Rock climbing is one of the most physically demanding sports, one that often tests a climber’s physical and mental strength, endurance, intricate footwork, agility and balance.

But contrary to what many people believe, success in the sport of rock climbing is dependent upon more than a long list of physical factors.

Many climber surveys, and psychological research all point to mental strength as the most influential factor in whether a climber succeeds or not.

This is the case for rock climber Paul Robertson, who spoke to Mental Grit about the mental side of rock climbing and how he develops his mental strength.

“Rock climbing is 80-90% mental because for me, some days I will attempt something that is super easy and just fail and then attempt something that I didn’t have high expectations to succeed with and do great on it,” said Paul, who successfully completed a 5.13 route.

The Balancing Act

As the saying goes our bodies were made primarily to carry our brains, meaning you might be in great physical shape but if you don’t have an equally strong and willing mind, chances are you will not achieve optimal sports performance as an athlete.

“I always try to find that sweet spot of mental stability, not pressuring yourself to perform super hard. Whenever I’ve said to myself that I have to do this I end up messing it up, but when I approach it thinking that I see what I can learn from this experience and go with an open mind I’m often surprised at what I can do,” Paul added.

Rock climbing is a very challenging sport. No climber is a stranger to overcoming challenges – no wonder rock climbers are regular figures on motivational posters and publications.

For Paul his mental battles have been with a lack of enough self-confidence, self-doubt and a fear of failure.

“The main onV I’ve had so often is my mind telling me that I haven’t worked hard enough (training and preparation) to climb this so I’m going to fail. Pushing through it is pretty tough, that’s the reason it took me a full season to do just one climb, just fighting against that thought was very tough.”

Paul has used a couple mental skills techniques to overcome his mental struggles

Imagery and Visualization

“I’ve done a little mental skills training – when I was working on my first 5.13 I was in a cave and I leaned against a big boulder to look at my route and imagined myself doing all the moves. There was one move where I kept falling off in reality so I imaged going through without falling off.”

The skill of imagery is so impactful due to the brain-body connection. Any image we create will essentially send the signals from mind to muscle that are used. These signals are only weaker as to not actually create muscle movement but gain strength as we integrate the senses. This essentially is about creating the most vivid and realistic image you can to gain mental strength. The image also affects confidence and motivation. For example, have you ever imagined yourself playing your sport at that peak level you know you are capable of? When you image this kind of scenario what happens do your body? In most cases, the image will produce a sense of heightened awareness and a sense of confidence. It can be used in almost any situation.

The problem that most people have with the skill of imagery is when they are not able to control the image they produce. For example, a climber imaging a move but rather than progressing through the move and flowing into the next with poise, balance, strength and confidence, he could image a slip or a misplaced step, or even the feeling of anxiety or nervousness when approaching the move.

Critical Message: If you are going to image, be sure to follow this simple rule. Image the movement exactly they way you would want it to be performed, both body and mind. If you can not control the image, do your best to stop imaging and move your attention to something that is helpful. My suggestion of what is helpful? The breath!.

The mantra technique (a word or sound repeated to aid concentration in meditation) has also worked for Paul. Mantras are one of the most impactful tools a person can have to help them get through hard moments. Connecting feelings, attitudes, and emotions that are helpful to the athletes’ mission to a word. Essentially a cue to bring up those feelings, attitudes, and emotions in a single word at any time the athlete needs it to gain the mental strength they need.

“The mantra in my mind was I belonged up there (finish point) and not down there (beginning point). I wouldn’t feel like I had to fall I’d feel like its ok that I’m up here doing this strenuous move 80ft off the ground because I belong here so it’s not so strange.”

Overcoming Fear – Mental Strength
Fear and fear of failure are a constant source of stress or anxiety that sabotages an athlete’s performance.

Considering the aerially challenging nature of the sport, rock climbing is one of those daredevil-ish sports where there’s simply no room for fear. But many of us have experienced fear of failure at some point in our lives including Paul.

“Whenever it hits me I breath really deeply and bring myself back into my body and just keep moving. Even though the negative part of my mind is saying I should stop because I could seriously hurt yourself, the more effective side says shut up let’s keep climbing and see what happens.”

“When I do that I’m able to calm myself down enough to get through that tough phase.”
Accomplished professional climber Alex Honnold said “The process of overcoming your own fear all the time helps put life’s other challenges into perspective” in an interview with the Huffington Post.

This is true in the case of Paul as his ability to effectively apply this mental skill technique while rock climbing has translated to real life situations.

“There are times in life where other people might shun you because you didn’t do something the way they did it. I felt a fear in my life of not being legitimized by my peers because I didn’t get to where they are the way they did.”

“But what people don’t know is that you can get to that point or even higher a totally unusual way and nothing is stopping you from doing that but yourself.”
Are you physically correct but face similar mental hindrances that negatively affect your performance as an athlete? Are you struggling to overcome these psychological pitfalls?

You can train your brain like you train your body by doing mental skills training. Let us help you develop mental strength!