Whether it’s fear of failure or fear of falling, if you haven’t at some point felt a little uneasy while climbing then you’re either superhuman or (more likely) lying. As a climber and climbing coach myself, I get to experience first hand some of the fears and challenges many of us encounter in our journeys to becoming better climbers.
It’s not just us amateurs who get scared, though: Louis Parkinson recently let us in on a little secret - that pros are sometimes afraid of falling too!
While most climbers will at some point invest in either technique coaching, climbing skill development or physical training plans, it’s still quite rare for non-elite climbers to dedicate any real time to training their minds. But what’s the point of having fingers of steel if you can't push to your limits because you’re too scared to fall? Even the world’s best footwork won’t stop you from freaking out on a 5m runout on a sketchy slab…
I recently chatted to Migue Sancho – a Granada-based mountain guide leading our Mindset Training trip – about his experiences teaching climbers tools to better manage their minds on the rock. We talked about what got him interested in mental training, his approach to helping clients overcome mental barriers, how to go about projecting, and dealing with lack of motivation. If you want to learn more, we also mention a few resources that might help you on your mental training journey.
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Migue headpointing Heavy Metal (7a+), a mixed route in Western Australia. He sent it the next day without any trad gear (meaning BIG runouts). © Migue Sancho
Hi Migue! Thank you so much for offering to chat to us about mental training. What got you so interested in this topic?
My story is a little unusual actually! I started climbing around the age of 20, but soon after this began to get a lot of pain in my back which forced me to stop climbing and even made everyday things like going to university very difficult. It took a few years for me to get any real answers, but I was eventually diagnosed with a severe form of arthrosis in my spine. I was advised to stop doing sport altogether – that was hard! Over the following years I did what I could to try and improve my pain with inconsistent results, climbing on and off due to backaches. However, when I did make it to the crag, I always felt super psyched and often found that my climbing game was stronger than my friends’. At the time, I didn’t pay much attention to this.
I ended up working as an engineer in Australia, working 50 to 65 hour weeks which left me no time to climb. It eventually became unbearable – I was constantly feeling sick and really stressed – so I made the decision to quit and switch careers. At this point, I started to read a lot about climbing and, as I learnt more about sports psychology, realised that I had been applying quite a lot of its principles to my climbing intuitively. I also began to see how a lot of tools developed to deal with fear and anxiety in climbing could be applied to everyday life, and that this was something I could help teach people.
In the end, I decided to specialise in mental training because pretty much every climber struggles with their head game to some extent. When I first started working in the industry as a coach and podcaster, I noticed that I would often see people getting really frustrated at the crag. These were people who loved climbing and trained really hard, but would get upset because they felt stressed or under pressure when on the rock. So I decided to teach people the tools they needed to deal with these frustrations, and it seems to help quite a lot!
Fear of falling is something that a lot of climbers struggle with. Here, Migue demonstrates how to all on Pulverizer 6c+ in Thakek, Laos. © Joseph Buchma
That’s really interesting. What are some of the most common issues you come across during these mental training workshops? How do you help climbers overcome these?
It’s really important to bear in mind that every climber is an individual with their own needs. Just like there’s no one-size fits all approach with physical training, you have to accept that everyone will respond differently when it comes to mental training. Even if you take something that is quite common – say fear of falling – once you dig a little deeper it becomes apparent that everyone's fear of falling manifests in a different way. As a result, there is no single magic 'tool' that works for everyone, and I have to accept that I might not be able to help everyone.
That being said, there are some issues that I come across more often than others. For example, a lot of people come to me saying that they are afraid of falling. However, when we dig a little deeper, it becomes apparent that it’s not exactly a fear of falling, but anxiety around losing control and letting go. I also work with a lot of clients looking to overcome fear or failure and develop self-efficacy. But most of my clients usually don’t come to me with a single overarching problem – they more often experience a broader set of anxieties surrounding climbing. They might not be used to falling, may have only fallen in contexts where it is really stressful, they may never have projected, or feel super uneasy on the rock. In these cases, the process is generally relatively simple. I'll help them develop some tools and tactics to manage their mindset, and soon they are projecting two grades above what they expected. If someone does come to me looking to overcome fear of falling after having had a traumatic experience, however, I take a completely different approach.
My role as a coach is to try my best to understand the person and their circumstances, and be there for them. I am not one to push people unnecessarily, I just give my clients the tools to help them if and when they are ready for this. It’s really important to meet people where they are at, whether that’s falling 10cm on a toprope or taking whips 2m above the quickdraw.
Irene Pozo climbing the classic 'Cleopatra 6c' at Cahorros, Granada. © Migue Sancho
That makes a lot of sense!
One of the things I struggle the most with is my head game while projecting. For some reason, I’m pretty confident onsight climbing but get really shut down when projecting routes. My hardest climbs have all been onsights or boulders I’ve sent 2nd or 3rd go – but I’d like to be able to really push my limits more. Do you have any advice?
Projecting can be really daunting because you’re often trying something that initially feels way beyond your limits. There are no shortcuts to getting better at it, but a few things can help.
First, you have to ask yourself the following questions: how much time do you have to project, and what are your goals for this? If you only get one day on rock per month, then maybe it’s not the right time to start projecting. However, if you do have the time to invest in a project, it’s something well worth trying. Projecting teaches you a lot of skills that will help your climbing more generally: self-efficacy, executing hard moves when tired (and maybe a little stressed), falling when trying hard. It can really help you push your onsight grade. If you do decide to try a project, my tip is to start with a ‘mini-project’ – something that you can send in 2 to 5 attempts – and build from this.
Migue fighting his way up 'Vespasian's Wall' (7b) in the Blue Mountains of Australia. This is one of his favourite sends, just hours before leaving the country for good! © Migue Sancho
My second tip is to avoid approaching the climb like an onsight. Instead, break the process down into steps and focus on achieving these one at a time. Most people will start by splitting the climb into sections and working the moves in each section in isolation. Once they have worked out the beta, they might try to link the moves in each section, and then link some of the sections together. The eventual goal is to link all the sections, allowing you to send the climb in one go. A nice way of thinking of it is that you’re setting yourself micro-projects within the project – maybe one day it’s working out the beta for the crux, then a few sessions later sending the climb clean from draw 8 to the top. If you celebrate completing each micro-project along the way, the process becomes much more rewarding.
I recently decided that I wanted to try something I found really hard – almost stupidly hard for me. The climb I chose is on a wall I really like, but completely my anti-style. It took me at least 15 tries to work out all the moves individually, and since then I have tried it maybe 40 or 50 more times. With a long-term project like this, it’s important to keep yourself entertained with something else – some fun climbing or onsight attempts. It’s also crucial to check in with yourself regularly and acknowledge when you have (and haven’t) made progress. If you’ve made no progress for 3 or 4 sessions in a row, then maybe it’s time to take a different approach.
Honestly, the whole process is so interesting, but it’s not something you can learn from without actually getting on a project. So go give it a try!
Migue taking some fun whips after celebrating his onsight of 'Muñeco Diabólico' (7b), Cacin, Andalusia © Taylor Petrie
When we talk about mental training for climbing, we often assume that this refers only to techniques we use while on a climb or just before pulling on. However, an issue I come across quite a lot off the wall is people struggling with lack of motivation. Do you have any tips for dealing with this?
Lack of motivation is not something I personally struggle with, but I do get asked about this quite a lot. In my opinion, motivation will come once you establish two things: 1) what your goals are with climbing and 2) how much time you are (realistically) prepared to devote to achieving these goals.
You have to be very honest with yourself. The first thing to establish if you are lacking motivation is whether climbing is something that’s really important to you. If the answer is yes, then ask yourself: what do I want to achieve? People who set themselves a goal they are really passionate about and establish what steps they need to take to get there rarely lack motivation. But those who don’t know what they are training for, or feel like they are not training in the right way to achieve their goals can lose motivation fast.
It’s also important to recognise that everyone – no matter how psyched – has days where they really don't feel like training. So put some systems in place to make it easier to train on those days you don’t want to! For example, a lot of the time I don’t want to drive 30 minutes to the climbing gym to do my training, so I’ve built a basic training set up in my home (a fingerboard, some weights, and a TRX). I can get a session done in 45 minutes without leaving the house – which works in my case as I go out on the rock a lot.
Finally, not everyone’s goals when it comes to climbing are performance oriented. A lot of people climb because they like the social aspect, or want to get fit while having fun. If this is the case and you’re wondering why you don’t feel motivated to do long fingerboarding sessions, well it’s because it doesn’t align with your goals. You just need to be honest about why you climb, and then motivation will come more easily.
Thanks for that! I’ve been feeling a bit demotivated when it comes to my climbing since the start of the pandemic, so I’m going to go away and ask myself these questions!
For many people, climbing isn't just about performance but having fun experiences with friends! © Massimo Cappuccio
Do you have any resources you’d recommend to those interested in learning more about mental training?
Of course! I have 4 books which I think are really interesting.
The first one is a book called 'Vertical Mind'. The authors Don McGrath and Jeff Elison lay out some of the common fears and anxieties climbers experience and explain why these things happen in our minds. This in itself helps a lot of people as they realise they are not alone in having these fears. The book also gives you some tools to help address these issues, which I think are quite helpful. I personally really like it because everything is explained very well and supported by science.
I would also highly recommend a book called 'Escalar la vida' by Juan Marbarro, an author I really like from Spain. He takes the view that climbing requires a lot of mental skills – such as the ability to stay calm in stressful situations – which are also useful in other areas of life. Marbarro applies philosophical concepts derived from stoicism to create tools helping you develop these mental skills, making you not only into a stronger climber but a more resilient person more generally.
Climbing in the volcanic labyriths of 'las cañadas del Teide', Tenerife © Irene Pozo
Then there's Dave MacLeod's '9 out of 10 climbers make the same mistakes'. Although this book isn't specific to mental training, it does go into this topic in quite a lot of detail and gives you some good tips for dealing with things such as fear of falling and being afraid to climb in front of others. There's some great training tips in there too!
Finally, 'The Hard Truth' by Kris Hampton. This book, again, doesn't specifically talk about mental training, but helps you to think more deeply about the overall mindset you approach climbing performance with. As the name suggests, the style is a little 'tough love' - but it certainly gets you reflecting!
If you can understand Spanish, then I'd like to give my own website, Rock & Joy, a quick plug. You'll find heaps of climbing podcasts, including a lot of content on mental coaching. I've interviewed several famous sport psychologists, and also talk about what I have personally learnt along the way.
Migue onsighting 'Fotón' (7b) at Cuenca © Irene Pozo
Finally, what can people expect from your mental training course?
I have quite a humble goal: I want to get my clients to a place where they feel confident to pick any climb they are psyched about from a guidebook and give it a try, regardless of whether they are able to send it or not.
I love that! Any final thoughts?
I may be biased, but it’s well worth investing some time in mental training. The rewards will be much greater than you expected, no matter where you are at with your climbing!
I agree! Thanks so much for your time Migue.
Migue and a friend at one of the belays on the multipitch 'Requiem' (7b) in Los Vados. © Migue Sancho
If you enjoyed this article and want to take your head game to the next level, why not book onto our Mindset Training trip? You will spend 5 days in sunny Granada climbing, learning tools to improve your mental game, and visiting this extraordinary city.
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Cover image caption: Migue on the crux of 'Carbon Dogs', Stathams Quarry, Western Australia © Migue Sancho