by Tim Park

Like many, I talk to myself a lot — in my head, mostly. At any moment, I’ll have some lengthy, inner dialogue analyzing the world around me. So it’s no surprise that when I’m climbing, my thoughts reflect my natural tendency to stay busy. Frantically, I process countless stimuli at once: Grab the crimp, make sure you’re fully weighted on your big toe, keep your core tight, relax your shoulders, breathe, don’t forget to breathe, what’s the next move, man I feel pumped already. It’s tough to focus on climbing when your inner voice is loud and panicked.

For over a year, I’ve been doing “Free Your Mind” training with Arno Ilgner, coach and author of The Rock Warrior’s Way. When I first started the program, I expected to learn a few simple tools that would help me with my mental game, like learning to embrace failure and the power of positive self-talk. I was surprised when our first session was spent discussing ego and body awareness. I thought, “How the hell is body awareness related to mental training?!” What I didn’t realize at the time is that Arno’s program isn’t just a training tool for climbing, but rather a perspective switch on life that changes you from the inside out.

The core of the Warrior’s Way philosophy is mindfulness. It’s mindfulness of our bodies that helps us become aware of our movements and it drives us toward greater precision. It’s mindfulness of our thoughts that reveals our motivations for climbing harder. At first, I was wary of some of Arno’s tactics, but he challenged me to be patient and to try to avoid words with a positive or negative connotation. That meant that I shouldn’t say things like, “That’s a good hold” or “The feet at the crux are so bad.” 

Over time, I learned to observe my thoughts and would catch myself in the same habitual loops. When I finished climbs, I felt confident and told myself that the climb felt easy and that I felt good and strong. When I was frustrated, I was negative and self-deprecating, making excuses for how I felt because of stress or lack of sleep. 

Despite my initial skepticism, I challenged myself to stop using those “good and bad” words and I started describing things as objectively as possible. While describing holds, “thin and far” replaced “bad and impossible.” By avoiding these loaded words to describe my climbing, I started to gain a truer sense of my abilities, more confidence, and I could see the possibility of doing difficult climbs. I no longer deemed anything to be impossible or thought any single hold was so bad I couldn’t use it.

Arno taught me how to focus on the details and subtleties of climbing, like resting more intentionally and committing to movements. I also learned powerful tools for controlling my breathing and heart rate. We practiced falling and discussed training tools for developing better body mechanics, such as observing how our eyes can shift our attention on the wall.

It took an entire year of working with Arno, but I now see the tangible power of being mindful while climbing. Instead of trying to force positivity or becoming overwhelmed with negative emotions, I try to be more objective. When I fall off a climb, I can channel my impulsive anger and frustration into constructive, determined energy for my next burn. I can ask myself what caused me to fall? Perhaps I used the wrong foothold and botched the crux, or maybe I didn’t take advantage of rests and simply pumped out. Either way, the focus is on learning. Instead of labelling myself as a good or bad climber depending on whether I sent or not, I can focus on learning and enjoying my journey of personal growth.

As a climbing coach myself, it’s now obvious to me how something like body awareness is related to mental training. How can we expect to learn to climb more efficiently if we don’t even know what our bodies are doing? Have you ever really paid attention to what your hips are doing in the middle of a crux or are you too busy thrutching to the next crimp? I’ve witnessed my students go through the same struggle of dealing with “good or bad” language. I encourage them to be calm and thoughtful. When they’re not, they climb and act automatically instead of intentionally. Seeing them progress only validates the benefits of Warrior’s Way training for me.

It’s difficult to describe the transformation that I’ve experienced over the last year. When I describe my training to my friends, I can’t help but laugh internally at how everything I’m saying sounds like new-age, hippie magic. But mindfulness is very much a tangible tool. I still struggle with the busy voice in my head, but I’ve developed some new techniques to stay focused while I’m climbing. Breathe, commit, move, relax, breathe. Like all things, you just have to take it one thought at a time.

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