Have you ever tried to think less?
It’s usually an invitation for a flood of thoughts to come rushing in. They might be thoughts about what you ate for breakfast or how behind you are on errands. They could even be thoughts about random things, like a video that you saw on TikTok last week or a funny t-shirt slogan. It’s unlikely, though, that your mind will suddenly go blank.
What about avoiding just a certain thought? Like thinking less about what you are going to do tomorrow or getting rid of self-critical thinking?
I imagine that, even if you weren’t thinking about those things before, your mind just went there.
This points to a common challenge in mental training: we know that thinking can be a distraction when we are trying to perform on the wall, but when we put work into thinking less or changing our thoughts, it actually increases thinking and distracts us more.
So what are our options when we feel overwhelmed by thinking?
First, we can just let our thoughts happen. It’s counterintuitive, but sometimes giving our brain radical permission to go anywhere that it wants to go can make our thoughts less powerful. Simply allowing our thoughts to go where they would like to, for as long as they need to, can make them feel less compelling.
Exercises like Leaves on a Stream from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) can teach us about observing thoughts and recognizing when we are feeling overwhelmed by thinking.
Second, we can learn to direct our attention to other ways of experiencing the world, such as body sensations. Having simple cues that direct attention to what is happening in our body while we are climbing, such as breathing, our pace of climbing, our relaxation and tension on the wall, and where our eyes are looking, can give us something compelling to pay attention to on the wall.
Mental training is about so much more than just changing our thoughts. Thinking is one way of experiencing the world, but expanding our attention to include more than just thinking can expand our awareness and improve our mental performance on and off the wall.