The potential for improving your climbing performance through mental training is virtually unlimited. Climbers who fail to acknowledge that the mind and body are intrinsically linked often fail to optimise their ability. This article examines how relaxation and concentration techniques can help improve our performance on the rock.
Olivier Favresse looking focused and relaxed on a casual onsight of 'Sendero Luminoso', 7b+, at sector Surgencia, Rodellar, Spain. Photo: copyright David Pickford / www.davidpickford.com
By trying to ignore your thoughts and shutting them out, the mind will invariably find it's own way of creeping back, intruding, and causing chaos by disrupting the task at hand. Unless we deal with this, we can be sure that these distractions will find a way of dealing with us. To help you in the seemingly impossible task of delving into the margins of the mind, this article will examine the roll of concentration and relaxation methods before moving on to look at the undisputed worth of visualisation and imagery practices.
A Short Introduction To Relaxation & Concentration
With a hard redpoint, scary trad route or worse still a competition approaching, it is all too easy to be entirely consumed by our thoughts and emotions. There's the endless strategising, the nerves, the doubts - lying awake going over the same old thoughts again and again, as if thinking them through once more might finally release you from the torment. When it gets to this stage, the need for a mental break barely needs to be justified. But this is easier said than done. Or worse still when you're struggling to recover whilst placing some poor wires a long way above gear on a loose sea cliff, the ability to simply detach and take a mental breather for a second or two could mean the difference between success or disaster.
Relaxation is defined by sports psychologists as "a temporary and deliberate withdrawal from activity which, if correctly timed, allows you to recharge and make full use of your physical, mental and emotional energy" (Syer and Connolly, 1987). Concentration, however is the ability to withdraw from peripheral factors which are no longer relevant or have never been relevant to your performance, to focus on those which are. As climbers it would seem that both these factors could be well worth getting to know.
Madeleine Cope looking relaxed on the tenuous crux rockover of Route 25 (7a+), El Bovedon, Gandia, Costa Blanca. Photo: copyright David Pickford / www.davidpickford.com
For the purpose of climbing it is important to learn the methods of complete relaxation and momentary relaxation. The former can be used prior to activity as part of your preparation and the latter whilst actually climbing.
i) Complete relaxation
This can be achieved using connective breathing and meditative techniques, the objective being to have no objective, to allow thoughts feelings and emotions to drain away, leaving your body free and ready for spontaneous activity, uninhibited by conscious thought. Complete relaxation techniques help you learn to recognise your own zero arousal level. An additional benefit is the acquired knowledge of your own mental and emotional resources and the ability to channel them more effectively. You can also gain a more detached and objective view point of your immediate climbing situation, as well as experiencing an overall state of calmness, positivity and pleasure which can be used for mental, physical and emotional recuperation when under excessive and prolonged pressure.
ii) Momentary relaxation
With much time and practice, the feeling of complete relaxation which we acquire from meditation and connective breathing remains in our mind-body memory so that, in theory, we can access it at any time and in any situation.. When we wish to tap into it we need only reconnect to that image, usually by performing one of the breathing techniques for a few moments. This technique can be used whilst actually climbing, in order to re-set (or 'centre') and make a mental or emotional recovery in the heat of the moment. Studies prove that the use of momentary relaxation increases the speed of our reactions, restores balance and heightens kinaesthetic awareness.
Meditation and connective breathing
It is now understood that there is an intrinsic link between our breathing and our arousal levels. The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are affected by our breathing patterns and our ability to breath appropriately will have knock on affects to both left and right brain activity (ie: our emotions and, ultimately our thoughts).
The method for meditative deep breathing should first be practiced and learnt indoors or in a quiet place, before attempting to use it when climbing. Make a place where you can practice regularly such as the corner of a room which is clean and uncluttered. Sit upright in a chair or on a hard cushion, making sure your back is straight but not tense. Align your head with the rest of your body and place your hands together or on your knees. You want to feel alert but not tense. It is necessary to have a relaxed rib cage, that is, the muscles surrounding and giving movement to the lungs should be relaxed. Take slow deep breaths, drawing air deeply down into the abdomen. To do this it is better not to try to push out the abdomen but rather to let it expand slowly. This takes time as we habitually breathe to the upper part of the lungs. When you inhale, imagine your body being filled with energy, warm and relaxed; on exhaling, concentrate your energy and thoughts and reaffirm this image. Over a period of time you will be able to 'sink' and pull your breathing down and, in doing so, calm the thought process, the continual chatter that goes on inside our heads.
The countdown method
One of the many variations to the above method which can be used to key into depth breathing and a state of improved consciousness is the countdown method. To do this, first become aware of the top of your head, even your skin and hair. Start to count down from 10 and, as you do so, bring your awareness down through your body. First the head itself and then the neck, shoulders, and so on, down to the soles of the feet. Pause sometimes to feel where you are in the count down and imagine your body becoming transparent, just like a vessel being emptied from the bottom leaving the rest of the container vacant. In doing so, let all tension and stress leave your body.
Like all things a little practice a day will provide the best results and a fair amount of discipline is required. The best time to work on relaxation and breathing practice is when you are fresh and alert. For most of us that is in the morning, although some might need to take a brisk walk before hand! You will be surprised at how difficult it is to concentrate, even for a minute or two. Our thoughts always want to pull us along to something else rather than being where we are. A Zen parable is that the mind is like a bull which you let go in a big field; it will run around first of all then start to tire, then begin to eat and finally fall asleep. It certainly feels as if we have a bull in our heads when we first try to become still and practice. In fact we are not aware of how much activity we do have inside us until we attempt to stop ourselves. If you can start with ten minutes several times a week then that will be good enough. When you can comfortably keep attention and relax for this time then you can lengthen the sessions.
The problem most people find in making a regular practice of connective breathing and meditation is expectations. They are waiting for something to happen, which is precisely the opposite of what is intended. The active part of our brain is constantly seeking new information and feedback; so it just carries on, even to question why we are just sitting here breathing doing nothing. The whole practice of depth breathing is beyond this level of activity. It is getting off the usual mind trip into the body and letting the body consciousness come through. As a metaphor we can see the activity of the mind as thoughts clouding the sky. Not giving them any attention, that is, not feeding them more energy allows them to pass away. Eventually some space appears between the clouds and, little by little, more space appear until a part of our mind appears which we do not normally connect with. This is the 'no mind' of Zen or the space where we are not conditioned. It is the mind which reflects instantly what is before it, where true spontaneous climbing can truly take place. With practice you can key into this state very rapidly and use it as a quick method to relax and concentrate yourself, even whilst on a route. You should aim to be able to achieve it whilst trying to recover on a shake out or even before psyching up to move above your gear on a bold trad' route.
PlanetFear editor Dave Pickford concentrating hard on the redpoint of the second pitch of Tough Enough? (5.13b / 8a) on Karimbony, Tsaranoro, Madagascar. Intense concentration is particularly important for face climbing on small holds, since even a minor footwork error can leave you hanging from the rope. Photo: copyright David Pickford / www.davidpickford.com
Concentration is a state of unwavering awareness and direct attention to a specific subject, to the exclusion of other less relevant subjects. By improving your powers of concentration you will be able to react more quickly and to fuller effect when climbing. It will also heighten your awareness of the parts of your performance which are within your control and help you distance yourself from those which are not.
Concentration span varies dramatically both between individuals and for any one individual at different times. However it is a fallacy to assume that a short concentration span is necessarily detrimental to climbing performance, Johnny Dawes being the most striking example! Rather than examining long or short spans of concentration, an important Canadian study (Nideffer and Klavora, 1979) found it more relevant to acknowledge wide and narrow attention spans. By this it referred to the ability of some individuals to spread their concentration out across a broad spectrum of factors whereas others are best suited to channelling everything into one or two highly relevant factors. For example, the sport climber redpointing a short power route can forget fear, fatigue, loose rock, route finding and so on - in order to channel everything into the moves. The onsight trad climber must be able to juggle all these factors simultaneously and have the ability to switch emphasis and prioritise each one where appropriate. This is perhaps the ultimate mental test in climbing and, whilst some have minds which are naturally predisposed to this type of task, others must nurture the ability through the practice of both specific and abstract tasks.
Recognising your own concentration patterns is the first step towards breaking old habits and making new constructive changes. Most climbing situations require a continual change in direction, span and intensity of concentration. Try to profile some of your recent performances with these concentration factors in mind. Were you able to make your attention last for the required duration of a route or a particular crux section? Did you find yourself thinking about protection when you should have been thinking about moves or route finding? Were you distracted by peripheral factors and, if so, how easily did you regain focus? By asking yourself these types of question you will be better equipped to gauge yourself when performing concentration exercises.
i) Concentration 'Shuttling'
Whilst the meditation and breathing exercises given above will undoubtedly improve your ability to concentrate, it is worth investigating some further more specific methods. Of the many which exist, the 'Shuttling' method is perhaps most relevant to climbing. The idea is to switch your concentration continually from internal factors to external factors in attempt to prevent your attention from becoming stuck in the 'middle zone'. You can work with a partner and, if you go first, close your eyes and tune into a sensation, thought or feeling which comes from within such as "I am feeling confident about the route". Then open your eyes and add something that is happening outside yourself such as "I am aware of the shade or sunlight", it has to be something real though. Repeat this continually, opening and closing your eyes and focusing on internal and external factors for up to three minutes. Your partner should prompt you if you get stuck by saying what they are aware of and hence pulling you out of the middle zone.
ii) Controlled movement exercises
Some athletes perform extremely slow, controlled movements such as simple yoga asanas in order to learn to focus their minds and sharpen their balance and kinaesthetic awareness. It is common to do these lying down or standing and it is best to reverse each movement in order to return to the starting position. You could even use a basic climbing move for this purpose if you feel you could force yourself to take 30 seconds to move each limb!
To find out more about Neil Gresham's performance coaching services and coaching holidays, visit www.climbingmasterclass.com