that weight being lifted when, after several big alpine routes together Barry Blanchard pointed out to me that he/we know how to stay “attached to the mountain” as he put it. Meaning we could move up and down safely, maybe not always as fast as we would like because limestone climbing (and gear placements) are hard and time-consuming. But we’d be patient and we’d find something to stay attached to the mountain. Yes, I’ve since spent up to 3 hours crafting one anchor to meet this criteria, but I never doubted, or feared, during that process that I would not find an anchor. I knew I would, no longer how long it took.

    Hope that helps. I’ll put together some more thoughts over the coming days/weeks/years. Keep it going.

    NateGoodwin on #4148

    I’m stoked this discussion has taken off, great stuff being presented.
    I’ve stared to make meditation and visualization training a part of my training plan and have noticed a big difference in terms of keeping my mind in check.
    I had a couple leads early this season where the gear was atrocious and the climbing was nearing my limit, I got through the pitch but I could hardly say I styled it and more or less had a freak out. After both of these I started to doubt myself and entered a downward spiral of doubting myself more and more, that combined with increasing stress from school got me to a point where I was gripped on moderate ice climbs. Finally, after some upsetting leads that should have been cruiser for me I began to look more into mental training and as Steve said ‘mental toughness’. I’m finally back at a point where I can keep it together on harder climbs that protect well enough to keep me from hitting the deck.
    One of the other topics I began researching heavily was the psychology behind “flow states”, or the state of peak performance, as all of my breakthrough climbs occurred while achieving a flow state. One of the biggest pieces of advice was to focus on the climbing rather than focusing on getting to the anchor/ top of the pitch, I’ve started repeating the mantra “Don’t think about it, just do it” in my head when I begin to get nervous.
    I probably have to agree that whipper therapy does not really help with runout climbing, I’m perfectly comfortable going for it on a sport or trad route where I know the gear is bomber and plentiful.
    Colin’s comment about completely investing yourself before a trip is very real, I know that when I train for an objective for 3-4 months I become allot more stubborn about backing off or letting small things trip me up.
    “In my early/mid 20’s I would have tons of anxiety going up on big alpine objectives. I’d stare up at those walls and gulp, seriously wondering if I’d come back alive.”- Great to hear that you went through it too. The mental challenge has been one of my biggest draws to alpinism, It was easy enough to battle demons on smaller, safer routes, but on committing objectives it seems like my mind has been holding me back more than anything else.

    I’m looking forward to hearing more of Steve and other’s ideas about the topic, it seems that resources addressing physical training are plentiful but resources addressing the arguably more important mind are few.

    totem on #4151

    If you want to delve into the science behind flow state, The Rise Of Superman by Steven Kotler is highly recommended:

    Just like meditation practice this is a part of the mind we can cultivate. Kotler has some practical tips on how to do so.

    Here’s a more easily digestible podcast episode with him talking about the subject:

    He gets into a bit of this too, but I’d also suggest looking into controlled breathing exercises ala Wim Hof. Oxygenation and Metabolic enhancement have direct benefits to “mind over matter.”

    IanDodds on #4152

    In terms of literature pertaining to the subject, I think it is useful to look beyond climbing specific resources. I have found a lot “eastern thought” to be very useful and there are a few books and things that I refer to on a regular basis:

    -Tao te ching
    -Zen flesh Zen Bones
    -Thich Nhat Hanh (Author)
    -Alan Watts (popularized eastern thought to a western audience, there is a ton of youtube dialogs)
    -Don Juan series by Carlos Castenada
    -Jack Kerouac also has a lot pertaining to the Dharma and eastern thought

    I think reading this type of literature, you naturally make connections of how it relates to climbing for your self. As oppose to something like Rock Warriors Way where those connections are essentially made for you. I believe it is in the intro of RWW, Arno references the Don Juan series, which tipped me off to those books but don’t have anything to do with climbing! In the movie Chasing Mavericks, a classic story of mentor and mentee pertaining to big wave surfing, the mentor talks about the “four pillars” physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. It seems sometimes in climbing, we forgot about the spiritual pillar while focusing mainly on the mental and physical. The spiritual pillar is fundamentally different from the mental pillar or “mental strength” although they have strong connections.

    In terms of climbing specific lit. I enjoyed:
    -Freedom Climbers by Bernadette McDonald (profiles Polish Himalayan Climbing)
    -The High Lonesome by John Long (compilation of several stories about soloing)
    -The Alchemy of Action by Doug Robinson (Talks about runners high for climbers and flow states)

    Hope this helps! Anyone have other literature suggestions?

    Mariner_9 on #4163

    I’ll second the recommendation for the Kotler book.

    Climbing-specific recommendation: Julian Lines’ book.

    Other literature suggestions: follow the money?! There are a number of books on the psychology of risk taking in financial markets. The Psychology of Risk is good. The author is a former sports psychologist.

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