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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.

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This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Polly Dacus

    Arno, I really appreciate your perspective on climbing and life in general. I value these blog posts, and take them to heart. In fact, your posts and ideas are the subject of many a dinner conversation at my house. Thank you for sharing what you are learning! -Polly

  2. Sam

    I disagree. In a way, it may be a type of mental training. I remember a Ted Talk that had the theme of “fake it till you make it” (http://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are?language=en#t-469395). The idea related to climbing is to get on the climb and pretend you are not scared, but brave and powerful. Then one day, you are getting ready to climb and you realize you are not scared anymore, but you actually feel brave and powerful. You no longer pretend. I feel like this is mental training, because eventually your mind will adapt.

    I use both methods. To get on a climb, I tell myself I am not scared and weak, but I am strong and brave. Then on a climb, I hit something that triggers my fear, like I hate traversing too far right/left from the bolt line. Then I engage in awareness and try to work through the fear. However, if I didn’t have the initial confidence from pretending I am brave and strong, I don’t think I would have been able to get to that position in the first place. I’d be taking at the bolt, quivering and staring at the moves pleading to my belayer to let me down. Maybe I am misinterpreting what he means by telling himself not to be scared, but it also works for me and is just one of many tools to help me mentally get through a climb. I guess in short I’m trying to say, pretending to be a master warrior will give me more warrior like tendencies and thoughts, rather than if I just think I’m normal old scaredy-cat me.

    1. Arno

      Thanks for you comments Sam. There are different methods for mental training and obviously I’m biased to the ww approach. One of the main tenets of ww is taking appropriate risks. Pretending throws a vail over reality that can cause us to take inappropriate risks. I guess I think it’s important to not “get through a climb” but rather to be present for it. Isn’t that why we climb? If not, perhaps it should be? Thanks, a

  3. David Mathews

    Arno! I was sure you were talking about me and slow climbing….until you said 5.12. 🙂 Maybe that was just the clever disguise. — Dave Mathews

  4. chris howes

    I agree Arno about the inappropriate risks. Pretending to be brave can also be pretty dangerous. There have been serious accidents where I climb in Montserrat, Catalonia. One of them, the climber (with a very good sports grade) didn’t take on her last bolt and didn’t abseil off the route. Instead they pretended to be strong and brave, went hopelessly off route, got lost and fell 40 metres passing the belay, killing themselves. I also know another very ‘strong and brave’ lady, who recently broke her feet (everyone used to comment on her bravery) and now walks forever more with a limp. I think the master warrior approach isn’t a good long term one either. Better to be a scaredy-cat me, and still be around to climb into old age!

    1. Arno

      Hi Chris, how about a balance between being brave and being a scaredy-cat? That balance is essentially what ww advocates for taking appropriate risks. a

  5. Lisa Della

    I guess it depends on what your goal is – “getting through” a climb, or learning a new strategy that might, as a side-effect, and ultimately if not immediately, enhance your climbing performance. If your goal is to learn something rather than gratifying your ego, you’re on a win-win.

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