Mental skills for climbing

Psychology of Arousal

Apr 29, 2020 5:03:00 PM / by Jamie Jonhston

“Relax, take your time.” “Focus.” These words that we tell ourselves sound great on the surface and often reflect commendable goals but unfortunately they offer little in the way of information toward achieving them. 


We’re complicated beings. Psychologically we are all unique with a myriad of factors influencing our thoughts and actions. Being able to find the solution to a negative psychological behaviour requires a great deal of thought and knowledge about the person involved. We can become so oblivious to our habits, good or bad, that they become so ingrained into our subconscious that we act upon them without consciously thinking. Our mind (psychological) and our body (physiological) work in collaboration when it comes down to climbing performance. If one falters the other will too. Take Bruce for example. Bruce is a strong/ technical climber. He has no problem leading 7a+  indoors. When leading outdoors he can’t lead more than a  6b+. What’s stopping him? Two Thirds of the way up a route of 6C Bruce comes to the crux.  He is physically capable of making this move but his head tells him otherwise. His head tried hard to process what might go wrong if he were to slip up here. He’s thinking “Dam. These bolts are miles away from each other; if I fall I’m going to take a hell of a whipper.” Bruce isn’t used to taking whippers, or falls for that matter. This naturally restricts what he is comfortable climbing outdoors although he is more than capable of making the moves. We need to become aware of the controllable performance- oriented psychological factors to help develop techniques to control them. Here we shall focus on one of those factors, arousal. 


What is arousal associated with sports? Arousal  is a blend of physiological and psychological activity in a person and it refers to the level of motivation, alertness and excitement at a particular moment (Weinberg and Gould, 2007). Something easier to consider or picture would be having an electrical conductor in your head that can adjust the level of intensity throughout a climb. Any given route or problem can have a range of difficulty requiring the climber to consciously adjust their level of arousal. Recall a moment where your fight or flight response kicked in. In such moments your perception zooms in on input from the senses. Our awareness focuses on our immediate present. Our ability to react quickly and respond instinctively is enhanced. This of course is helpful in climbing. However a balance must be established. Climbing can require immediate reactions for example poor footwork could cause your foot to slip and thus send an immediate response to signalise the hands to grab on to something/ anything. Your awareness is now fixed on the immediate present with little, if any room to focus on anything beyond the moment. Planning skills are also important as we have to be able to anticipate an upcoming move before we dive into them. Planning a whole route or problem out in front of you requires even longer term planning. Such intellectual activities require a lower intensity of arousal as we contemplate such actions best when we are relaxed. 


As well as psychological effects, the autonomic nervous system of our bodies react in a similar way. Increasing our arousal level increases our heart rate, blood flow to the muscles and breathing. The opposite occurs when a low level of arousal occurs. Most of these responses favour climbing however too much arousal will increase the sweating and moisture through the hands and fingers leading to poorer friction between hands and rock. The motor system responds to increasing arousal levels by increasing muscle fiber recruitment thus increasing strength in the muscles. Increased heart rate and blood flow to these muscles mean that they are capable of increased endurance. As already discussed a balance is important because with increasing arousal, coordination is lost. Certain activities will require different combinations of strength and coordination such as a 100m race vs aerial acrobatics. Technique in climbing is one of the most important aspects of climbing performance therefore too much arousal can have a negative impact on performance. All climbs will require different levels of arousal depending on the style but all require a lower level of arousal whilst maintaining coordination. See figure 1.1 to understand how motor abilities are affected by the level of arousal. 


As we want to be able to control our state of arousal we must learn about the methods by which such control is possible. Your actions, thoughts, convictions and the environment all dictate your arousal state. Next time you are climbing try to consider whether your arousal state is under or over the desired arousal level for the given situation. Or perhaps your state of arousal is at an optimum equilibrium. Once we learn to control our behaviours and influence our perceptions we can learn to maintain our arousal levels and thus achieve a performance state we want. In the next article we will focus on how we can achieve this state through behavioural and perceptual approaches. 


psychology of arousal pic


 Recommended sources:

Goddard and Neumann, 1993: Performance Rock Climbing


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Jamie Jonhston

Written by Jamie Jonhston