Black Diamond Global Athlete Hazel Findlay has a penchant for bold ascents. Whether she’s free climbing El Cap (which she’s done three times) or sending an E9 trad testpiece in her native Britain, Findlay thrives when the climbing is not only physical, but mentally challenging as well.
Recently, she’s started coaching climbers on how to improve their mental game. In this three part series, Findlay shares a few of her hard-earned strategies for building a strong climbing mind. First up? Let the body climb!
Climbing is a very complex activity. Many limbs have to be moving at once in very different ways: some pushing, some pulling, some twisting. It’s not possible for us to consciously direct all those limbs at once to produce climbing movement. When you begin to climb, movement has to be conscious, however once you’ve climbed for long enough you build up a database of movement, which can be executed without conscious direction. I don’t want to get too deep into the philosophy of the conscious and subconscious mind and luckily for us we don’t need to. I’ve found it easier to think of the body as the thing that is responsible for this subconscious movement. Although we would like to take all the credit, it is our body that gets us up the rock! When we walk down the street we don’t need to think “right foot, left foot.” We just let our body do its thing. It’s the same when we’re climbing.
In fact, I climb my worst when I think too much. Even when I’m only thinking about the climbing, if I try to direct my body too much, “left foot like this, right hand here, no you’re doing it wrong,” it gets confusing. Think of a kid who learns how to dance. It’s so much harder for him to learn the steps of the fox trot from instruction than it is to just go dancing with his mates, watch them, and make it up as he goes along. The fox trot is a much simpler movement than what he does at his school disco, and yet it’s much harder for him to remember what to do. In the first instance he is being instructed what to do and he consciously has to execute the right steps and in the second instance he is absorbing how to move through trial and error and watching others. He learns to dance via an organic and natural process.
It’s likely that your body contains all the knowledge that is needed to climb a piece of rock. If it doesn’t, it soon will. Not only does your body climb better without too much conscious direction, it also learns better. This is why it’s very important to “fail” or “struggle.” When you can’t do a move it’s likely because your body hasn’t done a move like it before. From attempting different methods your body can absorb knowledge and build the muscle memory of what works and what doesn’t. This is also why it is important to watch others. You can see how they move and when your body gets on the rock it can try to replicate that movement. This subconscious learning process is much faster than any conscious learning you’ll ever do.
Your mind distracts you not only because it tries to take too much control, but also because your mind is a worrying mind. Whatever you personally get worried about—it may be fear of falling, or fear of failure—it serves only as a distraction from the climbing and learning process. Think of your body as the quiet, silent genius who just wants to learn by playing on the rock and along comes your boisterous ego and worry-driven mind to tell it what to do. “Don’t go up there, it’s scary.” “You’re doing this move all wrong and everyone is going to laugh at you.” “You’ll never do this route, you’re not strong enough.”
What can we do about it?
Use the Mantra Let the Body Climb
I’ve never been particularly compelled to use mantras or teach them when I’m coaching, and yet I’ve organically adopted the mantra: let the body climb. For me this mantra has been very powerful, and now I use it almost every time I go climbing. Be creative if this particular one doesn’t stick with you. Whenever I find myself over-thinking, I say to myself: Hazel, let your body climb. I can be climbing and it’s all flowing nicely, but maybe a rest will break that flow and all of a sudden my conscious mind turns on with worrying thoughts such as: “the next section looks too hard,” or “I feel way too tired to do this route,” and “Oh no, that hot guy is watching.” By saying to myself let the body climb before I leave a rest, I’m reminding myself to be respectful to my body’s natural ability to climb. The key word in the mantra is “let.” When we climb well, it feels easy and we don’t need to try. Of course we give effort, but trying not to fall off is akin to trying to go to sleep (and we all know how that goes). Just like we need to let ourselves fall asleep, we need to let our bodies climb. The mantra let the body climb helps me remember that if I allow it to, my body is capable of great things.
5 CLIMB-NOW TECHNIQUES
These techniques bring you into the present moment to help you focus on the climbing and not be distracted by whatever is going on in your mind. Often when we are distracted, it’s because our mind is thinking about something in the past or future. For example, your worry of falling is an anxiety or apprehension of a possible future state. Or maybe you’re thinking of all the other times you fell off your project, here you’re thinking about the past. These techniques pull your mind into the present so you can “climb now” in this moment. There are five different types of “climb-now” techniques using the senses (minus taste) plus breath. I would suggest playing around with all of the different types to see which ones click for you.
Your breath serves as a placeholder in the present moment since your breath is happening right now. Not only does this connect you to the present moment, but also to the sensation of your body. Your body is the thing that is about to take you up the wall, so you may as well be connected to it! Shifting your awareness to your breath also gives you better awareness of your stress-levels. For example, if you are breathing quickly and shallow, then you are more stressed than if you’re breathing slow and deep. I like to feel my belly expand against the harness at my waist—this is how I know that I am breathing deep enough.
Stare intently at a small section (about a centimeter squared) of rock before you commit to a hard or scary sequence of climbing. Really stare, notice every small detail that would have otherwise slipped past you. You can also try looking at the view behind you. We climb in beautiful places, but do we ever actually stop to look at them from the higher point on the route? Soaking up the natural world can be incredibly calming and motivating. Also it can serve as a reminder that we are lucky to be where we are—so does it really matter if I get up this route or not?
Connect to a sensation in the body. Notice how a hold feels beneath your fingers. Exactly which bits of which fingers are touching the rock? How do your toes feel in your shoes?
The effectiveness of this depends on how keen your sense of smell is. But since I never really take a sniff and try to smell the world around me, this can often bring me right into the present moment—especially since it’s combined with an inhalation.
Listen to the ambient noise. A lot of people don’t like this one because if there are people talking then they can start to feel stressed and distracted. I like to do it in quiet places because you realize that they are often not that quiet—a distant road, birds chirping, wind in the trees …
Try these techniques. I’ve had great feedback from those who have. Even if they don’t work for you, just reading this article will get your mind going about how you are distracted by your own thoughts. Becoming aware of your thoughts is one step closer to having a clearer mind while climbing.
If you enjoyed this article and want to know more you can contact Hazel via her website for more information regarding her coaching, including her remote coaching program.