Delicate Climbing Mindset

In a previous article, I wrote about the importance of the pre-climb ritual and the mindset that it creates. That article and this one are part of a series of articles describing the 5 climbing mindsets:

  • Pre-climbing mindset
  • Mindset for delicate climbing
  • Mindset for dynamic climbing
  • Execution mindset
  • Post-climbing mindset

In this article I will focus on the mindset for delicate climbing and cover the last three in future articles.

Image of blonde lady climbing on the rock


Most climbers spend over 90% of their climbing time climbing delicately, statically, and in balance. It is therefore critical to develop the proper mindset for this type of climbing. In this section, I will describe the elements of the mindset optimal for delicate climbing and explain how to train yourself to create this mindset.

When climbing delicately, which is often done when attempting to on-sight climbs, the goal is to unlock the most efficient sequences and execute them, using as little mental and physical energy as possible. It is common in this state for climbers to get distracted by their surroundings or have anxiety creep up when they cannot figure out how to continue upward. In the case of distractions from a barking dog, crying child, another climber yelling, or any loud noise, climbers can lose focus, or tense up, all which can lead to getting pumped out and falling. In the case of increased anxiety, climbers can lose focus and over grip, which can also lead to them getting pumped out and falling. The slightest amount of wasted energy can be the difference between a successful on-sight and hanging on the rope.

Delicate climbing is characterized by climbing which is in balance, smooth, and dancelike. The climber deliberately, carefully and precisely places their feet on each foothold. They grasp each handhold as lightly as required, finding the optimal way to use each one. At each stance, they explore the rock around them and unlock the moves to reach the next rest stance. They are calm and focused.

There are three elements to the delicate climbing mindset which I teach climbers:

Deliberate footwork – I often see climbers of all levels not focusing on their footwork when trying to climb delicately. The result is often climbing which can be off balanced, awkward, and which wastes precious energy. The following are tips to help you improve your delicate climbing footwork.

  1. When placing your foot on a hold, keep your eyes on the foothold until your foot is in the final position you want it in. I like to imagine that my eyes are like laser welders, and I weld my foot onto the hold that I am placing it on. If you notice climbers who tap their feet after they place them, it is probably because they took their eyes off their foot before it was set. The tapping is the brain’s way of checking to see that the foot is indeed on the hold. This wastes energy and time and is sloppy technique.
  2. When placing your foot on a foothold, do so precisely and softly. You want to place your foot in the optimal location and position that will allow you to either rest or move. When resting, you may want as much of your foot on the hold as you can get. When preparing to move, you will probably want the toe of your shoe on the exact part of the hold that will enable the move you are going to execute.

Deep, slow breathing – Mother Nature has given us the gift of self-regulated breathing. We can alter our breathing patterns through conscious thought. If we slow our breathing, it stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which tends to calm us down and dampen anxiety. Just like in the pre-climb mindset, use controlled, rhythmic breathing to stay calm and relaxed while climbing delicately.

Open, exploring focus – Since on-sight climbing often requires delicate climbing, a mindset with open and exploring focus is desirable. You can employ this mindset on routes that you have done before if you want to find better ways to do the climb or if you don’t have it totally wired and need to recall how the climb goes.

An open focus is one where you take in all of your surroundings, exploring every possible foothold, handhold, and stance. You may explore the rock by looking, touching, and feeling out body positions. You are not committed to any one path of execution, but instead are learning the possible paths so that you can select the best path.

A drill that I teach climbers in my workshops is what I call “circle eyes.” In this exercise, I ask the climber, when they reach a stance, to make a 360 degree scan using their eyes starting looking straight up and going counterclockwise over their left shoulder, down to their feet, up to their right shoulder, ending looking straight up again. I then have them do the same thing, but do so moving their eyes and head clockwise. I have them do this twice in each direction. When they are scanning with their eyes, I ask them to notice all the possible footholds and handholds that they could consider using. This drill helps climbers remember to look down as much as up and helps them to catalog all the foothold and handhold options that they have before they formulate a plan.

Another drill I teach at my workshops is to have the climber explore every handhold with their hand, looking for the perfect way to use the hold. This can sometimes result in finding a useful pinch or thumb catch that may have otherwise gone undiscovered.

If you find that you get distracted, lose focus, or get stumped while climbing, try the drills that I described above. I have found that they work very well.

If I get good feedback on this article, I will do articles on mindsets for the other three climbing mindsets; dynamic climbing, execution climbing , and post-climbing.

I hope you find this article useful.

I also hope that you like the new look and feel of!

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One Response to Delicate Climbing Mindset

  1. Alex Rottman says:

    What a great article!

    I’m sure these techniques will help a lot with my climbing! I think since practicing yoga the breathing techniques have already been subliminally planted as well as moving more fluidly. It has drastically improved my overall climbing technique as well as being able to move up through grades quickly. I can’t wait to train the 360 degree technique next time I get to the gym or the crag this upcoming weekend.

    I’m looking forward to your next article.

    Climb on!

    Alex Rottman