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 in this team 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. Cozy Hang 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.
This was my first introduction that mental power is more important than physical power
Is physical or mental strength more important?
Mental and physical training are both important. But mental power 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 power.
Mental power is also more important than physical power 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.
Eliminate distractions of attention during all training
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 to use just the right amount of energy needed, are all compromised to some degree.
We need to pay attention to heighten quality.
How to develop your attention for climbing
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 require 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 influences how well we do skills (like paying attention), and how we climb, we need to shift the mind’s motivation to become comfortable engaging a slow, stressful, learning process.
When we pay attention to our physical training, something is also happening with our mental power, 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 attention 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.
What is the goal of 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. Why you ask?
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.