The Winning Mind
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I started climbing in 1978 while attending St. David’s College in Llandudno, North Wales. I was 15 years old. We had a climbing club and would go out Wednesday and Saturday afternoons. If the weather was good we would make it to Llanberis Pass in Snowdonia or local cliffs such as the limestone of Craig y Forwyn.
I fell in love with the freedom climbing gave—the danger, the adrenaline and the physical side of trying to achieve something new. I also liked the fact there was no finish line, no score at the end of the game. It was as if you could never lose. Climbing at its essence is an individual sport, there’s no crowd to cheer—it’s just you up there in your own private battle.
Within a year I was a climbing junkie and absolutely hooked. I spent all my break time finding traverses on the limestone walls of the school buildings, imagining I was out on the cliffs. I aspired to be like the famous climbers I had seen in the magazines, people like Mark Hudon, Max Jones, John Gill, Ray Jardine, John Bachar and Ron Kauk. Sometimes I would wear a headband and baggy white trousers like the Yosemite Stonemasters. A poster of Bachar in white painter’s pants on Midnight Lightning is seared into my memory.
I wasn’t a great climber. I could climb 5.8 and had seconded a couple of 5.9s. Most notable was my lead of Ivy Sepulchre (5.9), my first HVS (hard very severe). Ron Fawcett, an early British rock star and another of my heroes, was on the crack that day filming a new route he had done, the ultra-classic Lord of the Flies (E6 6a/5.12a R). As he left the crag he turned and looked at me leading the route. I was so excited—Ron had seen me climb. The next time I did Ivy Sepulchre was four years later when I down-soloed it after I had soloed up Right Wall (E5 6a /5.11+).
One summer holiday I climbed every day for hours on the back of my parents’ garden wall. With blocks of wood nailed to the cement between the bricks, I had made my own climbing wall. This was the late 1970s, long before climbing walls or artificial holds. By the end of that summer I could climb all over the wall just on the small brick edges. On returning to school in the fall my climbing grades had improved significantly, and by the time I was 17 I was climbing solid 5.12 and doing some of the hardest routes in the country, including Strawberries (E7 6b/5.12d PG13), a gently overhanging crack at Tremadog, and Lord of the Flies (E6 6a/5.12a R), a vertical and rather quite scary pocketed line on Dinas Cromlech. Both of these were Fawcett routes.
One year later I made the first ascent of Little Plum (7c+/5.13a) at Stoney Middleton, probably the hardest route in the country. Little Plum was quite a short pitch, involving a boulder problem where you slap to a small edge off an undercling with your left hand from a very small pinch with your right. No one had done that move. I started climbing the bottom section and was aware that two of the best climbers of the time, Kim Carrigan and Dougie Hall, were walking past and stopped to watch. It was the motivation I needed. I slapped for the edge, my body sagging out, and I just barely managed to stick it. That early success is such a great memory even though Little Plum is quite an insignificant route now.
At that time there was no such thing as a professional climber, but I knew I had to try. So I did. I had to follow my dream, and at age 17 I left school and went for it. By the age of 23 I was one of the first professional climbers. Wild Country and Boreal, my initial sponsors, paid me to go climbing. It was a dream come true. I climbed full-time until I was around 40. I was extremely driven and motivated to make a name for myself. I always had a new goal, and I made plans in my mind for how I could best achieve that goal. In many ways, I was already developing the type of mental strength that set me up for success.
MY FIRST COMPETITION
My approach to climbing, from a beginner to a professional, never changed that much. In essence, climbing was still me against the rock, fighting it out. Of course, doing first ascents or onsights of new grades of difficulty brought on certain pressures. But that’s what I wanted to do. I relished the challenge and pressure. It was what I had grown up doing and I expected it of myself. It felt normal for me to visit other countries and repeat their hardest routes quickly and add some of my own that were harder. It was the natural progression of my climbing.
My finest year was 1983. I got the first ascents of Oyster and Masterclass in Wales, among the world’s first 5.13b’s. I did Oyster at the start of the year, then The Face in Germany, the world’s first 5.13c. I was strong mentally and felt if I had the strength, conditions and good enough skin I would send the route. If I was trying a new project I would think about it endlessly, running through the moves in my head. I was unaware that I was using the powerful force of visualization, which today nearly all climbing coaches agree is a central component to hard climbing. For me, it came naturally. It was all fun and there weren’t external pressures creating anxiety and affecting my performance. Sure, I didn’t succeed on everything. Sometimes I lost my temper and got frustrated. It just meant I would have to go back and try again. And I always did.
From 1984 to 1987 I did not climb due to elbow injuries. It was a tough time. When I started climbing again competitions were in full force. The first climbing competition took place in 1985, in Bardonecchia, Italy, and Germany’s Stefan Glowacz took home the top prize. Competitions were new and all the top climbers were doing them. The events brought money and publicity into the sport. My goal was to be the best climber in the world. It sounds cocky but it’s true. With all the top climbers competing, it would be impossible for me not to do the competitions.
In 1987, I was invited to a competition in Troubat, just outside the French Pyrenees. It was my first competition.
Pretty much all of the top climbers were there: Glowacz, Marc and Antoine Le Menestrel, Patrick Edlinger, Jean Baptiste Tribout, to name just a few. Ben Moon and I drove all the way from England. The journey was epic. Unfortunately Ben rolled his car three times into a wall two days before we were due to leave England. Lucky boy didn’t even get a scratch. I had to get a car quick and the cheapest one I could find was a Citroën Dyane 2cv. It topped out at 60 mph, but only if you were going downhill with your foot on the clutch!
Driving through France I remember it being a hot day, a real scorcher. First, the brakes went out, so we got that fixed. About an hour later Ben said his feet were getting hot, then we could smell burning. After pulling over and opening the hood I realized the engine was on fire. In a panic we ran from the car. Oh shit, our gear! we thought. We ran back. I couldn’t believe what happened next. The car started up due to the heat— the fire heated the spark plugs and fuel got pumped into the engine somehow without us turning the key—and because I had left it in gear it started to bunny hop and drive all on its own. Fortunately, a lorry driver pulled over with a fire extinguisher and reached in and pulled it out of gear. Our insurance covered a rental car for the next two weeks.
Needless to say, we were exhausted before the competition had even begun. Because there weren’t a lot of artificial walls, the competition organizers had to find a new route on a cliff. For the competition format, you had to do one on-sight and a redpoint after one hour of working the latter on the previous day.
Wouldn’t I look good winning my first competition? I thought. Well, it didn’t happen. I climbed as if I had never seen rock before, except not in the way you are think- ing. I climbed terribly. I was so nervous I was completely out of my comfort zone. I had never climbed in a competition. I either climbed too quickly or too slowly, gripping holds much too hard. My basic problem was that I did not think of myself as a competition climber. I complained about everything, like the traveling to the competition. I didn’t like the isolation zone or warm ups. I did not like having an audience or being told when I had to climb. These thoughts would never help me climb to my full potential and held me back. I was not alone, however, and many of my friends also climbed well below their abilities.
My solution to the lackluster performance? Get more power and more endurance. Maybe lose a little weight. And that’s what I did.
Two years later, in 1989, I was living in Germany and there was a big competition in Munich. There was a purse of over $4,000, which was a lot of money for climbers. It was an invitation-only Master’s comp and was prior to the first World Cup events. All the top names would be there. I trained like hell, got more endurance, more power and got down to 134 pounds, which is super light for someone 5-foot-11. I was in the best shape of my life. And yet, I climbed terribly in the qualification round, barely scraping up the route. I stood under the semi-final and said to myself, Please, please climb good. Luckily, I did, and got higher than anyone else. In the final I got about 10 feet up, then while crimping a small edge and letting random thoughts into my mind, I had a foot pop and I was off. I was devastated.
A week or so later the proverbial light went on. I realized I didn’t need more power, or endurance. I didn’t need to lose weight. I needed to be strong mentally. I needed to know what exactly I should be thinking. If I couldn’t utilize my power or technique under pressure, I would never win.
Rather than whine about competitions, telling myself I didn’t like them and it’s not real climbing, I told myself I loved competitions, I loved the pressure, the more people watching the better! And so on. I convinced myself I would not be beaten and would win. On competition day, I climbed the first couple of qualification routes really well and made it to the final. In the final, three of us got to the same point by slapping and touching the same hold. It then went down to a super-final with the two other climbers, Simon Nadin and Didier Raboutou.
Thankfully, I had blocked out the memories from Munich a month earlier. I was the last climber out and determined to do the route. Everything was perfect. I sent the super-final and won definitively. It was one of the best performances of my life. I would not say it felt easy; on the contrary, I had to fight like hell, but I managed to focus on the next move then on the next move after that. I did not get ahead of myself. I climbed with a present state of mind, or, depending on your choice of words, I was in the zone or in the flow state.
If I had not read Bassham’s book I would not have won Leads. This is a certainty.
I went on to win plenty of big competitions over the next year, like Bercy in Paris, in 1990, which had the highest prize money and was probably the biggest competition at that time. I won the London National in 1990, and placed second in Vienna. The Maurienne Masters, also 1990, was another big win, which was a five-day epic with artificial, bouldering, speed and on-sight climbing on real rock … then again on artificial. It was exhausting. In June of 1989, I was ranked #1 in the ASCI World Competition Ranking, and in 1990 I was still #1 and voted by my peers in the top French magazine to be the most prolific male climber of the 1980s. Quite rightly, Lynn Hill was the most prolific woman of that period.
Then I quit competitions. My reasons for quitting were all the traveling and the work required to gain endurance, a crucial element for competition on-sighting. I wanted to get back to finding new routes and travelling to undiscovered places. I gave myself a break thinking, one day I will get back into the competitions. But the urge never returned.
When top climbers, athletes, business men or women say mental attitude is the most important thing, they say it with good reason. The way you think will ultimately determine what you become.
As a result of our conversation, I changed some of my ideas and concepts, such as the fact that being optimistic is always good. It isn’t. If you’re too optimistic at the outset you may not plan. If you fall you might think, no problem, I’ll just do it next go. To the contrary, it is better to anticipate the problems you will encounter, know what you are going to do about them and build the optimism on that. This goes for all sports, and climbing is not unique. When the pressure is on and something is really important to you, the mind can go into a tail spin, conjuring up all sorts of problems. It’s no different if you are trying a one-move boulder problem or a 50-meter pitch—you need to be ready for all the eventualities. Preparedness calms the mind.
Five-time World Cup bouldering champion Kilian Fischhuber was brilliant when he spoke about his process of visualization. To prepare himself for the unforeseen, a few weeks prior to competing, Kilian would visualize the problems he might encounter or things that might throw him off. As one of the most successful competitors of all time, you would think the one person who would not need to constantly anticipate problems, and who could just go in with full confidence, would be Kilian. And yet, he competed with a fundamental pessimism.
THE EFFECT OF FAILURE
Most climbers are unaware of just how much constant failure affects performance. The experiences of success and failure are not equal. The negative impact of one failure is not the same as the positive impact of one success on your confidence. There are obviously big differences between people, but research shows that the ratio of top athletes might be five successes to one failure. More common for mid-level athletes could be around 30 successes to one failure. Boxing coaches, for in- stance, talk about getting easy fights for their athletes to “get their confidence up.”
You build confidence from repeated successes. Often overlooked is the fact that remembering those successes is of vital importance. A pronounced failure for me would be the Munich competition in 1989, where I failed in the super-final. Days later I kept thinking about it, again and again telling my- self how bad I was and how I was never going to win a competition. I told myself competitions were not for me and psychologically I beat myself up. I was talking failure and visualizing failure—it’s quite easy to see how detrimental that is going to be if you are ever going to compete again. You don’t want to reinforce your failures, you want to do the exact opposite and focus on your successes.
Adam Ondra is extremely adept at reinforcing his successes. Before attempting a route, he visualizes and remembers how good he felt in his warmups or recent days climbing. When working Silence, the world’s first 5.15d, he stayed off the route while he was recovering from a sickness so he wouldn’t generate a bad memory from working the moves when he wasn’t 100 percent. He wanted to minimize feelings of failure on the route.
Climbing is no different from any sport in terms of needing focus for success. Regardless of the sport, it takes a lot of work to achieve excellence … and you are not going to succeed immediately. For a gymnast to learn a certain move takes strength, concentration and years of practice. Even then the move isn’t guaranteed. If you can only make a complex vault nine times out of 10 you don’t want to think about that one time you can’t do it. It might not be difficult in practice, but when it comes to the Olympics and you have one go, that vault becomes much more difficult: it feels like your life depends on it. Focus is the only thing that can overcome this.
Margo Hayes, who recently made the first female ascent of a confirmed 5.15a, Spain’s La Rambla, really stood out for me. It was almost as if she had read the book I was to write before I interviewed her. She was already doing nearly all the things I was finding were characteristics of successful climbers, like goal setting, keeping a journal, writing positive declarations, visualizing, and keeping herself positive. I’m not surprised that she is successful.
Although I rarely climb these days, I continue to employ the ideas I learned from my climbing days—such as the knowledge of how a successful mind should think. When I retired from climbing my goal was to make my living independently. So, in 1991, I founded the Foundry Climbing Centre. We were one of the first gyms in the world to have a bouldering wall with taped problems and mats. These things are the norm now, yet it was cutting-edge back then. Still, I wanted to do more. Property business has always been lucrative and I set out buying houses, land and doing various deals. I made plans similar to my competing days. I outlined things that might go wrong and how I would react, such as the market crashing and how that would affect me. Was the timing right? Could I still afford it in a worst-case scenario? Having goals and making plans of how best to achieve them is critical in being successful, in climbing or business.
When I was younger I thought climbing was all about strength, power and climbing all day, every day. However, we know that getting the most out of your climbing depends on getting your mind in the right place to allow you to perform. When you can do that, you’re capable of succeeding under pressure in any situation.