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Climbing Hard, Mindfully - Chris Sharma's interview in Climb Magazine

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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!).


Using behavioural theory to maintain training motivation

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Theories of motivation only get you so far when you are trying to maintain a climbing training programme. They describe how and why you might get into the sport and what might be the push and pull factors for you, but if you need help in sticking to a programme, then behavioural theory I find is much more helpful.


Behavioural theory focuses much more on environmental triggers for behaviour and responses to behaviour - an easy way to understand the impact of external factors on ourselves is to think of supermarket layout and advertising.  You may start with the intention to only go in for milk and bread, but they are masters at leading you round the shop and capturing your attention so before you know it, you have spent £30 (and you'll likely do the same next time!).  Will power is nothing in the face of behavioural nudges and the rewarding sensation of a chocolate brownie or a bargain which caught your eye!


The good news is that you can use these principles to maintain your ability to stick to a training plan.  Its all about the environmental cues, the rewards, and also to an extent, the punishers.  Environmental cues include things like, keeping your climbing kit by the door or in the car; making going to the wall part of your normal routine (I go on the way home from work so I don't make a special trip to the wall); maybe making sure your route home goes past the climbing wall (alter it if necessary!); and setting an alert on your phone to remind you to go or perhaps taking it in turns to remind your friend to meet up at the wall.  Just sticking to the same day every week can also be helpful.


Rewards and punishers are slightly more invidividualised (think tesco clubcard points and the offers you get through the post - they are targetted to what you normally buy so individual to you).  Rewards are things which will are likely to increase the behaviour (for example, having a nice coffee at the end of the session), and punishers are things which make you decrease the behaviour (eg having a rubbish session where you couldn't climb something you thought you should have been able to climb and kicking yourself).  Rewards are more effective than punishers, but punishers can be more complex and often more subtle and so harder to eliminate (in the example above, having a bad session is a punisher but its hard to tell whether you are going to have a bad session or not, so its tricky to eliminate unless you are really tuned into your mood and fatigue levels).  Work out what you enjoy about climbing and in life in general - are you sociable (rope in a partner to your training session and go to the pub afterwards), a foodie (edible treats work well in dog training, why not in climbing training!), a planner (draw up a schedule with military precision), a saver (put a fiver away every time you go climbing towards a short trip or a sports massage etc), competitive (sign up for a competition or the local winter league).  Tailor your rewards programme to your own likes and dislikes and personality.


So ways I have built in rewards and punishers to my schedule include, having a nice bath after every session (bubbles, candles, the works); making myself a star chart and giving myself a star after each training session (childish I know but I enjoy seeing the stars stack up!); tracking my progress in a log book (more of a longer term reward, but I can see the progress) and having a snack before I go to the wall as I know this will make me less likely to want to go straight home.  In terms of punishers, I have bought myself a 6 month pass and worked out I need to go at least twice a week to make it worthwhile and not being one to waste money, that is motivating me to go at least twice a week!  I'm also being mindful of my aches and pains and trying to avoid injury, so adjusting my sessions as needs be so I don't have the experience of having a really bad session. I also made the decision not to get onto the lead wall for a month until I had built up some stamina, since I had been mostly bouldering for the last two years.  Instead, I have been working on longer boulder problems (I find bouldering more rewarding than leading usually) and some 4 x 4's and pyramids on the autobelay.  I really think this has paid off as a strategy, as I haven't had the depressing experience of having to rest 3 times on a route which I know I can climb grade wise but don't have the stamina to do so.  My stamina seems to be improving rapidly and so I am now itching to try it out in November on some (short) lead routes.  


Which brings me to my final point - you should be 'itching' to do things and to train.  Ok, we all have off days or weeks, but if you are having to force yourself consistently then that is a signal that something is wrong.  Perhaps you are a bit burnt out from too much training? Perhaps the goal you have set yourself isn't really what you want after all? Motivation ebbs and flows; trust yourself that it will return if you create the right conditions by perhaps having a break, or just rethinking what you want to train for.


Critical instruction - judicious use of NLP

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NLP has become hugely popular in the outdoors, and many instructors find the techniques extremely useful for working with anxious clients.  However, despite being likely to become hugely unpopular for writing this article (!), I would like to advocate care in application of NLP, and for instructors to think twice before seeing it as the wonder-drug of the outdoors.


Whilst I am not denying that NLP techniques can be useful in certain circumstances, there are a number of underlying difficulties with NLP which mean I would caution instructors to think carefully about how, why and when they use the techniques.


  1. NLP does not have an underlying paradigm or coherent theory on which it is based.  It is a collection of techniques which come from a wide variety of different theoretical backgrounds and models, including cognitive psychology, psycholinguistics and other areas.  This means that it is not a ‘thing’ which can be tested in its whole to see whether it works or not.  Certain components may work, but this does not mean the system as a whole works, and it does not derive from a psychological principle/ theory unlike most other psychological treatments.
  2. NLP tends to ignore the biological.  Modern psychological models accept that things like biological temperament, genetics and brain physiology play a role in our individual psychological responses to things, whereas NLP tends to assume that everything is responsive to psychological techniques and biological differences are irrelevant.
  3. The research on which techniques work and why, and which ones don’t (and why) and attempts to understand why they work better for some people and not others is very limited, so we are no closer to understanding the mechanisms at work within NLP or being able to target certain techniques to certain difficulties.  The gold standard of any intervention, treatment or programme is its testability and the testing of the mechanisms of change within it, and this is still very limited with NLP.
  4. Some of the techniques within NLP are powerful, and a concern relates to people with a very limited understanding of psychology and perhaps only a weekend’s training course behind them utilising NLP with people who are potentially vulnerable.  A good example is using NLP to overcome a fear of heights.  Without understanding the model for how fear of heights is both developed and maintained, it is possible to get some short term success but longer term make things worse.  For successful exposure therapy, clients need to stay in anxiety provoking situations until their anxiety dissipates, and not exit situations in states of high arousal.  Clients often underestimate how long this might take and in their relief at abseiling or climbing up something, leave the situation with still high levels of arousal.  This actually reinforces the anxiety and makes the problem more difficult to resolve longer term.


Instructors also need to be aware of their potential power within situations.  As an instructor, you are the most experienced person within that situation and clients’ safety is in your hands.  That places you in a position of power, and makes your clients potentially vulnerable to persuasion.  Use this power judiciously, and take care to ensure that clients are really in charge of their own learning.   Use of more subtle techniques designed to influence clients more covertly can leave some clients feeling helpless or over reliant on the instructor, and NLP is sometimes used as a covert ‘sales technique’ to get clients to buy into what you as the instructor want them to do. In an ideal scenario, you would coach and facilitate the clients in an active learning model, discovering what it is they want to achieve rather than imposing your own agenda on them and seeking to influence them without their knowledge.


I am not advocating throwing the baby out with the bathwater; NLP has some useful techniques which can provide a good adjunct to good coaching.  But as an instructor, take a critical stance about any technique or intervention – look at the evidence base for it and also look at the evidence base against it.  Develop a balanced view of what might work for whom, based on science not on face value.  Question and reflect on your own practice as well as ‘received wisdom’, and you will become a better instructor and coach for it.

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