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Finding Your True Limit: Mental Training for Climbing

Have you ever reached the crux or final move of a climb while breathing heavily and fighting a major pump in your forearms and thought to yourself, "Oh man, I am really tired/pumped. There's no way I'm going to be able to stick this move"? When thoughts like these become beliefs, our chances of success plummet. The narrative we habitually tell ourselves shapes our confidence and directs our focus towards factors that can either make or break our crucial moments.


We've all encountered situations when we find ourselves grappling with our own threshold beyond which we doubt our physical capacity to prevail. The truth is, there exists a significant disparity between our perceptions and reality. When our emotional brain is calling the shots, it does not consider evidence. It is only concerned with our survival. It doesn’t care that you are engaging in a sport that you love when these thoughts are happening. How loud is this voice for you?


Drawing from my experience as both a climber and a coach over the span of 18 years, I've both experienced and had the honor to hear from athletes a wide spectrum of internal dialogues.  It is important to understand our true and most up-to-date limits and recalibrate as we evolve and improve. A key skill is to build on past successes by reflecting and learning from what went well. Only then will we ensure the highest probability of growth. This will help us challenge the self-doubts and shape new “truths.”


Core Beliefs and how they relate to climbing hard


Our core beliefs are shaped by many things. We gain evidence in the form of experiences and moments of learning. By reflecting on these experiences, we solidify and reinforce our beliefs. Thoughts, emotions, and behaviors reinforce each other, and the cycle continues. This is what can keep us stuck in a negative cycle. 


When new information is presented to us that negates our "truths" and aligns with the rational thinking part of our brain with greater clarity, we can undergo a fundamental change in our core beliefs.


Let’s apply this to your climbing sessions. The successes that you experience (sticking hard moves and feeling skilled, strong, and proud of yourself) will be the newest and most relevant information that informs your current belief about your own capabilities. Of course, greater value will be found in moments similar to the "tired/pumped, at-limit move" in which you succeeded, instead of fell. This understanding that you have been succeeding in many of these situations (climbs and moves) reminds you that the preparation and actions that you employed to create these successes hold validity and will continue to produce desirable outcomes. Examples of these preparations or actions are:


  • How you warmed up 

  • How you visualized the climb

  • The specific technique(s) you used

  • Skillful use of pacing and/or breath

  • How hard you tried

  • Self-talk or mantras

The athlete that engages in effective preparations and actions will have a better chance of finding success and feeling confident in their ability to manage key moments. This builds confidence. Pushing through and staying present in trying moments (such as the “tired/pumped, at-limit move”) builds confidence! This confidence is built from a combination of recent successes, as well as a bag of tricks full of tactics, strategies, and techniques that work and HAVE worked in moments like this.


Have you ever wondered why you, your friends, or the people you coach struggle to find the strength needed in key moments, even though you know that they have the ability to do the move? It may be due to a lack of confidence. 


Redefine your climbing limits


coach charlie shreiber chalking his hands to climb

To begin redefining your understanding of personal limits, you need to provide yourself the opportunity to discover these tools and experience these successes. By seeking out more scenarios in your climbing or training in which you encounter a move that challenges you, you will create more opportunities for success in this scenario and develop a new understanding of what is possible. 


The key to making this process effective is to ensure success at the outset and begin with the "easiest," achievable climbs/moves in order to send as many signals to the brain that you are capable in these moments! These climbs/moves still need to be very hard, but should feel one step below your current physical limit. For example; if you typically fall at the end of V6s, then you would do this on a hard V5 that you are just barely able to reliably finish. Additionally, you must prepare before your attempts by analyzing all of the techniques that you can employ that will give you more control in these moments. In these moments, when your internal dialogue wants to scream “You can’t,” you need to stay conscious of the elements within your control that will keep you hearing “You Can!”


Make it progressive and frequent




Over time, your goal is to consistently include these moments in your training while progressively increasing the difficulty of these moves; always ensuring your ability to be successful. As you build confidence and skills, you'll then be able to push into a new range of potential, thus increasing your limit. I have personally seen this development take hold in many athletes that I have worked with, simply through the inclusion of a weekly programmed drill. It can be that easy. Through intentional exposure, you'll become more comfortable (mentally) when you feel these physical sensations that previously were associated with failure. The beauty of this is that throughout this entire process you do not need to change or improve physically; rather you arm yourself with confidence and new beliefs backed by factual and highly relevant data. 


By regularly engaging in this process and reflecting on your pride surrounding your abilities to prevail in these moments, you will be rewarded with this confidence and success and push your limits. But if enough time goes by without success in these moments, or worse, you experience a series of failures in these moments, your confidence may wane. Maintaining forward momentum, avoiding plateaus, and progressing, is a skill that is important in climbing and in life.


This concept of Momentum is a topic for a future article. Stay tuned and thank you for reading.

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