In 1976 I attended college at University of Colorado in Boulder. One of my first climbing experiences was in Boulder Canyon on a rock formation called The Dome. My partner and I were at the base of a climb called Cozyhang, waiting for a team to finish the first pitch. The lead climber looked strong. He didn’t have a shirt on, which showed his strong physical body. It looked like he did weight training, having bulging muscles.
He was positioned at a stance below a small roof, about 40 feet above the ground. He was at the stance for more than 15 minutes, occasionally making a move, but then retreating to his stance. He seemed to have a struggle occurring in his mind. Part of his attention was focused on engaging the stress—climbing over the roof—and part of his attention was focused on retreating to comfort—going down. It would seem that climbing over the roof would be easy for him, given his physical strength. Cozyhang was only 5.7 in difficulty. Yet, because of his attention being split between opposing goals, he couldn’t apply his physical strength to engaging the roof. That was my first introduction to mental training.
Mental and physical training are both important. But mental training is more important, because if we haven’t developed the mental power of focusing our attention in stressful situations, then we can’t apply our physical training.
Mental training is also more important than physical training because all training is essentially mental training. Physical training trains muscles, but more importantly it trains and develops neural networks in the brain. In other words, we don’t create “muscle memory” when we do physical training; we create neural networks that fire signals to the muscles in specific, more effective ways. It’s important to create these neural networks in a quality manner. Therefore, how we do our physical training is critical. “How” points toward the importance of doing the training with quality. The main way we enhance quality is with attention. We need to pay attention during the training process.
For this reason, it’s important to eliminate distractions of attention during all training. Most climbers don’t train this way. They do whatever they can to distract themselves from the stress experienced during training. This also occurs in training that non-climbers do. Go into any workout facility and you’ll see rows of people on treadmills, doing physical training, while watching TV or listening to music. They’re engaging the body, but their attention is not in the body noticing the quality (or lack of quality) of their engagement; it’s distracted into the TV show or the music they’re listening to. Therefore, they aren’t aware of the subtleties of their posture, breathing, body proprioception, and relaxation. Without attention, the quality of our posture, breathing, sense of our body in space (proprioception), and relaxing the body so we use the muscles with just the amount of energy needed, are all compromised to some degree. We need to pay attention to improve quality.
Two important components of brain development are: slow and stress. The brain develops slowly, over time, as we continually stimulate it during training. And, that stimulation is essentially stress. Developing neural networks requires stress. They don’t develop when we’re in our comfort zones. The mind, however, is motivated in direct opposition to brain development. The mind likes making fast progress and dis-likes stress. The mind likes the comfort of watching a TV show or listening to music to ignore stress. Since how the brain develops is what will influence how well we do skills, and climb, we need to shift the mind’s motivation to how the brain develops. We need to shift the mind’s motivation toward engaging in a slow, stressful, learning process.
When we pay attention to our physical training, something is also happening with our mental training, beyond creating effective neural networks. By being present, with our attention, to the stress associated with physical training, we improve our ability to deal with stress. I’ve found this to be the most important mental skill to develop. Think about it, harder climbing essentially requires us to deal with higher levels of stress. Yet, we tend to sabotage the development of this skill when we do our physical training.
It’s important to remember the goal of training. The goal shouldn’t be to climb harder grades; it should be to become better climbers. Improved ability to deal with stress makes us better climbers. If we focus on becoming better climbers, then climbing harder grades will automatically occur. With this improved ability we can face a challenge, like a roof, with a diminished battle occurring in the mind. We’ll be able to focus our attention better to deal with stress. Then, from that higher degree of mental fitness, we can apply our bodies, our muscles, manifesting the physical training we’ve been doing.
Practice Tip: Hunt for Power
Being mentally powerful means you’ve developed your ability to deal with stress. This is the most important mental skill to develop. Therefore, hunt for situations that are stressful so you can develop this ability. One way of doing this is to climb slowly.
Do this on toprope where you won’t be distracted by falling. Begin on a route of moderate difficulty, and climb slowly. Increment to harder routes. Pay attention to the climbing itself by focusing on your body posture, breathing, and maintaining eye contact on holds. When you feel tired, find rest stances to regain energy. Then, continue to climb slowly. Doing this keeps your attention focused during stress for longer periods of time, develops your ability to deal with stress, and makes you a better climber.