When you’ve reached this crossroad along your climbing journey you have a choice to make. If you want to become better at climbing you must consciously choose to continue down the path of improvement. You must decide if improving your climbing performance is a primary concern because now you will have to work for further gains in the sport. Climbing is no longer climbing, it is a research project and you must embrace this change. You must adapt your perspective to accommodate for this paradigm shift or you will become exceedingly frustrated with climbing and rapidly head toward overtraining and burn out. Climbing more difficult problems becomes a secondary pursuit to the primary question, how do I improve? Becoming a better climber is the catalyst of the reaction but it is the individual reagents that are of interest to the scientist. The perspective of the scientist and that of the climber will clash. You have to be able to switch between them. You need the analytical objectivity of the scientist to see the options before you and make the correct choices to get you where you want to go, i.e. your climbing goals. At the same time you need the passion of the athlete, the single minded drive to push as hard as you possibly can with no thought of saving the reserves.
I mention these roles simply to suggest the complexity of what it takes to get better at climbing. Each of the roles mentioned play their own part in keeping the climber injury free, recovering properly, training their weaknesses…etc.
However, the two perspectives that are central to the improvement mindset are within the role of climber itself. The two perspectives that the climber must now develop are those of the student and of the warrior. I have chosen to draw on the tradition of martial arts in hopes that it will aid me in my explanation of these two roles. The philosophy of many martial arts includes the concept of beginners mind. The idea is that a person just beginning their journey to perfection in a discipline has no knowledge of the subject and therefore no preconceived ideas of what is right or wrong or even what is possible. It is only through your practice that you learn your limitations in the subject you have chosen to study. With continued practice and study of the subject you become more and more proficient, you learn where your weaknesses are and progressively over come them. Eventually you reach a point where you have studied and practiced so much that you then strive to take your thinking mind out of the action and simply let the performance happen. The expert marital arts warrior is said to have a beginner’s mind. There is no conscious problem solving going on during the confrontation. The mind perceives the information of the senses and acts accordingly to create the perfect performance for the situation. The perfect climbing performance therefore involves no active thought it is as though you are a spectator. More accurately you are a passenger, you see, hear, and feel what is happening, however, all of this information is processed and responded to without your having to think about the incoming information, formulate the best plan of action and then execute that plan. This head space or mind state of beginners mind is what you strive to attain.
In sports psychology the beginners mind has been labeled “the zone” or a “flow state”. In order to get to the point where you are able to experience this flow state you must practice and study until you have an intuitive understanding of the skill you’re trying to become better at. Until you have some degree of proficiency at a given skill you will have neither the physical ability nor the insight to apply it during a climb. In scientific research it is a well established trend that flow states occur most readily when the climber’s skills most closely match the demands of the problem. So, in order to achieve flow states on increasingly difficult climbs the climber must improve their base level climbing proficiency. This base level ability is comprised of all the skills necessary to climb well, foot work, general fitness, strength, endurance, proprioception, coordination and so forth. This is where the mindset of the student is critical. Any time you are trying to learn a skill you are actively engaged in trying to understand what is going on in the skill.
The critical component to the student mindset is one of intention. The student’s primary objective is not to perform the skill well. The student removes the skill from the overall climbing performance for closer inspection. The student focuses on one single skill or one aspect of a skill and then practices that single portion with the goal of learning all of its nuances. Even after you have a working idea of the mechanical process of the skill you must still practice it over and over until the physical act becomes hard wired. Take for example two climbers working on a crux that involves very precise foot work. The difference between the student and someone who just wants to send is that the climber wanting to send simply keeps trying the problem over and over until they finally link it. The student, however, looks critically at the crux to determine why they are not successful at doing the problem. Realizing that the reason they keep failing on the crux is due to their foot popping off a tiny foot hold that has to be pivoted on in order to make a drop knee work. The student now has a very specific goal to accomplish and so sets about playing with just the drop knee move, doing it again and again with the intention of understanding/learning/feeling everything going on during that single move. An extreme example of this intentional focus might manifest in a climber working only drop knees. They might spend ten minutes to a half an hour or an entire session simply focusing on pivoting on their feet and doing nothing but drop knee moves. The student’s motivation is to learn and wire individual skills rather than sending routes or problems. The objective is to be able to execute a skill flawlessly every time. In motor learning research there is a generally accepted theory that a movement pattern needs to be repeated at least ten thousand times before the performer is considered to be an expert at that pattern.
“Take infinite pains to make something that looks effortless.” –M
The second perspective that the athlete must cultivate is that of the warrior. In essence the warrior is all about the struggle. This is the part of you that can honestly say, “I love slab climbing” or “there’s nothing more satisfying than linking together a run out section of really technical climbing”. The perspective of the warrior is one of thriving in the unknown, the joy of confidently pushing outside your comfort zone.
The warrior is concerned with those aspects of climbing which revolve around the mental and emotional states that effect performance. In practical terms this is where you learn to lie to yourself, compartmentalize your emotions or to develop the ability to be so intently focused on the climbing before you that even your thoughts and emotions become only a vague awareness which is eclipsed by your absolute involvement in the performance. This aspect of your climbing is just as important as the meticulous attention of the student. By venturing to the edge of your comfort zone you learn new boundaries and so become more relaxed climbing closer to those boundaries, which translates to an overall better performance. This expansion of your comfort zone is exactly how you dispel the anxiety associated with climbs near your current ability limit and make it that much easier for you to experience a flow state while climbing these routes.
This mental exploration is a probing into the esoteric side of climbing. Unfortunately this is the least clear and consequently the most difficult aspect of climbing to learn. In order to even understand the obstacles before you each climber will have to take an objective look at themselves. Often this stark scrutiny of your motivations, fears and weaknesses in order to obtain a realistic idea of where you are as a climber is the worst part of the process. This is where each person must own up to who they are as a climber and accept both the positive and negative within themselves. These obstacles that the warrior must overcome are more often than not the common short comings of the human psyche. If a climber is truly interested in perfecting themselves egoism, competitiveness, fear in all it’s manifestations, self doubt and all the myriad emotions that allow us to get in our own way have no place in the mind of the warrior. If a climber is able to make this step with a measure of honesty they will then have made a monstrous leap towards improving their climbing. Once you know what your weaknesses are you can then set about changing these habits.
Since before recorded history there have been innumerable practices developed to better integrate the functioning of mind and body. At the core of the warrior is an unwavering belief in self. The warrior strives for this perfection of self by attempting to be constantly vigilant of their mind and rid it of those petty emotional self indulgences that hinder them from achieving their goals. Irrespective of which practice(s) you choose the warrior has but a single goal, self awareness, everything else stems from this beginning.
The warrior mindset could just as easily be termed the yogi or philosopher mindset. However, the concept of the warrior concisely embodies the seamless integration of the intellectual and the physical. The warrior tradition is one rich in using the mind to focus intention in the pursuit of perfecting physical performance in emotionally charged situations.
There are many paths to the summit and climbing is only one of them.
Brent Apgar DC