Importance of a Pre-climb Ritual

rock climber pre-climb ritual

Recently, I gave a workshop on mental training for climbing, using some of the constructs that Jeff Elison and I cover in our book, Vertical Mind. One portion of the workshop focused on mindsets required for climbing. In it, I broke out three distinct mindsets that we worked on:

  • Pre-climbing mindset
  • Mindset for delicate climbing
  • Mindset for dynamic climbing

In this article I will focus on the pre-climbing mindset and cover the others in future articles.

Most climbers experience some sort of pre-climb anxiety before they get on a route that will challenge them physically and mentally. The severity of this anxiety can range from very mild to paralyzing. The pre-climb anxiety in most cases is due to fear of falling and fear of failure, and the severity of the anxiety is related to the experience the climber has with falling and failure. The more experience with falling, the lower the anxiety around falling is. The same is true for failure. Interestingly enough, from informal surveys I have done, fear of falling seems to be more of an issue for relatively new climbers, while fear of failure (performance anxiety) tends to be more of an issue for very experienced climbers.

I have coached climbers with severe pre-climb anxiety and a technique that I have found helps them is the use of a pre-climb ritual. Most of the climbers I have coached experience the highest levels of anxiety in the time between when they find they “are up” to climb and when they are engaged in the act of climbing. As such, the pre-climb ritual is designed to help them get through this brief but critical time. It is in this time that they had sometimes in the past opted to climb something easier or maybe TR the climb rather than lead it. The goal is to achieve a calm mindset prior to climbing and avoid a mindset that either causes avoidance or undermines the climbers ability to climb well.

There are four elements to the pre-climb ritual I have used with climbers:

The safety check – Having a sound safety check habit is not only a critical part of the pre-climb ritual for all roped climbers, it can also help put your mind at ease about any doubts about the system.

Deep, slow breathing – Mother nature has given us the gift of self-regulated breathing. We can alter our breathing patterns through conscious thought. If we slow our breathing, it stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which tends to calm us down and dampen anxiety. So, from the point when you “are up” to when you grab the first hold, work on breathing slow, deep breaths.

Thought replacement – Often the anxiety is made worse by thoughts of anticipated falling, failure, or difficulty. You can replace such unproductive thoughts with thoughts to help stay calm. My favorite thought is “I will focus on one move at a time.” After all, that is all that you can really do when climbing, right? I mentally repeat this phrase to myself as I put on my shoes, tie in, put on my chalk bag, and the other pre-climb preparations.

Trigger phrases – Using a trigger phrase just before starting to climb such as “It’s just climbing” or my favorite, “Alrighty then” can help break tension and put us at ease.

If you find that pre-climb anxiety has you either avoiding climbs you want to do or undermining your ability to climb well, you may want to experiment with a pre-climb ritual with the elements I described above. I have found that it works very well.

If I get good feedback on this article, I will do articles on mindsets for the other two climbing situations, delicate climbing and dynamic climbing.

I hope you find this article useful.

How Rock Climbers Spend Their Training Time

Most of us have full lives and struggle to find time to do all the things that we want or need to do. I find myself constantly having to make tradeoffs in how I spend my time to balance my work, family life, climbing, writing, and other pursuits. I’ll bet that you’re not that much different than I am when it comes to this situation.

In our book Vertical Mind, Jeff Elison and I provide a training framework based on psychological research that requires a climber to do drills to develop their abilities. I will sometimes hear that people want to implement the training, but just don’t have the time. To better understand how climbers spend their climbing time and training time, so that I could offer some tips to help, I conducted a survey of hundreds of climbers of all ages and abilities. This article summarizes what I found and offers some suggestions on how to find the time to implement the mental training drills that Jeff and I present in Vertical Mind.

In Vertical Mind, Jeff and I suggest that in order to accelerate your climbing development it is important to first understand where you should invest your training time. This will have you focusing on the areas which will yield the biggest return on investment for the time and energy invested. To understand how much time climbers spend analyzing their climbing to identify areas to focus on in their training, I asked the following question in my survey:

Survey Question #1: How much time each week do you spend analyzing your climbing so that you can adjust your training?

The results of the survey are shown in Figure 1. What caught my eye from Figure 1 is that over 50% of climbers spend less than 15 minutes per week analyzing their climbing to adjust their training. I suspect that if one of the choices in the survey were none, that most of this 50% would have had that answer. It seems to me that a climber who wants to improve would want to spend more than 15 minutes per week to understand how best to train and improve. I do know that most climbers want to improve based on a previous survey that I conducted and wrote about here on my blog. In that survey, I found that more than half of climbers surveyed are motivated to train and climb by the joy of accomplishment.

Figure 1

I might be an oddball, but I have long been a believer in taking the time to work on improving myself. I think it started a long time ago when I was a young engineer and first read Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Successful People. In it he tells the story of coming upon a man sawing a tree down. The man looked exhausted and Stephen asks the man how long he has been sawing at the tree. The man says that he has been at it for hours. Stephen suggests that maybe the man take a step back and try sharpening the saw, as it will probably make his task much easier. This “sharpen the saw” analogy has stuck with me ever since.

Something else struck me in Figure 1. Some people spend more than an hour a week thinking about their training. Could it be that these are the people we all envy? The ones who advance much more rapidly than we do? That’s maybe a topic for another survey.

Something that I do in my training in order to have time to do mental training drills is to use my warm-ups and times when I climb easy routes for the fun of it, in order to practice my drills. To understand how much time climbers devote to warming up and easy climbing for fun, I asked the following two questions in the survey:

Survey Question #2 and #3:

What percentage of your climbing time is devoted to warming up so that you can climb harder climbs?

What percentage of your climbing time is spent climbing easy routes just for the fun of climbing?

The results from these questions are shown in Figures 2 and 3. What these data suggest is that many climbers spend up to 25% of their climbing time warming up. If you climb 10 routes in a week, each having 50 moves, this translates to 125 moves that could be used to develop a specific technique to a much higher level of execution. This seems like a significant opportunity.

Figure 2

Maybe more surprising to me is how much time climbers spend climbing easy routes just for fun, which is shown in Figure 3. This is an ideal situation to practice drills to improve your climbing.  I wrote about the importance of play in the learning process in this blog on

Figure 3

Some might argue that doing drills would diminish their fun. Maybe so. I think it boils down to whether you are motivated more by the joy of accomplishment or by the joy of climbing movement. According to the other survey I did for, most climbers are motivated to train and climb due to the joy of accomplishment. If you are one of these climbers, you might want to consider using your warm up time and the time spent climbing easy routes for fun as opportunities to do drills that improve your climbing.

In Vertical Mind, Jeff and I suggest that drills and repetition are optimal ways to build scripts that improve your climbing. They take movements, thoughts, and emotions from your conscious mind to your subconscious, enabling you to execute them efficiently and reliably. You can read a lot more about this in Vertical Mind. You can also find out more in this blog I wrote on

To understand the amount of time that climbers devote to such drills, I asked the following question in the survey:

Survey Question #4

What percentage of your climbing time do you devote to doing drills to build specific skills?

The results are shown in Figure 4. This data shows that in general, climbers don’t tend to spend much of their time doing drills to improve their climbing. Nearly 70% spend less than 10% of their time climbing. Here too, I suspect that many climbers spend no time at all on drills. Drills may not be fun to do, but they are a proven way to accelerate climbing performance.

Figure 4

Given the amount of time that climbers spend warming up or climbing easy routes for fun, the reason can’t be that they don’t have time. Can it be that they don’t see the value? If so, we hope to change their minds with Vertical Mind, where we explain the psychological research behind why using drills to build scripts is the best way to accelerate your climbing performance.

I experienced this first-hand recently when I took a climbing movement class at my local climbing gym. The instructor had us doing repetitive drills focused on our footwork and our use of momentum. At the end of the four week class, I had sharpened the saw on these two critical skills. I wrote much more about this experience in this blog on

I hope you found this survey interesting. I certainly gained some insights into how climbers spend their time. My takeaway is that climbers who want to improve their climbing have a significant opportunity to do so by changing just a few behaviors. First, by taking at least 15 minutes per week to analyze their climbing to figure out where they should invest their time and efforts, they will improve more rapidly. One suggestion that Jeff and I give in Vertical Mind is to ask your climbing partner for feedback on areas that they think would be good for you to focus on. Then set your mind to working on improving in one of those areas.

Use your warm-ups and time that you spend climbing easy routes for fun to practice drills in the area you have identified as a focus area. If footwork in the area, in your warm-ups and on easy routes practice careful and precise footwork placement. If relaxation and resting is the focus area, find restful positions and really focus on keeping your arms straight and practicing shaking techniques.

Practice these drills consistently and you will rewrite the scripts that you have that drove your old behaviors. You will find that over time, you will exhibit the newly developed skills without having to think about them. You will have successfully built more effective scripts that will have you climbing better.

But don’t stop there. Work on another skill, and then another. Continuing to sharpen your saw and become a better and better climber, hopefully getting more and more joy out of the pursuit that both you and I love…climbing!

Why Mental Training is So Important: 5 Tips to being mentally tough – by Tiffany Hensley

Don McGrath:

I was really lucky to recently connect with competitive climber Tiffany Hensley at a recent ABS event. Tiffany was super enthusiastic about our new book Vertical Mind because she has come to know the importance of her own mental game when it comes to high performance climbing. I was excited when she offered to write a guest blog post and share her insights. So, here are some of Tiffany’s insights.

Tiffany Hensley rock climbing

Tiffany climbing

Tiffany Hensley writes:

I’ve been climbing since the age of seven, and over the years I’ve learned a lot about the mental aspects of climbing. When training expert Eric Horst said that mental fitness was 30% of the climbing game, I believed him. Udo Neumann, the Head Coach of Germany’s world famous bouldering team, said in the first issue of The Circuit World Cup and Performance Magazine, that fitness was only the door to performance climbing. “What you do with that fitness,” says Udo, “is what sends the hardest climbs.” 

I competed in climbing for 15 years, nine of them internationally. In 2008 I reached my decided peak, placing 4th in the IFSC Bouldering World Cup in Vail, Colorado, and winning the North American Climbing Championships in Canada. A few months later, fresh from high school, I competed in the World Games in Taiwan where something changed. My focus changed from tunnel-vision focus to wide-eyed, boundless curiosity, hungry to see the world. This lead to a year of extremely motivated sport climbing overseas in Spain, France, Austria, Slovenia, and away from competitive climbing.

When I came home to the United States, the magic wore off and my climbing suffered. Undeveloped mentally, unable to handle home, my voice stiffened with stress and the pounds added on. After months of suffering negative progress, compounded with depression, I needed big life changes. So, I became vegan, moved to Boulder, Colorado, and enrolled in a University. 

I also was hired as a coach at The Spot Bouldering Gym, where I dove into the training literature. Despite my research, I felt that there something I was missing. In Europe, Mexico, and every other country I had previously climbed in, the climbing teams were mentality strong. In the US I’d met many strong-minded climbers, read Dave MacLeod’s blog, studied Eric Horst’s blog, and found that Horst suggested the mental aspects of climbing was a whole third of the training pie. I didn’t know what this meant. 

I then attended a coaching session with Douglas Hunter in Las Angeles, my first coaching session in 8 years. One thing that he suggested struck me. He suggested that it is key to find motivated climbing partners.

Why were other people so important, I wondered. I found the answer with a sport climbing partner named Juan. For 26 days we met every morning, and I climbed at least one 5.13 and one V7 during that time. I felt that I was back on track. Juan was a positive partner, energetic, and we bounced good energy back and forth.

After this 26 days, I felt confident physically and socially. I was strengthened by hard work, physical suffering, cold weather, running, and intensive studying. What was this energy I had gained, specifically?

I decided to hit the road in search of understanding this source of strength. So, a few months ago I bought a Sprinter van and drove 6,000 miles across the Western states, driving alone for 68 of 70 hours.

And what did I find in my journey, as I stopped and climbed across the US?
Empowerment of the mind is the most powerful tool for training. Mental conditioning is what brought me out of my slump, and it is what enabled me to continue climbing well.

Some mental rules of thumb that I discovered, and which worked every time were:

1) Every fall teaches us something about the climb.

A fall is never a waste of time, frustration is. Envision each fall fueling your determination.

2) Before every attempt, visualize the climb while turned away from the wall. 

Muscle memory can be formed without being on the wall. Neurotransmitters send twitching signals to the muscles you as you prepare for the climb.

3) Open your shoulders, raise your arms, and breathe.

This physical movement is a ‘power stance’ that helps you feel more powerful.

4) Think of a catchy line from a song. 

You don’t need speakers. You can set your own background music in your head for a hard climb to help stay focused.

5) Lastly: No expectations!  Don’t be afraid of failing. 

This doesn’t mean not to care, but don’t think about or dwell on falling. Building up a fear of falling before trying a climb, whether it’s the day before, the morning of, or the minutes up to trying the climb directly effects how you actually climb.

A little insight into building coping skills

Recently, I was a sponsor and spectator at the Open and the Youth ABS National bouldering championships in Colorado Springs, Colorado. I really enjoyed seeing the strong climbers, which spanned ages 13 to 30 something. One thing that I noted that was different between the Youth division and the Open division competitors was that some of the youth competitors became visibly upset when they could not send a problem, some to the point of crying. I didn’t see this from the Open competitors. Once upset, the Youth climbers often had a hard time regaining focus. I don’t bring this up as any sort of a poor reflection on the young climbers, but to make a point about how coping skills are built.

In our book Vertical Mind, Jeff Elison and I discuss the fear of failure and how all of us experience this to some degree. Along with this, Jeff and I also discuss coping skills and how people react differently when they experience failure. The Compass of Shame model emerged from psychological research, and is used to show maladaptive reactions to failure. Unless you live in a cave, you have probably seen climbers react to failure with at least one of these behaviors.

Compass of Shame for rock climbers

Compass of Shame

The extent to which we react with any of these maladaptive behaviors is a function of our coping skills, which are nothing but scripts (which we discuss extensively in Vertical Mind). Scripts are created or modified through repetition of a desired behavior. For the same circumstance, two climbers can react differently based upon their scripts. In the case of failure on a climb, coping skills. The figure below illustrates this.

coping skills for rock climbers

coping skills

So, what does this have to do with the Youth and Open climbers at the ABS competition? What I saw, I think, illustrates how the Open, more mature, climbers had better coping skills that they had built up over years of being exposed to failure, and not just necessarily in their climbing. As we age, we gain valuable life lessons that rewrite our scripts and improve our coping skills. The younger climbers have not had the experiences that the Open climbers have had the chance to live through, and therefore their coping skill scripts are not as mature.

I took two lessons away from this observation:

1) There are some benefits to aging (and I’m 50!)

2) It is important to expose ourselves to failures, so that we can build strong coping skills that enable us to remain cool when faced with disappointments.

For more about building scripts, check out Vertical Mind at

When Committment can be a BAD thing

During research for my book Vertical Mind (now available at I read Sway by Ori and Rom Brafman, which explores how we behave irrationally in certain situations. Upon reading this book, I reflected on how some of the elements they write about in Sway can be relevant in a rock climbing context. In this article I talk about two of them, loss aversion and commitment.

The authors explain that humans have a very strong repulsion for loss and they give several eye opening examples. The most powerful example of loss aversion  that they discussed is from an interview with Jordan Walters of the investment firm Smith Barney.  Jordan explained how a few years ago he was helping a chap who had the good fortune of selling the biotechnology company that he had started, and who was set to be able to retire to Martha’s Vinyard, buy a yacht, whatever…he had it made. Jordan advised that his client sell some of the stock that he received in the deal at regular intervals to avoid making poor financial decisions. The client decided that the stock had been flying high and sold only 10% of the stock, for $47 a share, hoping to improve his already enviable financial position.

Shortly after this, the stock price dropped to $42 and Jordan suggested maybe selling another 10% to hedge any further downside. The client said that if the stock went back up to $47 he would sell. The stock then slipped to $38, with the client stating that when it got back to $42 he would sell. Jordan referred to this as “chasing the loss,” which is not uncommon in his world. In the end, the stock ended up at $0.12 a share, so the only remaining asset from the sale of his business was the 10% he initially sold.

The authors told several other stories illustrating this affect including plane crashes and how eggs do not seem to obey the typical price-demand relationship. The force is very powerful and is exacerbated by another irrational behavior they termed commitment. Commitment is when someone gets so committed to a pursuit that they behave irrationally. The authors gave the example of a game that Max Bazerman uses in his negotiation class at the Harvard Business School. Dr. Bazerman explains that the game involves an auction for a $20 bill. The rules of the game are that bidding must be a round dollar amount, the winner gets the $20, and the person who ends in 2nd place with their bid, has to pay whatever they bid to him. He donates any proceeds to charity.

Dr. Bazerman said that the game is pretty predictable, with many bidding wildly up until bids reach the $15 level. The field narrows to the two highest bidders. Much to the surprise of the rest of the class, the bidding continues up, $16, $17, $18, $19…and yes $20. At this point the logical path would be for bidding to stop, with the winner breaking even and the runner up cutting their losses. What happens next is the irrational part…bidding continues up! The record high bid from the class is $240. Unbelievable!

We can see loss aversion and commitment related irrational behavior in climbing situations too. Have you ever know anyone to continue up a route, despite dangerous conditions? One need only recall some of the tragedies on Everest, K2, or other mountains to find an example of this. Have you ever known anyone to continue to work on a project climb for an unproductive amount of time, maybe until an injury resulted? I have personally experienced this.

The Sway authors conclude by stating that avoiding the pitfalls of these common traps involves being able to step back and look at situations with a broad perspective, even consulting others not so close to the situation. Doing so allows us to interrupt the narrow focus thinking that seems to be related to these irrational behaviors. So, if you find yourself in a situation where you could fall into the loss aversion and commitment trap, take a moment and ask yourself these four questions:

–          Am I falling into a trap?

–          What are logical outcomes if I proceed?

–          What are logical outcomes if I do not proceed?

–          Who can I ask to get perspective on my decision to proceed or not?

Doing so might help avoid an undesired consequence.

Free Rock Climbing Coach

Most climbers spend lots of energy trying to find ways to climb better. A survey I did of climbers a couple years ago suggests that the joy of accomplishment fuels 60% of climbers to train and keep climbing. Coaching is a proven strategy to improve at just about anything. Whether it be in a sport or a career, coaching accelerates improvement by helping the coachee identify areas for improvement and find ways to address them.

While once in a while I see climbing partners helping each other in a coaching type engagement, it is not very common. Whether it is because they don’t recognize the opportunity, or they don’t know how to do it, most climbers don’t leverage a powerful resource that they have…their partner as a coach. And they do it for FREE! Your partner watches you climb and has valuable insights that can help you improve your climbing, if you can figure out how to leverage it. The purpose of this article is to provide some tips for engaging your partner in co-creative coaching, where both of you can benefit.

The vast majority of “coaching” in climbing is not done by formal coaches. Partners help each other. Couples help each other. Parents help their kids. Kids help their parents! Therefore, I embrace the term co-creative coaching, which conveys the idea that the coach isn’t necessarily “superior” to the coached. In this article I will describe the co-creative coaching process and provide you and your partner with tips, tools, and insights that will help you to co-creatively coach each other.

What is Co-creative Coaching?
To co-create is to create together, alongside each other. Each party contributing what they have to offer. When you engage in co-creative coaching, you and your partner help each other improve (or have more fun). It is not a traditional coach-student relationship, but one where ideas are exchanged, experimented with, and possibly utilized to climb better.
By definition, when you engage in co-creative coaching, you and your partner voluntary cooperate. You can’t be co-creative with a partner who does not want to coach you or be coached by you. It is of utmost importance that you and your partner agree to be co-creative in order for the process to work optimally. I suggest that you share this article with your partner and ask them if they would be interested in co-creative coaching.
Another prerequisite to effective co-creative coaching is that all participants need to have the right attitude. So, what’s the right attitude? The right attitude for engaging in co-creative coaching is characterized by:

  • being receptive to feedback, positive or negative
  • being attentive to your partner and trying to identify things for them to consider
  • being sensitive when giving feedback avoiding defensiveness
  • avoiding being overly directive (e.g., yelling beta in the midst of your partner’s attempt)

To illustrate what I mean consider the following “coaching” exchange. In this example, Josh is struggling at a crux move while Marla is belaying and coaching him.
Josh: Awe man, this is way hard for the grade. I just can’t do this move.
Marla: It looks powerful.
Josh: Yeah, and I can’t keep my butt in. OK, here goes again. Climbing.
Marla: Step up with your right foot. Go, go, go.
Josh: (Slumping onto the rope). Crap. I’m weak.
Marla: Are you getting tired? My neck sort of hurts.
Josh: OK, just let me down.
Josh: (now on the ground) I can’t figure out what to do there.
Marla: I need to go pee.
Josh: OK

I have to say that this is not an atypical exchange that you might hear at the crag. Let’s analyze the exchange.
So, Josh is struggling and sounds frustrated. Marla’s first response basically just supports that frustration yet provides no help: “It looks powerful.” When Josh tries the move again, Marla kicks into beta mode and tells him what he should do. For one thing, most of us don’t process verbal commands very well when we are trying a hard move. It typically distracts us.
Josh appears to get even more frustrated with himself and even verbalizes that he thinks that he is too weak to do the move. Marla follows this up by asking if he’s tired and shares that she is getting tired of belaying. If Josh wasn’t tired before, he is now. She offered no encouragement or perspective. When Josh gets to the ground he shares his frustration again, but Marla does not want to discuss what he could have done differently or help him address his frustration.

Now let’s look at an exchange that is co-creative.
Josh: Awe man, this is way hard for the grade. I just can’t do this move.
Marla: Wow, you looked really good getting up to that point.
Josh: Yeah, but I can’t keep my butt in.
Marla: It looks to me like your right foot is too high and holding you back from that chalked up hold out right.
Josh: Yeah, I feel that, but I don’t see any other feet. Wait, there is this little nubbin just below the high-step. I’ll try that. Climbing.
Josh: (slumping onto the rope again) That felt better, but I still can’t keep my butt in and it’s just pulling me off.
Marla: Yeah, that did look better. I agree that it looks like you get scrunched up and those handholds are small. Hey, is that undercling thumb catch above you any good? It might allow you to stretch out and keep your butt in.
Josh: Hmmmm. Let me see. Take up. Maybe that will help hold me in while I get my foot up to the better hold. I’ll try. Climbing.
Josh pulls the move and proceeds to finish the route. Back on the ground, they continue their conversation:
Josh: That was a very tricky crux. I don’t know how I would have ever thought to do that onsight.
Marla: You did awesome. I did notice that when you hit that crux, you pretty quickly asked me to take you tight.
Josh: I didn’t have any idea what to do.
Marla: One thing that I do sometimes when I get to a stopper move is to downclimb and see if I can get some ideas from a more restful spot.
Josh: Yeah, I just didn’t think about that.

This is a very different conversation and much more productive in getting Josh to the top and in helping him learn something new. Take note of several aspects of their conversation:
The engagement level is very high. Marla is paying attention and interested.
Marla suggests ideas and doesn’t give commands. Marla offers beta while Josh is hanging, not in the middle of moves.
Josh is open to considering what Marla has to say.
Marla sandwiches her critiques with two positive comments. This is a classic technique to help people be receptive to what they might see as negative feedback.
Marla seems genuinely interested in helping Josh solve his problem.
We hope that this example gives you a sense of the attitude required for effective co-creative coaching. Attitude is extremely important, but there is more to a successful co-creative coaching relationship.

A good co-creative coach will:
1) Help set goals: Goals are key to improving performance and accomplishing just about anything. Climbing goals can be to onsight a certain grade, to learn to lead, to redpoint a particular route, or any number of things. A coach’s role in goal setting is to help their partner determine whether it’s an appropriate goal or not, based on several criteria (e.g., matches partner’s priorities; correct level of challenge).
For example, suppose I climb 5.10 and I decide that I want to free the Nose on El Capitan. A coach might ask me how long I think it will take me to prepare and improve my climbing to where I can reach my goal. They might ask me how long I’m willing to stay motivated in reaching my goal. If I say that I want to do it within a year, they might ask me for evidence that suggests to me that that is a reasonable goal.
Likewise, if I am not pushing myself much and have an easy goal, they may ask me how excited I would be when I accomplish my goal. If I say that I’d be ecstatic, they may ask me why.
A coach can also help a climber clarify their goals. Returning to the El Cap example, a coach may ask me about my timeframe and whether the goal is to lead every pitch. They may ask whether it has to be done in one push or if I plan to fix ropes and return to the ground.
Climbers should offer their own goals, but a coach can help the climber understand whether their goal is a good one and help clarify the details.

2) Help identify gaps in capabilities: Another key to successful co-creative coaching is to help your partner identify gaps in capabilities required to reach the goal. If I set a goal, and yet, I do not have all the capabilities to reach the goal, I need to work on developing them. A coach can help a climber identify the gaps and the means to address them.
Suppose that I want to redpoint Apocalypse 91 in Rifle, a powerful and pumpy 5.13. My coach may suggest that I take a burn on it and see where I have trouble. They may suggest that maybe my power endurance isn’t where it needs to be and that I need to work on it. Help create a plan to fill the gaps: Now the identified gaps must be filled, so a coach can help craft a plan to address them. For me, maybe it’s some system board training in the gym, or maybe it’s climbing some specific routes that will build my power endurance over a period of several weeks.

3) Help the person being coached stay on track in their plan: An important function of a coach is to help a climber stay on track to their plan. We all get distracted and deviate from our plans. A good coach can remind us of our plan and even help to modify the plan in the event circumstances require a change. Simple comments such as, “how’s the training going?” can spark a dialog about challenges that the coach may be able to help with.

4) Observe performance and provide feedback for improvement: An important aspect of coaching is to provide feedback based on observations of performance. Doing this requires skill, attention and tact. The coach has to be skilled enough in climbing movement to provide meaningful suggestions. This is not to say that the coach has to be an expert climber. The best co-coaching situation is often when two climbers of fairly similar abilities coach each other.
When one is observing a climber to be coached, the coach has to pay close attention to what the climber is doing when they climb. It’s easy to get distracted when belaying or spotting, but a coach has to really pay attention.
When a coach provides feedback, it needs to be given in a way that is non-judgmental, and should be as a question or suggestion, rather than a command. Instead of saying, “put your right foot in that pocket”, you might say “did you see that pocket out right?” Or you might say “have you thought about whether that pocket might be useful?”
When providing a debriefing after a climber gets back to the ground, a coach should engage the climber in a conversation about the climb. As mentioned previously, an effective technique is to open with some positive feedback, such as “you really looked smooth through that opening boulder problem.” You then probe or make suggestions about a troublesome part of the climb. You might say, “I notice that you struggled with the fourth clip. What was going on there?”

5) Celebrate: A coach and climber, especially when they are co-creative coaching partners will naturally celebrate victories together. Whether it be reliving the experience around the campfire or celebrating with a favorite beverage, celebration is an important part of a co-creative coaching relationship. They are part of the reason we climb.

I hope that you find this article useful and that you can engage your climbing partner in a co-creative coaching relationship. It will really improve your climbing ability. And it’s free!


Climbing with Rhythm

In a recent Climbing Movement class I’ve been taking, the instructor talked about how climbing is all about climbing between rest positions. This got me thinking about something that I wrote about in Jeff Elison and my book, Vertical Mind (coming soon). The article that follows is a modified excerpt from the book, and focuses on how to build productive mental scripts which allow you to climb with more rhythm, which in turn will give you more endurance and have you climbing harder routes.

Climbing a route is a matter of linking together a sequence of movements that vary in difficulty, which are stacked one after the other. Some routes are long and some are short. Some are very cruxy and some require lots of endurance. For most climbers, a limiting factor in success on their project routes is their ability to have the required power at the required moment on the climb. I can’t even count the number of times that I have peeled off a climb because I was too pumped or fatigued to do a cruxy move. I do however recall working a 5.12c route in the Gunks named Project X. I had worked the route off and on for a couple years, knew all the moves, but just could not seem to link it together.

The day that I finally sent Project X, I did so on my 3rd run. On the first two runs I had fallen at the redpoint crux, just shy of the anchors where you have to use a couple slopey handholds to get to the “5.8 section” (as I called it – yeah, right). So, how could I have sent the pumpy crux after having failed on it twice already? The difference is that on my third attempt I had the route broken down into sections of climbing (all of which I knew how to execute) delineated by good rest positions where I could think about recovering and the moves to follow. The start was an easy, yet awkward climb up a pillar on good holds to a rest. The next section involved a layback up to a difficult undercling overlap and a decent layback stance. Then onto traverse right to a good hand-jam rest. Now the big move up to a marginal crimp with sketchy feet. With the clock ticking, the final challenge was to move up through the nubbly slopers to the “5.8 section” and the anchors. The key was in finding the rhythm.

This applies to on-sight climbing too, maybe even more so. The difference in on-sight climbing is that you need to determine where the next rest is, determine a strategy on how to get there without falling, and execute your plan. In this case, rhythm can often be more challenging to find because of the anxiety experienced when faced with a possible fall or failure on the attempt. It is critical to be able to shift quickly between thinking and action to avoid the energy sapping act of hesitating mid-sequence. It is critical to get into the rhythm of THINK-ACT-THINK-ACT… and so on. To help train yourself to get into this rhythm, I suggest using the SUPER process described below.

You can use the SUPER process to aid in decision-making in the moment, when you are faced with fall potential.  You will need 30 seconds or so to run through this process, so it is not that useful in desperate situations, but the more you use it, the faster you will be able to execute it. In other words, this process is a script and, with practice, it will become faster and easier to implement in the heat of the moment. It will eventually be useful in desperate situations when you only have seconds to make a decision.

When faced with the decision of how to proceed, do the following:

  • Shift Focus: The first step is to shift your focus. Open your focus from a narrow, execution-based focus to an open focus where you take in all of your surroundings, notice every potential hold and determine your objective. Take the time to find the stance you’re aiming for, which likely is where you’ll clip the next bolt or place the next piece of gear. Examine potential paths and holds, looking to the left and the right, as well as directly up. Notice features, chalk marks, and boot-rubber marks. Take in your entire surroundings. As with all these steps, it will take time and repetition before you reliably execute this script to consistently focus your attention.
  • Understand: This is to understand the fall and the fall consequences. Are there objects to hit? Is there a lip of a roof to hit? Are there objects to swing into? Where will the gear be as you get to the next stance? How good is your gear? Are you uncomfortable with the gear and the fall? If not, improve the gear if possible.
  • Plan: Plan your strategy. If you’re comfortable with the fall, then decide on the strategy you’ll take to get to the next stance.
  • Execute: The next step is to execute the plan. Shift to narrow, execution-based focus. If you encounter something unexpected down low, retreat and rethink your strategy. If you hit the unexpected up high, remain relaxed, open your focus, determine your best option and execute.
  • Relax: Relax at the stance and place protection. Relaxation is a very general purpose script that applies to everyday situations.

Think-Play-Send!-manuscript_final Think-Play-Send!-manuscript_finalThink-Play-Send!-manuscript_finalUsing the exercise consciously will help you create a strong script and the resulting of habit. Doing so will help you be able to shift effortlessly between thinking and acting, which in turn will improve your chances of success on your chosen routes

A Simple Question that Made a Difference While Lead Climbing

I was out climbing at Shelf Road just outside Cannon City, Colorado with my wife and favorite climbing partner Sylvia, when I came upon an interesting technique that I thought I’d share because it really helped her get unstuck when trying to break back into leading after a long break from leading. We were climbing at a crag called The Vault and on a route that I think is 5.8, but which is not in my older guidebook. I had led it and really liked it. I did not imagine that Sylvia would want to lead it, since she has not been feeling strong and confident enough to start leading, having not led anything for a few years. I started to pull the rope through so that she could top-rope the climb, when much to my surprise, she asked if I thought that she should lead the route. I was thrilled because I felt that she had been climbing strong enough to start leading 5.8, and I also know that there is no better way to get back to leading than to start leading routes you are very capable of.

I happily pulled the rope, assuring Sylvia that she only needed to lead as far as she felt comfortable and that I would be very happy to lead the route again, so that she could top rope the route. This was a good plan in that it created a very safe situation for her. Sylvia and I went on to complete our pre-climb routine and safety check, and she started up to the first bolt on the wonderful grey scalloped rock.

Sylvia made her way to the 2nd bolt cautiously, getting her sea legs back again. Bolt by bolt I saw her posture relax as she began feeling more relaxed. I was super psyched when she made it through the mid-height crux with a little coaching. I could hear the excitement in her voice as she reached the last bolt, the anchor just a few moves away. Getting past the last bolt was very cruxy, with some crimpy finger pockets and a high step to a thigh height overlap. After trying a few different approaches, Sylvia asked me to take, so she could rest. She tried a few times to do the move off the dog and I made some suggestions from what I recalled, but she couldn’t seem to find a way to do the move that she was comfortable with.

Sylvia called down to me that I should just lower her, since she didn’t think she could do the move. I asked her, as I usually do, “You sure?” She yelled down to me that she knew what she would do if she was on a top rope. I yelled up to her, “what would you do?” She said that she would high step up with her left foot onto a flat spot at the overlap lip and lay back off the best pocket she had found. This was a perfectly safe situation with the last bolt at her waist level when she would have reached the anchors. Even a fall above that would be clean and safe. I yelled back, “Do that.” And much to my surprise, she did it, and then stood up and clipped the anchors.

Back on the ground, smiling ear to ear, she said, “what a great question you asked. That really helped me.”

So, what’s the tip or lesson here? Next time you are stuck at a move on lead and in a safe-fall situation yet still having trouble making progress, ask yourself what you would do if you were on top rope. If you know what to do, try it.

If your partner is stuck at a move at a bolt or piece of pro in a safe situation, ask them, “what would you do if you were on top rope?” It just may help them.

My climbing is suffering – to get better

As I wrote about in my last blog post, I am taking a climbing movement class at the City Rock gym in Colorado Springs. The first class had us focusing on precise and careful footwork, which was not new to me, although it made me revisit this important part of training for climbing. The second and third classes had us focus on finding and utilizing the Rose move in order to find effective rests and use the momentum in our hips to move more efficiently. While it is hard to describe, the Rose move involves dropping a knee while twisting your body and driving your hip into the wall, such that your weight is largely hanging on the arm that is farther from the wall. So, a right facing Rose move would have your right hand on a hold above your head such that your arm is straight. Your right foot would have its toe pointed to the right, while your left leg would be in a drop knee. The theory is that in this position, you can get most of your weight hanging on your skeleton and really engage your legs. In addition, this position enables efficient dynamic movement, really utilizing your legs.

I have to say that I have found this difficult to put into action. It did not take me very long to understand and find the rose position, but it is taking me a while to learn to be able to move out of this position and not have my feet pop off as I rotate them. From my early training as a trad climber I have developed the habit of careful foot placements, where the objective is to NOT have them move. So, this technique is challenging for me to learn. I have been playing with it in the gym and even experimented outdoors this weekend while climbing at Shelf Road. I have been able to feel how this technique allows me to really take advantage of momentum as I move to new positions, but I still have issues with my feet sometimes popping off holds as I rotate. I find that I really have to be very conscious of not only my foot positions on holds, but how much force I use to push with them.

I’m happy to experiment with learning this new technique, since I have been told by climbing partners and some coaches that my climbing would improve if I could move more fluidly and take advantage of momentum more. I am also rehabilitating my elbow from a case of tendonitis, so this is a great opportunity to focus on my technique. I have to say that it is disheartening when a foot pops when working on this technique in situations where I would never have a foot pop. But, as Jeff Elison and I discuss in our upcoming book Vertical Mind, you need to be able to put your ego aside in order to make big improvements in your climbing. Our egos hold us back. The best environment for learning is one where the objective is not goal attainment, but skill mastery. Most climbers spend little time doing pure skill development because they enjoy the act of climbing so much. Technique development is analogous to learning your times tables. Repetition is key and can sometimes feel monotonous. The trick is to try and make it fun and Jeff and I provide some ideas on how to do this in Vertical Mind.

Do you have times in your training that are totally devoted to skill mastery and devoid of goal attainment? If not, you may want to consider it. It is the quickest and most effective way to modify your habits. In future blog posts I will report out whether this technique helps my climbing or not.

Reflections on Movement Training Class

After what was a great summer climbing season, I developed a case of elbow tendinitis. I decided that, rather than keep pushing through it, which would likely end poorly, I would take it easy for a few weeks and rehabilitate. On top of the icing, scraping, stretching, and NSAID use, I decided to take a climbing movement class at City Rock in Colorado Springs. I figured, what better way to use my rehab time than to focus my energy on developing some better technique. I thought I’d share my experiences from this class in my blog, so here goes.

My wife Sylvia and I are taking the level 1 (of 4) class, which focuses on four basic climbing topics; footwork, balance, straight arms, and momentum. The class started out with an overview of the philosophy to be seen throughout the class. I found the philosophy, one of developing good habits through deliberate repetition in a controlled environment, very interesting because it is very well aligned with what Jeff Elison and I write extensively about in our book, Vertical Mind (due out soon).  Jeff and I write about the formation of scripts, and you can read a little more in this recent blog post.

The first class focused on footwork, with an extreme focus on precise foot placement, and focusing weight on the tip/toe of your climbing shoe. The drills forced the class to move extremely slow and precisely place their feet on specific holds or parts of holds pointed to by the instructor. We also did a drill where wine corks were placed on footholds, making them very hard to use. The corks also fell off the holds easily and the goal was to use as many footholds with corks on them as possible, while not knocking any off. This is harder than it sounds. The focus on using the tip/toe of the show made me think of a training video that I made about the anatomy of the human foot and how it plays into climbing footwork. You can watch the video here.

The drills in the class reminded me of drills I did when I first started climbing. People at Rocksport, the gym I used to climb at in New York, were footwork fanatics and the result is that I developed good footwork early on. Despite having done drills like this in the past, I found that the class made me rethink how I train my footwork. I’ll be practicing these drills in the upcoming weeks and I hope that it results in better movement when the going gets tough. Stay tuned as I report out on the balance, straight arms, and momentum classes.