In climbing and the pursuit of pushing one’s limits—whether it’s your first lead or breaking into 5.12s—focus plays a pivotal role in channeling your best performance. As a professional climber, I learned this from years of pursuing sport climbs and boulders at my limit.
A lot of my strategies on mental focus developed through trial and error, but I also picked up advice from other top climbers. A pivotal takeaway was that being focused isn’t what I thought it was—rather, quite the opposite.
I always thought that focusing for climbing meant zooming in and analyzing all the details, which in some ways it is, however it’s more important to open your perspective and let go of all the details getting in the way. This means clearing your mind so ultimately there is only one thing left to do: Climb. With this way of thinking, I’m able to better move uninhibited.
In my experience, focus begins with one simple action: Identifying an objective. Once this is achieved—which in reality can be challenging, so take your time—it’s easier to figure out which variables are in your favor and those which hold you back. Objectives can be many different things, from a singular and specific route or boulder, to increasing your flash grade, to a spring trip somewhere, etc. It’s best just to rely on what motivates you most, that way when the training is challenging, it’s easier to remind yourself why you’re working so hard.
Simplify things. To focus means to narrow your sight on a singular item. In climbing this could mean to eliminate the factors holding you back, i.e., working on your weaknesses. The less you fixate on a weakness, the better you’re able to focus on the objective. Thoughts like, “This route is too crimpy,” “I’m scared of the run-out,” or “I don’t have enough endurance” are all examples of things we tell ourselves. However, the more we work on transforming these thoughts into strengths, the less they will interfere in the process. Remind yourself, the dominant factor in holding us back is negative self-talk. Maybe you have a bad day and honestly, that’s a normal part of the process. However, instead of blaming it on those weaknesses, ask yourself how can you show up better prepared for the next session, or while you’re still there, view it simply as a part of improvement (which it is). This constructive thought process will, in time, help forge a more positive outlook on your performance, and therefore become an asset.
Build confidence. You’ve identified where you can make improvements, now it’s time to acknowledge what you’re good at. We naturally gravitate towards those climbs or objectives in which we feel the most comfortable. For example, I find that power-endurance/endurance is my strength, therefore I typically train by bouldering to build up enough power to climb more hard moves in a row. With that in mind, I know I can build endurance easier than power (as is the case with most people), so the whole process of improvement becomes more simple. I’m also more inclined to push my training further when it’s my strength. While with long-term progression it’s important to pursue many different climbing styles, gaining confidence on those climbs that suit us helps create momentum. This momentum is so important in maintaining confidence; and when you’ve got confidence, staring up at the big project will seem less intimidating.
Accept failure as part of the game. I have to admit, this is my least favorite part of the process. If our goals push us hard enough, it’s naive to think we will complete them without any form of failure. Failure has a negative reputation, but I view failure as opportunity and a platform for growth. If we’re truly out there to challenge ourselves, then we will meet resistance. This resistance will highlight where you need to improve. It’s a tough-love routine. The sooner you accept where you’re falling short, the sooner you’re able to make adjustments to encourage better results.
Let It Go
Let it go. Trust me, I’m a fan, if not a believer of willing yourself through objectives—trying something over and over again, not letting go, and maintaining a merciless optimism regarding the next try. This will-power, discipline, determination, whatever you want to call it, is beneficial to an extent. But it can also bring you down.
Knowing the line of when to keep trying and when to take a step back is difficult, but also may be one of the most important factors for achieving success. When you attach a copious amount of pressure to success, that pressure can inflate the objective. It typically comes in a few forms, the most obvious being, you’re simply not motivated anymore: the same warm-up routine, anxiety over the crux moves and/or failure on them, your skin worn out from the same holds, etc. This all sounds daunting, however it should be the stuff you enjoy in the beginning of a project. That’s the sweet spot (when you enjoy the hard stuff), where you’re best able to climb freely because you know you’ve put in the work.
I’ve prepared, traveled, and proceeded to try my objectives over and over again—through the good days, bad days, whatever days. It helped, but many times, I was shut down, too tired to continue but also too stubborn to admit that. In reflection, all I needed was to take a step back, rest a couple extra days, climb on other routes, or visit different areas. Eventually, I worked through specific projects, but a common theme started to appear—I would finish projects most consistently after returning from a long hiatus. Yes, I would still train and prepare, build things up, but so often success would come within the first two weeks of a trip. I had to broaden my view, and let go of little things that were getting in the way and negatively affecting my thoughts. The less that goes through your mind before you pull on the wall, the easier it becomes to just climb and move with natural confidence.
My best memory of this process is my ascent of La Rambla, 5.15a, in Siurana, Spain. I sieged through it for a few weeks with Matty Hong and Margo Hayes, where they both made ascents, and I fell short. It wasn’t their ascents that bothered me, if anything they inspired me, but it was my own mind that was getting in the way. Any sort of obstacle that would appear, as simple as not feeling “great” on the warm-up, would get in the way. I subconsciously was sabotaging any success. I would complain about skin issues, the moves being reachy, and getting too pumped, meanwhile Margo, having only bouldered before the trip, was pumping off but raging forward, confident, even with all ten fingers taped from cuts. She sent, multiple days on, bleeding all over the rock. One of the most impressive things I’ve ever witnessed—and I learned from her approach. I stepped away, and when I came back the next year, I didn’t let anything interfere with my inspiration and drive to succeed. After a week and half back, I sent right after a snow storm, when many people gave up climbing that day because it was “too humid.” Against the odds, my confidence and ability to overlook the negative obstacles got me to the chains that day.
Improving your performance can become overwhelming, so it’s important to remember that climbing and training should at some point be enjoyable. Once it’s not, take a break or that extra rest day. Ultimately, improvement and focus is about consistency, and the best way to achieve that is to show up ready for more.
Feature image: Jon Cardwell calm and composed on Joe Mama, 5.15a, Oliana, Spain. See his strategies for finding, and retaining, focus for hard climbing. Photo by Matty Hong