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On being present. Climbing and Mental Game

On being present.  Climbing and Mental Game

HoldBreaker Team |

There are many aspects that appeal to me about climbing but the mental game is one of the major ones. In my 33 years on the planet I have yet to find anything that challenges me so consistently in the mental arena. It doesn’t matter how long I have been climbing for, climbing will present me with obstacles to overcome. It brings me face to face with my ego and self doubt; it is humbling and yet at once empowering. It forces my consciousness into the present in a way far more brutal and unavoidable than yoga. There is nothing like being several feet above your last piece of protection to focus your awareness on exactly what is in front of you.


In a world where we can’t even wait two minutes in the line at the supermarket without pulling out our phones, because we are so used to constant stimulation, we rarely focus on what is right in front of us. My mind is often so jumbled with half-formulated plans, ideas about what I’m going to cook for dinner, home improvements, something funny I just saw that I want to share with my sister, that I’m half living in some dreamland. I could be sitting with a book open in front of me, I could be midway through a conversation with someone (I might even be the one doing the talking) but I’m only partially present. The rest of me has skipped along ahead. She might look like she is here but she’s mentally composing her next Instagram post.


I am a planner - although I’m not fond of keeping plans I secretly enjoy making them. I am guilty of always looking forward. I love making lists, trying to order the chaos of my brain by putting it on paper. But planning can be dangerous: this tendency to plan ahead inhibits my ability to be in the moment. I get excited about things to come but I’m missing the here and now. On more than one occasion I’ve caught myself thinking about when I will return to a particularly breathtaking climbing spot whilst I am still there. How absurd to be planning the return instead of savouring the moment.

 Climbing and Mental Game - female climber sport climbing outdoors


I’m guilty of multi-tasking too. Or trying to, anyway. I’m eating my breakfast whilst looking at things online, catching up on correspondence or reading articles. I look down at my plate - now just a pile of crumbs - and wonder what happened… I barely remember eating my toast. I love eating, I love food, and I just robbed myself of that experience because my brain was somewhere else.


Being in the moment, being present, focusing your awareness or whatever you like to call it isn’t easy. There are a plethora of self-help books, philosophical texts, and online articles dedicated to this end. Many of the activities that you find people get really passionate about are linked into this idea. Yoga, dance, climbing and surfing are some I have experienced; no doubt there are many more and they vary for the individual. I have a friend who told me he experiences it in his academic pursuits. These activities allow you to tap into a state called ‘flow’, so-named by a Hungarian-American psychologist named Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. A state characterised by total absorption in the task at hand, and a loss of ego, or self-awareness and a distortion of temporal experience. There are actually six elements Csíkszentmihályi and Nakamura identify in "Flow Theory and Research" as necessary for a flow experience:


  1. Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  2. Merging of action and awareness
  3. A loss of reflective self-consciousness
  4. A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
  5. A distortion of temporal experience, one's subjective experience of time is altered
  6. Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience


(If you’re not ready to get all the way into psychology texts, Wikipedia does a good job of breaking it down: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology)#cite_note-PsychologyProfessor2001-2)

 Climbing and Mental Game - female climbing outdoors


For me, climbing is the epitome of this. It combines the beauty of movement with the skill of technique and route-finding with an element of fear, or arousal, as it is referred to by Csíkszentmihályi (arousal being the opposite of boredom). Fear is an important factor, one as a climber I deal with every time I tie in to climb. Sometimes it is only a vague sensation of anxiety. Sometimes every part of me is screaming out in rebellion against making another move above my last piece of protection. Objectively I know that falling is fine, but something basic and primal in me does not want to fall. And so I play this game with myself, with my head. I breathe, I listen to my breath and try to focus my attention on that, on the rock under my hands, on the next few moves that will get me to the next bolt and safety. My world becomes very small. It is the length between bolts on a rock climb, it is half a dozen moves, it is 10 inhalations and exhalations. It might be a crystal in a piece of granite or a tiny crimp rail I can fit a quarter pad of my fingertips on. And when it comes together perfectly, there are no thoughts, there is only movement, an upward dance against gravity. The flow takes over, it is a moving meditation and at the end you have no idea of how much time has passed or how exactly you got to where you are now.


It doesn’t always go like this though. Sometimes it is an uphill battle. Literally and figuratively. My brain won't be quiet: ‘I’m tired’, it says, ‘I’m scared’, ‘I can’t’, ‘I don’t want to’. At which point my muscles lock up, my breath gets ragged and my heart rate spikes, I perspire and overgrip on holds I should be comfortable and relaxed on. Instead of being present in the moment my mind has run away into a potential future and is freaking out about what it thinks may happen. I’m clinging to the side of a cliff and instead of staying with me and helping me with the task at hand it’s skipped along ahead into the uncertain future, and its predictions are poisoning my present. This is where the mental game comes in. Reeling myself back in. It takes some deep breaths and little pep talk. It takes mental discipline. It’s not easy to control your own mind, particularly when you are at your physical limit (or your self-perceived physical limit).

 Climbing and Mental Game - female climber sport climbing


I play games with myself. ‘Just one more move,’ I say, ‘you’re at your bolt, you’re safe here,’ then when I have climbed up above the bolt and I want to fall even less, ‘just one more move to that good hold,’ or ‘just two more moves and you can clip that next bolt.’ The more I do it, the more I push myself and have success the easier it gets. I know that I’ve been on smaller holds and more pumped out, that despite that, I’ve been able to rest and make the clip. I’ve done it before, I can do it again. I just need to breathe and relax. I need to fight the panic that rises in my throat when I feel tired. When it feels like my fingers can’t hold on any longer. I know if instead of letting my mind run scared into the future that I can be calm, that I can make adjustments to my posture, that I can let go with one hand and shake out, that I can get a little back. That I can control my breathing and through that control my heart rate. That by staying here in this moment I can achieve far more than I can if I let my mind run away from me. Perhaps more than I believed I could to start with.


The human brain is a powerful thing. If we believe we can’t do something, it’s unlikely we'll ever even try to do it. Climbing and the mental discipline surrounding it has taught me a lot about myself and how my brain works. It’s taught me patience and discipline, how to deal with failures and overcome obstacles, but at the centre of it all is this: how to be present. And I am still learning. Every single time I tie in I am learning. Every time I fight the battle anew. These lessons I take away with my and apply to my day-to-day living. That is a constant battle too; not to check my phone every time I have a spare moment. Not to look for something to read whilst eating my breakfast. Not to multitask but rather to do one thing well at a time. It’s not easy, but I’d rather live in the present than in the hypothetical future.


(For further reading on the psychology behind climbing I recommend: Vertical Mind by Don McGrath, Ph.D. and Jeff Elison, Ph.D.)


Name: Emma Ayling 
Instagram: @emayling

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