The Mental Side of Climbing: Brain Beta

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!

You can follow me on this wild ride by checking me out on on Instagram, or Facebook.

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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

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