A year ago, climbing was totally out of the question for me. In the fall of 2019, I herniated a disc in my lumbar spine, had back surgery, and struggled to recover. Physically limited, I felt lost, depressed and full of doubt. I was genuinely unsure if I would ever climb again.
As the months passed, I improved slowly, but I continued to suffer from significant nerve pain. That pain was a constant reminder that I was far from healed, and it really affected my confidence. I felt stuck, my thoughts consumed with fears, and I didn’t believe I was healing. In desperate need of a change, I turned my attention to my mind to refocus my energy and change my perspective. I started working with sports psychologist Dr. Chris Heilman. She introduced me to breathing and visualization exercises. Her book, Elevate Your Excellence, is an excellent resource that covers these topics in depth.
I found my new mental training to be extremely helpful for not only healing, but pushing my physical limit once more. Gradually, I returned to climbing, and then something interesting happened.
On December 24, 2020, a year after surgery, I achieved a goal I had been dreaming about for more than 10 years: I clipped the chains on Kryptonite, 5.14c/d, an iconic route at the Fortress of Solitude, near my home in Carbondale, Colorado. The route was established by Tommy Caldwell over 20 years ago, and was then considered the hardest route in the country. The quality, the difficulty and the historic nature of the route are all enough for me to consider Kryptonite to be one of my proudest climbing achievements to date. But more significantly, Kryptonite represented my recovery and personal growth. Looking back, I attribute a significant amount of my success to the energy I put towards mental training.
The mental side of climbing is huge and plays a significant role in our success or failure. Yet it remains an area of the sport overlooked by most. This is understandable. Digging into your own psyche can be intimidating, scary and downright frustrating—but the potential upside is tremendous.
Visualization practice, described below, was a particularly helpful aspect of that mental training. Visualization helped me heal, and then make a come back as a better climber.
How Visualization Works
Through visualization, you can effectively practice skills, prepare for performance and build confidence. Of course, visualization cannot take the place of physical training, or climbing, but being mentally prepared helps you make the most of your physical strength and ability.
A main principle in the concept of visualization is: Your brain doesn’t know the difference between what is real and what is made up. As long as what you imagine seems real, and you believe it to be real, your brain will also believe. Be detail-oriented when you sit down to visualize your climbing. Think about all your five senses and include them in your imagery. Think about the timing and speed of your climbing and about how you feel in specific crux moves. In doing so, you will create a more realistic visualization, which will be more effective when you are actually performing the real thing.
I created a blueprint in my mind of how to perform the move, and that helped me confidently master the move in practice.
Since climbing-specific visualization regards movement, another good practice to develop is kinesthetic imagery. Kinesthetic imagery is using movements or breath work in your visualization to make it more realistic. If it works for you, go full Ondra, lying on the floor with your eyes closed, screaming your way through the crux of your project. But I’d recommend starting simple.
Working on a specific skill, style or move can be a highly effective use of visualization. On Kryptonite, there was a technical heel hook move I wanted to master. To do this, I started by finding a quiet place to breathe, relax and get focused. Next, I moved my body in a way that replicated pulling with my heel. I then created a short movie of performing the heel hook. I visualized confidently setting the heel, applying the right pressure, pulling with the rest of my leg and core and confidently doing the move to reach the next hold. The move is hard, so I visualized myself trying hard, but also doing so smoothly, accurately and successfully. I created a blueprint in my mind of how to perform the move, and that helped me confidently master it in practice.
Once familiar with Kryptonite, I took all the information I had and created a detailed script of exactly how I wanted to perform when I climbed the entire route. In my script, I included everything about the day, exactly how I wanted it to be: from waking up, all the way through clipping the chains. I played the movie in my mind and saw myself trying hard, climbing well, and feeling the way I wanted to. This helped me learn subtle differences about my hip position and body orientation, which turned a marginal right knee scum into a rest. I even created scripts for more streamlined sequences in the crux sections, eliminating unnecessary foot movements. It was a really cool experience to return to the route for my next real session with improved beta and confidence after these at-home visualization sessions.
Visualization isn’t just about the climbing, it can be about the day as well. There can be a lot of information and a lot of detail in these visualization scripts, which may seem overwhelming. One way to approach this initially is by writing down the whole script, then recording yourself reading it and then do your visualization while listening to the recording. After a few sessions, you might find you no longer need the recording. Remember, your brain will believe the story you tell it, so make it a good one.
The following is a sample outline of this kind of script:
Morning: Coffee, breakfast, etc. … Set the mood and check in with how you feel.
Drive and walk to the crag: Conversations with your partner, the feeling of stoke for the day.
The warm-up: Checking in with your body and how it feels, the conditions, the vibe. Feeling grateful for a day outside.
Pre-climbing routine for your project: Will you feel excited, anxious, or nervous? Use this part of the script to get your mind in the right place for performance.
The climb: See yourself climbing the route well, with all the movement details and corresponding feelings. Keep your breathing in mind, as well as your self-talk. Replace doubt with confident affirmations. See yourself trying hard and succeeding.
Post climb: Remember to enjoy your success.
Hopefully some of this resonates with you. Take what does, leave what doesn’t. Keep in mind that visualization is a practice, and by practicing you are doing it. Be kind to yourself, and if it is hard at first, don’t judge. Continue practicing, and as with any new skill, you will find it becomes easier, more comfortable and familiar with repetition. Find a quiet place, breathe, be in the present moment, and then go climbing in your mind.
Dan Mirsky is a professional climber and coach. Able to be spotted in Rifle year round, he lives in Carbondale, Colorado.