The Mental Side of Climbing: Brain Beta

Lauren Abernathy Wild Iris Climbing

Sometimes you hear people’s dogs barking at the crags. Other times you hear a nervous boyfriend asking if his girlfriend knows where the next clip is. On rare occasion you hear words of wisdom:

“I bet all of our bodies could climb 5.14, but our minds just won’t let us.”

Though 5.14 may be an exaggeration, the fact is that on top of being a skill sport, climbing is dependent on your mindset. There are many ways that our minds can hold us back from climbing our best. Whether it be a fear of falling, a fear of failure, or panic-forgetting well-rehearsed beta on a redpoint go, peak performance is only achievable if your mind allows it.

My Mind Holds Me Back

I know that my mind holds me back when I am trying to climb my hardest. This manifests itself during the redpoint process, making it take longer than it needs to. I notice that I one-hang routes many times before actually sending. I one-hanged Butch Pocket in Wild Iris 6 times before finally sending it. It took five one-hangs before sending Beattyville Pipeline in the Red River Gorge. Then, in Fall of 2019, I one hanged Flesh for Lulu three times before the final redpoint go. Physically I can do these routes, but something in my mind is holding me back.

Lauren abernathy Beattyville pipeline red river gorge
Me on one of my many attempts on Beattyville Pipeline. Photo by Sam Laslie.

My baubles, misplaced feet, lapses in muscle memory, etc. are typically not a result of “pumping” out. Usually, it is some silly misplacement of a hand, or out-of-sequence move that sends me flying down the wall in the midst of a good redpoint attempt.

I made some progress in decoding my brain while working Flesh for Lulu, a technical, beta-heavy, and crimpy route in Rumney NH.

A couple months before my crusade on Flesh, I began reading about flow states. Essentially, your mind goes blank and you black out and your just execute. And you execute perfectly. I’ve been in flow states before. Like when I did my first back flip in powder.

Photo by Tim Spanagel

But back flips are fast. A one hundred foot route with 2 distinct cruxes and a major rest in the middle not. Up until my campaign on Flesh for Lulu, I had only really done routes with a single crux, not two.

I worked on Flesh for two weekends in a row. The first weekend was extremely warm and involved me spending a lot of skin on crux #1. In two days of working on it, I was able to do crux #1 only once.

In the second weekend, temps were down about 20 degrees Fahrenheit. I executed crux #1 flawlessly on my first attempt. And the rest of the burn went really well. I felt like I could send that day – next go even.

4 attempts later and I had been playing the “almost there, but…”, getting higher and better each time. It was getting really frustrating.

On day two, I gave it a redpoint go, fell misplacing a foot in somewhere I had never fallen before. However, I proceeded in successfully redpointing on the subsequent attempt.

Throughout the process, spectators were commented that “my beta was dialed”. Frustratingly, the micro-errors were rampant past crux #1 and I was not sending. It was clearly not a physical limitation, it was all in my head.

With that, let’s breakdown how I changed my mindset between Day 1 and Day 2 on my second weekend on the route.

Day 1

  • Lots of visualization of the crux on route, before and during the rest.
  • Rehearsing the route visually in my head at the rests.
  • Focused breathing (square breathing at the rests)
  • Noticing my heart rate at the rests

To clarify, crux #1 Is physically more difficult than crux #2, for me anyways. Both of these cruxes are certainly more difficult than the transition moves I was inexplicably messing up. I felt my focus melting and that’s when I forgot my beta.

Thanks to Michael Cheng for the video!

On Day 2 I resolved to let my mind go blank and executed. Flow state was the goal. I speculated that perhaps my brain can only handle being focused for so much time. So I decided to tell my brain it could do whatever for the first half of the route (which is about 5.10) as long as it could keep its shit together for the second half.

Day 2

Here’s what I was doing on Day 2. Similar to day 1, but a few changes.

  • Feeling my chalk.
  • Letting my mind wander and do whatever it wanted for the first half of the route.
  • Noticing my heart rate.
  • Focusing on pushing down on my feet during rests
  • Square breathing at rests

The results: I sent the route. Additionally, my decision to let my brain go slack for the first half of the route had noticeable implications. My belayer (and boyfriend) told my that I “looked like I had no idea what I was doing” for the first half of the route. Which is obviously not ideal, but I knew that I could climb 5.10 a little poorly and resolve any inefficiencies with the no hands rest before crux #1. Overall, it worked! My brain had the energy and focus to keep me from messing up and I sent the thing!

Training your Mind to Climb

Now, am I telling you to climb like shit except for the crux on your project? No. However, I am telling you that it is important to get in touch with what your mind is doing when you are trying to perform. And I am telling you that being able to self-coach your brain, or even control it at all, can be impactful to your climbing performance.

Lauren Abernathy Flesh for lulu
Me getting ready for the first crux on Flesh for Lulu with some deep breathing.

Figuring out what your brain is doing is objectively difficult. You can take videos of yourself climbing, but you can’t record your train of thought the last time you fell on a route.

Getting in Touch with Your Thoughts

Training your mind for climbing is a lot like training your body, you have to take stock of strengths and weaknesses, try different techniques to make adaptations, and you have to do these things consistently.

Maybe you are really in touch with your thought patterns. Personally, I suffer from generalized anxiety disorder and my thoughts get absolutely out of hand sometimes. I practice meditation regularly (5-10 mins per day a few times a week) which helps me objectively observe what my mind is doing. This may sounds really esoteric and weird, but I recommend Headspace if you are interested in getting help with this.

However, my ability to objectively observe my mind was really helpful on Flesh for Lulu. That is why I was able to observe that my brain was getting fatigued when I needed to stay in the zone and remember my beta through the crux.

Additionally, I really liked using square breathing to get my heartrate down on route. It also helped me get mentally focused before executing the crux sequence.

Strengthening my mind for climbing is an ongoing process. From being afraid of heights on a top rope to taking lead falls to optimizing my mental patterns to send my hardest, my brain and I have been on interesting journey.

What is something interesting that you’ve noticed about your mind when you climb? Is there anything you do to help get “in the zone”? Leave a comment or shoot me an email at lauren@senderellastory.com – I would love to hear from you!

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Further Reading and Listening

Power Company Climbing – Flow State and Mental Mastery with Hazel Findlay

How I Trained for Fat Camp by Dan Mirsky

The Rock Warrior’s Way by Arno Ilgner

Please note that this post contains Amazon Affiliate links to products I have used and enjoyed. These links help keep senderellastory.com in existence and free to access.

Get Out of Your Comfort Zone and Compete

lauren iron maiden comp

Summer months can get be infuriating for the avid outdoor climber. It’s hot outside, you’re sick of climbing on plastic, and at about week twelve of being stuck in the gym, you develop a bit of cabin fever.

That was me in the summer of 2019, at which point I decided I needed to spice things up and do something I don’t normally do: a bouldering competition. My decision to do this was driven by a few factors:

  1. I needed a way to make indoor climbing more exciting
  2. I wanted a way to simulate a tough day of trying hard outside for an extended period of time.
  3. I really don’t like competing very much, and I thought it would be a good way to challenge myself mentally.

So if you’re a stuck-up outdoor climber – especially if you’re a sport or trad climber, consider entering a bouldering comp. Here’s a little run-down of how my second comp ever went for me. It might inspire you to try one too.

Pulling the Trigger

This all started when I saw the poster for this all-girls bouldering competition plastered in the stairwell of my local gym. I was excited that the ladies of climbing were getting their very own stage for a competition and excited to get to check out what the most hard-ass climber girls of New York City were made of. After all, Ashima started here.

Yet part of me was mortified at the thought of another bouldering comp. Summarily, my emotions surrounding this were the kind of nausea-stoke that usually results in me deciding that this is the perfect kind of discomfort and that I absolutely needed to do it.

A week later, I had garnered the support of my friends Steph and Liz and we were off to be the hardened competitors that we weren’t.

Competition Structure

There were a few categories in the Iron Maiden competition: Masters (40+), Citizen – broken into beginner, intermediate and advanaced, then there is the Open category. In the open category, if you place top 8, you get to go into the finals in the evening. They set up new boulders, you go into isolation, there’s an audience – the whole 9. Which is really cool.

In my head, V0 up through V6/V7 makes you a beginner/intermediate climber. So I assumed that I’d be in the Citizen’s intermediate category and that was fine by me.

Additionally, to keep the competition organized and not overcrowded, there were three sessions of 25 competitors – “heats” if you will. It was great and there was plenty of room.

Scoring

Each of the boulders was allocated a certain number of points. You were scored by your top 5 routes. You also were asked to record the number of attempts it took to complete the boulders.

The Setting

I was not sure what I was getting into, but wow the setting was extremely fun. I discovered that I actually love balancey competition slab. And these were my highest scoring boulders.

However, I was super close to bagging this sexy roof problem and frankly I probably spent a majority of the comp working on It because it was so fun (also it was worth a lot of points).

lauren iron maiden comp
Me having the best time working on this spicy roof problem.

Overall, the setting was challenging, interesting at many levels of difficulty, and there was a wonderful variety of problems.

Ladies Supporting Ladies

For me, the magic of this comp was seeing some really strong ladies crush. And even better was the fact that once we were in the swing of competing, the atmosphere shifted from competitive to collaborative. After the first hour, the sharing of beta and the cheering on of total strangers was in full swing. No matter if someone just topped your boulder, when someone topped something tough, they were greeted by strangers at the bottom with a fist bump or a high five from a fellow competitor.

I was especially proud to be a female climber that day.

The Mental Games

In Arno Ilgner’s famous book The Rock Warrior’s Way he cites an interesting exercise called “Foreign Affairs”. He recommends that you “put yourself in a climbing situation that you normally avoid or have never considered.” He goes on to instruct that you should “see if you react–by becoming frustrated, angry or blaming something such as weak forearms. These type of reactions indicate unconsciousness”. This exercise was the driving force behind me entering this competition and the results were compelling.

For the first two hours of the comp, I was exceptionally nervous and my own negative self-talk was rampant. It’s one thing to see someone top something that you’ve thrown yourself at 10 times already. It’s another thing to be competing against that person. Between that and the photographer that silent giggled at me eating shit over and over again, I felt like hot garbage. My ego was about as wounded as it could be – which I fully recognize is what I was afraid of.

At about the 90 minute mark I was seriously asking myself why I’d signed up for this thing.

Going Down Swinging

Then at the two hour mark I decided that I definitely was not going to do well in this. I threw strategy out the window and did the boulders that looked fun. The last hour was a blur, but it was also where I did my best climbing. My ego out of the way, I focused on climbing and not how much I thought I was sucking.

For reference, I spent about 90 minutes of the comp working on 3500 and 3600. More than 10 attempts each, probably. I didn’t get either of them. Failure reel below.

Then, in the literal last 15 minutes, I put up 3000 and 3200. At the buzzer I had one hand on the finish of 3300 and fell moving my second hand up – that was my second try on the route.

Needless to say, when I stopped letting my ego run the show and started caring about the process of climbing, my performance skyrocketed.

My experiment in making myself very uncomfortable was very telling and was overall a great success.

The Surprising Outcome

Remember when I started this competition? I didn’t even consider signing myself up for the advanced category; the Advanced and Open categories were untouchable to me. I had no aspirations of competing at that level.

The results were posted a couple of days after the competition.

Not only did I somehow qualify for the advanced category, I wasn’t so far off from the top finishers. My average score per route was about 2500. To place in the advanced category, I need to up that to  about 3000, and qualifying for open required an average difficulty of around 3300. If I can get my head together an get a little stronger, I’ll have a better shot next year.

Either way, I ended up way better than I expected.

To the Bar and Onto the Next

Assuming there was no way that any of us placed, Liz, Steph and I headed out into the New York heat. We left the gym starving and ready for a beer. Fortunately as we wondered through Brooklyn, we waltzed into a Biergarten full of street art and burgers. We were by far the chalkiest, greasiest people there. But the friendly hipsters of Brooklyn didn’t seem to mind.

senderella story
Me and my gal pals at the street art bar in Brooklyn.

I am glad to have competed. Even though I was a mental blob for most of the comp, getting to experience the shift in performance with a shift in mindset was extremely interesting. It’s plenty of fodder to dissect for future performance climbing days and I’m glad I got to observe myself in that environment.

I plan to keep working to improve – who knows. Maybe I’ll actually set some real bouldering goals in the next year on top of the usual sport climbing objectives. This competition has left me inspired and hungry for more.

Thanks to everyone who put together the Iron Maiden competition! It was a great event and it was awesome to get to climb with such strong ladies!

Here’s a cool video they made out of this year’s event if you want to check it out! Would highly recommend to all my ladies out East!

Have you competed in a comp before? Do you like it or do you hate it? What do you do to get yourself out of your comfort zone? Leave a comment or shoot me a note at senderellastory@gmail.com! I’m here to support you getting out of your comfort zone!

**please note that there is an affiliate link in the Above for The Rock Warrior’s Way. It’s a great book and I would highly recommend it. Affiliate links help keep Senderellstory.com in existence and ad-free!