Mental Skills for Climbing

Visualisation and Climbing

Apr 15, 2020 5:03:00 PM / by Naomi Hatto

Most of what you achieve, in life as in climbing, starts in your head - bluntly, often if you don’t believe that you can do something then you probably won’t. Not knowing if something is possible is a much better place to start from, at least then trying will be a learning experience rather than reinforcing something you already knew. So first, a cautionary tale. 

"I find my nemesis when I know something is 'possible' or maybe 'won't be too bad'.

When we were last in Fontainebleau I had a project that I’d carried forward from the previous trip. Whilst I hadn’t trained specifically for the problem (I mean, who trains for overhanging fridge-hugs?) I knew I was likely to be fitter and stronger than 18 months ago, so my project, that I was trying to pretend wasn’t really a project, probably wouldn’t be too bad. I even let myself start thinking that maybe it’d go in just a couple of sessions. Just waltzing up it would be nice. Long story short, I avoided it for a week or so in case I wasn’t as good as I’d hoped.

In the end, my project took a few sessions, with a few meltdowns about just not being ‘good enough’ thrown in for good measure."

Maybe if I hadn’t let my imagination run away with me I would have been willing to jump on it sooner, there would have been fewer meltdowns and we wouldn’t have been there at 4.30pm on the last day of our trip brushing chalk into it because I’d peeled off the penultimate move 2 days earlier and then it had rained.

It was worth it. I was good enough, I just needed to be more willing to engage with the process and be less goal oriented. It’s funny, I project for the process but always desperately want the outcome as soon as possible, largely to validate my own feelings of self worth - those feelings rely on me matching the mental picture I have of myself, which is something that I, inadvertently, visualise. 


I think my point there was that some people have great imaginations, and this can work both in their favour or not - if you’re able to visualise yourself climbing 9a, even when you actually currently climb 6a, then the amount of hard work needed to meet your imagination even halfway is immense, leading to ultimate disappointment if you allow yourself to fall into the imagination trap. Fear of disappointment in your own performance can be a strong de-motivator, and I know of people who have fallen out of climbing exactly because of this (I married one). 
Cautionary tale aside, being able to easily visualise yourself doing something that is possible (although probably hard for you) makes learning to visualise a whole lot easier, and visualisation can do a lot for your sporting ability, both mentally and surprisingly physically too.


I use visualisation mostly to help remember my beta for projects, especially when they feel on the edge of my ability. I’m not so great at using it to figure out how I’m going to climb something I’ve never climbed before but when used well it can be a great tool for that too (especially during competition climbing when onsighting is the main goal). Interestingly whilst testing my route memory idea (found here), seeing if I could actually remember the instructions that I’d written for myself I, without thinking about it, used one of the visualisation techniques I’m going to talk about to help me remember what I wanted to do and in which order.


There are a couple of options for visualising - you can either visualise yourself watching yourself climb (useful for unlocking tricky sequences and pre-onsighting), or you can visualise yourself actually doing the climbing. In the second case it’s important that you visualise the full experience, including sights, sounds and feelings (yes even that disco leg!) In fact, I joke, but with visualisation it only really makes a positive difference if you visualise yourself climbing at your ability - so if you are likely to be totally out of breath, elbows above your shoulders and forearms about to explode you’re so pumped at the top - then visualise that.

It’s not good spending valuable time visualising yourself being as cool as a cucumber and just waltzing up something that you would actually find really hard...sadly it’s just not as effective, especially when mid-climb you start to understand that you deceived yourself. It's arguably better to overcook it - imagine yourself boxed, and assuming you're still willing to start the climb, you're going to be buoyed along by your state of pleasant surprise at how easy you're finding things.

But the benefits of visualisation aren't just about performance on your climb. Studies have shown that although you get most physical improvement benefit from physical training, combining slightly less physical training with visualisation gives almost as much benefit as the physical training on its own, without the added complexity of potential injury and ability to get to training: 


‘One such study used sixty beginning basketball players split into three groups of twenty each.  The first group practiced shooting baskets from the free-throw line, attempting a specified number of shots in a specified time for a period of two weeks.  The second group was asked to do the same thing, but only as a visualization or in their "mind's eye". The third group was a control group and performed neither mental or actual shooting practice.


Each group was tested at the beginning and end of their two-week practice.  As expected, the third group didn't improve. The group who only used visualization, or mental practice, however, improved almost as much as those who physically trained. (Dan Millman 1999)’ - thanks to David Henderson at: for the study example.


 So...where’s a good place to start on your visualisation journey? Ok, if you have a project that you can clearly see in your mind’s eye then start there but otherwise, if you know you’re not likely to be anywhere near a boulder, route or the wall in the nearish future you should probably start with something a little closer to home. If you’ve seen our ‘route memory’ post you can start there - look at your list, visualise yourself actually doing the things on your route really imagine that you are doing them. Then do it - how was that? Next you can visualise watching yourself do the ‘route’, was that easier or harder? Did it make any difference? What about making your requirement for route memory harder - make the list longer and more complicated and try again - don’t forget to visualise yourself finding the tricky bits tricky - although succeeding. Try writing your list, visualise yourself doing it, then visualise watching yourself doing it, leave it an hour - can you still remember the route? If so, try visualising it again and then have a go at actually doing it - it’s mostly all just memory games to start with but learning the visualising bit should make route reading less of a dark art when you get back to actually being able to climb…


An important note for visualising is that you really need to concentrate in order for it to really work. It won’t be as beneficial if you squeeze it in whilst the rice is cooking (unless checking the rice is part of your visualisation). You should try and find a quiet and comfortable spot where you can be undisturbed for a little while so that you can really get into the groove of it - the newer you are to visualising the trickier it will likely feel to begin with.


Another massive benefit to being good at visualisation is if you end up injured and have to take a break to recover, or for any other reason have to take a break from climbing - if visualising yourself doing something improves your physical ability then you shouldn’t have to spend as long getting yourself back to where you were after a break...sounds almost too good to be true!

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Naomi Hatto

Written by Naomi Hatto