Man meditating in front of mountain lake

I’ve seen technically great climbers not achieve what they could of, simply because they couldn’t get their mental game right.

If this is a challenge holding you back, mindfulness might just be the perfect tool to quiet those troublesome thoughts.

Psychology research demonstrates that elite athletes, performing in extreme conditions succeed, in part, due to their strong mental game. Mindfulness is a great tool to enable climbers to improve their mental control, enabling them to manage their responses to feelings, sensations and thoughts when it really counts.

Many of today’s top-flight climbers use mindfulness or some other form of meditation to help strengthen their mental resolve. People like Chris Shrama and the late great Ueli Steck, have talked about their use of mental training and the central role it has played in their overall schedule.

Why is mindfulness useful for climbing

We’ve all been there, you’re on a route and that slight anxiety is starting to grow. Before you know it, your arms are starting to pump out, your fingers are losing their grip and that last bit of gear looks a long way below you.

You’re officially freaking out!

Mindfulness, if practised on a regular basis, can help you notice those initial feelings and emotions, but instead of reacting to them and allowing them to escalate, it enables you to distance yourself and remain focused on the task at hand.

Once anxiety starts to take hold, it can affect your performance in a number of ways.

  • Loss of focus - As anxiety begins to overwhelm us, it becomes our primary focus. This takes the focus away from climbing which should be front and centre of our minds. This not only compromises performance but potentially also saftey as we become increasingly distracted
  • Balance - As you become more stressed, the muscles in the body begin to tense up. This compromises your ability to move in a smooth, well-balanced state. You’ve probably felt this when walking across an exposed ridge, all of sudden you feel like you are giong to fall over. This is your body tightening up, which makes it harder to fine-tune your position, resulting in the sensation of being out of balance.
  • Over gripping - A classic response to feeling exposed and nervous is to grip harder, this feels like the right thing to do to remain attached to the rock, but the reality is that this just wastes energy. This hastens the onset of fatigue, which simply fuels the sense of being about to fall
  • Breathing - As we become more stressed, breathing tends to speed up and become more shallow. This reduces the amount of oxygen that we take in and so starves the muscles of their much-needed energy source. Again, this means we run out of strength faster and so feel less secure.
Pink neon sign against green foilage

Ultimately, all of these factors work together meaning that once we start to lose control, it’s a vicious cycle that quickly spirals.

By being able to notice these sensations happening in your body and mind and then having the tools provided by mindfulness, means that you are much better equipped to be able to deal with them when they do arise.

So what is mindfulness

Mindfulness is really just about being present in the now. It’s about paying attention to your feelings, physical sensations and the environment around you and not dwelling in our thoughts.

Critically, it’s about letting go of the natural responses to these stimuli. Instead of judging them as positive or negative, or creating a narrative in your mind in response to them. Mindfulness provides you with the mental discipline to notice them and let them pass, remaining focused on the present moment.

Now, if that all sounds like mumbo jumbo, I feel you, I was certainly a sceptic at the start. But I have definitely noticed a real improvement in my ability to handle stress and not just related to climbing, but across all aspects of my life.

What are the benefits of mindfulness

From a climbing perspective, mindfulness will help to offset many of the issues we discussed above.

It won’t get rid of anxiety, but it will help you notice it and manage the sensation in a way that doesn’t then run away with you.

It will stop that cascade of issues that will hold you back, meaning you’re able to climb harder, for longer on ground that is closer to your physical limit, not your mental one.

Outside of climbing I’ve also noticed an improvement in my general sense of well being, feeling less stressed and reactive and generally happier all around.

Any doctor will tell you that exposure to long term stress is bad for your health in a number of ways, so anything that helps reduce those risk factors and makes me a better climbing is all right in my book.

How long will it take before I start to see an improvement

This totally depends on you and how frequently you practise. I found that after just a week of daily practice, I started to feel more positive and focused.

After a couple of months I was actually able to employ the skills in situations where it matters.

As with all things, practice makes perfect, so the more you practise, the more habitual your responses become and so the more able you are to use them when you’re in a stressful situation.

How can I start practising mindfulness

There are loads of great resources on the net, that provide more details on mindfulness and a range of practices, but a basic practise session may look something like this:

  1. Find a seat - Find somewhere quiet and comfortable to sit, where you won’t be disturbed
  2. Notice your body - Close your eyes and start to take notice of the different parts of your body, working from your toes right up your body to the top of your head. Awareness and comfort are your goals
  3. Breath - Notice your breath, pay attention to the sounds and sensation of it entering and leaving your lungs. Make this your focus
  4. Notice thoughts - As you sit, you will have thoughts pop into your head, this is fine. Notice them and then return your focus to the breath
  5. Don’t judge - This is the real skill and does take practice, don’t judge the thoughts or start delving into them and exploring them, just return to the breath
  6. Come back - Once your time is up, just wiggle your fingers and toes and wake the body back up ready for the day

I actually use a mobile app called Calm, there’s a bunch of them about Headspace being another favourite.

There are also some great websites that focus exclusively on mindfulness like https://www.mindful.org and https://bemindful.co.uk , which are worth a look.

There are also an increasing number of classes available, so check your local area if you’re interested.

Where does mindfulness come from

Its roots are in Buddhist meditation but it really grew out of America in the late seventies as a non-religious stress reduction tool.

Jon Kabat-Zinn created his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979, which as inform many of the more modern programmes.

Is there any scientific evidence that mindfulness works

Actually, yes, some, but it is mixed and their findings do vary.

Broadly, the findings are positive and do show some improvement in anxiety and stress reduction.

But as will all things, it’s not magic and should be viewed as a useful tool in your arsenal. More research needs to be done here.

Conclusion

So hopefully that gives you an overview of mindfulness and why it might help you in your climbing career.

If you use mindfulness or some other mental training technique, let us know how you got on in the comment below.

Keep on climbing!