I gave a presentation to a climbing club in Belgium recently. After the lecture a fellow talked with me about reading The Rock Warrior’s Way book, and how it didn’t help him. He said that what works for him is telling himself not to be afraid. He summarized his mental training process by saying: “I’m not sure if that’s the best method, but it works for me.” 

We all need to find a mental training method that works for us, but by “working” I mean the method needs to train the mind. Training the mind must point to increasing awareness of its limiting tendencies. Otherwise it isn’t mental training; it’s being a victim of the mind. What “worked” for this fellow wasn’t mental training; it was a tactic his mind came up with to circumvent doing any mental training. 

Developing awareness reveals mental misconceptions, our motivation, and distractions of our attention. Developing awareness needs to help us find our way through the chaotic labyrinth of the mind. If we don’t have awareness going into this process we’ll be lost in the comfort-seeking motivations of the mind and come up with mind tricks instead of doing mental training.

The motivation behind the “it works for me” approach is the end (goal) justifies the means. The goal justifies doing whatever is required to accomplish it. We measure “what works” based on whether or not we’re making progress toward achieving our goals. At some point, however, progress stops. We hit a plateau we can’t rise above. We hit a plateau because “what works” doesn’t work anymore.

This “what works” approach focuses only on what creates immediate improvement. We’re looking through the lens of what has worked in the past. Breaking through plateaus requires doing something different. In other words, we need to change something, specifically something that actually worked in the past. 

Take for example climbing slowly. Climbing slowly is what works for us. We’re able to climb in a controlled way and diminish the possibility of falling. Climbing slowly, however, uses a lot of energy. We hit a plateau when our strategy of climbing slowly, with the amount of physical strength we have, is equal to the difficulty level of the plateau.

With the “what works” approach we seek to validate what we did in the past. We continue to climb slowly and think we need to improve physical strength. The mind is looking to the body to make changes. This is not mental training. Mental training must look at the mind. 

Effective mental training should address the means, which points toward the process of learning. When we hit a plateau, we look at the mind for what it needs to learn. We assess possible misconceptions, our motivation, and distractions of our attention. We assess the conception that climbing slowly gives us control. We assess our motivation to see if we’re more interested in making immediate progress, or in learning. We assess whether resisting falling distracts our attention from the task of climbing. 

We look at the mind in a way that modifies what we have done in the past rather than validate it. We assess all of these by taking action and experiencing what it’s like to climb differently than we’ve climbed in the past. We practice climbing faster to see what effect it has on our climbing and our feeling of being in control. We do falling practice to see what effect it has on our climbing and our ability to keep our attention focused on the task of climbing. 

What typically occurs when we do things differently is our performance drops. If our performance plateau was 5.12, then our performance may drop to 5.11. This is because we’re tearing down the old foundation of climbing slowly and resisting falling, and building a new one of climbing faster and practicing falling. Developing proficiency with the new skills takes time and plenty of practice before it will take us beyond our 5.12 plateau. 

It’s important to understand that, although we’re interested in improving performance and breaking through the plateau, what we really need to do is learn. We’re not interested in “what works” now; we’re interested in becoming aware of mental tendencies that hold us back. This is not a tactic developed by the mind, but rather a process of becoming more aware of limiting tendencies of the mind and learning to move beyond them. This is mental training that actually trains the mind. 

Practice Tip: Do Something Different

You develop patterns of climbing that give you the most comfort. These patterns can help you improve, but eventually limit you. You hit a plateau. You need to do something different to break through the plateau. 

Most climbers learn to climb by pushing with one leg instead of two. This works for a while, but uses too much energy. You need to do something different. Learn to push with two legs. Sequence your climbing this way: move two hands, then two feet.

Most climbers also climb too slowly. This works for a while, but also uses too much energy. Learn to climb faster. Doing this will allow you to climb through difficult sections more quickly and conserve energy.

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. matteo

    hit and sunk….difficult to leave the comfortable plateau of the high attention on details (precise moves, deep breathing, continuous relaxing …) slow dance on the wall…even if the limits are clear since a while…not easy to change and evolve…nice, thanks!

    1. Arno

      Ah Matteo, to dance on the wall. I like… Shift attention to details to expanded awareness of the dance between climber and climb, where subject and object merge and become a nondual reality. Life and climbing is bliss… a

  2. Rich

    Innovate, adapt, overcome

    1. Arno

      Yes Rich, innovate new ways of thinking and being; adapt to these new ways; and overcome our previous selves… Thanks for sharing. a

  3. Debbie



    Thanks Arno – I’ve found that mental training is non-linear as well.

    While pushing my comfort zone lead climbing, I blew a dyno to a bomber jug in a safe fall zone but had some moderate rope burn and a few bruises. The healing was annoying and woke me up at night but apart from that, I didn’t believe it affected me. It wasn’t an injury and I didn’t mind the whip at the time but I found that my confidence was affected and I began to over-grip and back down from harder lead climbs.

    This surprised me as I felt I had accepted the risk and was comfortable with the consequences. I’ve had to listen to the now much louder chatter of the mind react to stress and calm it more than in the past. It feels like staring over in some ways and I’ve felt annoyance of the rework.

    Your comments about this not be a performance based exercise is a helpful perspective. I’ll show up for the work and learning regardless of the performance.

    Thanks for the insights.

    1. Arno

      Hi Nick, Yes, improving is kind of like a wave, waxing and waning. What you experienced is a kind of trauma where what happened is different than you expected. That’s the learning process we’re constantly engaged in: we understand intellectually based on past experiences, but then have new experiences that call our intellectual understanding into question. Thus, what’s required is being willing to ride that waxing/waning wave… and of course, to enjoy it. 🙂 a

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