There aren’t many in depth interviews with elite climbers that really get into the nitty-gritty of the mental side of climbing, but this month’s Climb magazine is different, containing a 5-page spread on Chris Sharma by Andrew Bisharat. Even more interestingly for me are the obvious links with mindfulness theory and practice, and the take home messages useful to any climber at any level.
Although I’m not sure I agree with the opening statement ‘by pushing ourselves to become better, stronger climbers, we practice and learn to become better, stronger human beings’ (p40; depends on your definition of a ‘better person’ to my mind), there’s loads more wisdom in this piece than in any of the rather superficial interviews you typically get in climbing magazines. Bisharat eschews the ‘what’s your favourite route’ type question in favour of an analysis of the stages Sharma went through in order to send the hardest of the hard. I’d like to take the analysis one step further here and draw parallels to psychological theory and in particular to mindfulness.
The components of mindfulness are regulation of attention (being able to sustain attention and being able to switch your attention deliberately) and an orientation to experience with the values of curiosity, acceptance and openness, detaching yourself from an agenda. We know that regular meditators make fewer mistakes on attention tasks and process new stimuli much quicker, have better memories, and tend to react more with more equanimity to life’s ups and downs. So how might this relate to climbing?
From the article, ‘Climbing your hardest is a matter of climbing perfectly, all without any thoughts or feelings of attachment to yourself or success’. What this means essentially is being in the moment, without comparing yourself to others, without judging your performance, losing the internal dialogue about whether you are climbing well or badly, whether the holds are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (all judgements), without worrying about how you are seen and judged by others. Detaching yourself from your thoughts and recognising that there is a ‘you’ that is separate and different from them is a cornerstone principle of mindfulness.
There is another link to both mindfulness and to goal setting too ‘When we’re least attached – to our egos, to outcomes, to our projects – that’s when we perform our best’ (p40). Goal setting is a much used and much misunderstood technique, and I see the misunderstanding translated from goal to visualisation very often. The pop-psychology which arose mostly from sales techniques would have you believe that if you set a goal to climb a route or win a competition, then visualise it, you will achieve it. However setting an outcome-based goal tells you nothing about how you will actually achieve it and is actually outside your control. In order for you to win a competition, others will have to do worse than you in that comp, something you have no control over. Whilst there may be more things you can control if you want to send a route, setting the goal to send the route again tells you nothing about how you might achieve it. Simply visualising yourself on the podium or topping out won’t help you. What you need to do is let go of the outcome and instead focus on the process. Committing to climbing perfectly, efficiently, trying 100% - these are all under your control and can be visualised, giving you a better chance of success. You can’t simply skip to the end result; you have to focus on the journey there.
‘Embrace all those negative emotions and let them go. And by letting go of my image and being genuinely happy for Adam, I found that gave me so much strength’ (p44). Sharma touches on what is often a very private and shame-inducing thought for many of us – our jealousy and insecurity when others are successful and we are not. Often, we try to suppress such feelings, knowing that they are unworthy feelings and we ‘shouldn’t’ feel that way. But feelings are feelings – they arise and they will pass much quicker if we embrace them rather than fighting them, acknowledge rather than deny them. Within mindfulness practice, allowing emotions to flow through us rather than wrestling with them is key. With this comes the detachment needed to let them go. Similarly, when we hang on to the need to be ‘better’ than someone else, we hinder our own development and growth. Taking away the judgements inherent in ‘better than’ and ‘worse than’ frees you up to focus on your own performance, rather than having your brain filled up with someone else’s. As James McHaffie said in a recent interview with me ‘Set your own goals, and never be embarrassed to fall off in front of someone else. What you see is only what happened that day, and tomorrow may be different’.
If you’re interested in this area then there is a good podcast and presentation on the Aberystwyth University website – just click on the Peter Malinowski presentation title (not the bit where it says ‘click here’, that link doesn’t work!).