Importance of a Pre-climb Ritual

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Recently, I gave a workshop on mental training for climbing, using some of the constructs that Jeff Elison and I cover in our book, Vertical Mind. One portion of the workshop focused on mindsets required for climbing. In it, I broke out three distinct mindsets that we worked on:

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

In this article I will focus on the pre-climbing mindset and cover the others in future articles.

Most climbers experience some sort of pre-climb anxiety before they get on a route that will challenge them physically and mentally. The severity of this anxiety can range from very mild to paralyzing. The pre-climb anxiety in most cases is due to fear of falling and fear of failure, and the severity of the anxiety is related to the experience the climber has with falling and failure. The more experience with falling, the lower the anxiety around falling is. The same is true for failure. Interestingly enough, from informal surveys I have done, fear of falling seems to be more of an issue for relatively new climbers, while fear of failure (performance anxiety) tends to be more of an issue for very experienced climbers.

I have coached climbers with severe pre-climb anxiety and a technique that I have found helps them is the use of a pre-climb ritual. Most of the climbers I have coached experience the highest levels of anxiety in the time between when they find they “are up” to climb and when they are engaged in the act of climbing. As such, the pre-climb ritual is designed to help them get through this brief but critical time. It is in this time that they had sometimes in the past opted to climb something easier or maybe TR the climb rather than lead it. The goal is to achieve a calm mindset prior to climbing and avoid a mindset that either causes avoidance or undermines the climbers ability to climb well.

There are four elements to the pre-climb ritual I have used with climbers:

The safety check – Having a sound safety check habit is not only a critical part of the pre-climb ritual for all roped climbers, it can also help put your mind at ease about any doubts about the system.

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. So, from the point when you “are up” to when you grab the first hold, work on breathing slow, deep breaths.

Thought replacement – Often the anxiety is made worse by thoughts of anticipated falling, failure, or difficulty. You can replace such unproductive thoughts with thoughts to help stay calm. My favorite thought is “I will focus on one move at a time.” After all, that is all that you can really do when climbing, right? I mentally repeat this phrase to myself as I put on my shoes, tie in, put on my chalk bag, and the other pre-climb preparations.

Trigger phrases – Using a trigger phrase just before starting to climb such as “It’s just climbing” or my favorite, “Alrighty then” can help break tension and put us at ease.

If you find that pre-climb anxiety has you either avoiding climbs you want to do or undermining your ability to climb well, you may want to experiment with a pre-climb ritual with the elements I described above. I have found that it works very well.

If I get good feedback on this article, I will do articles on mindsets for the other two climbing situations, delicate climbing and dynamic climbing.

I hope you find this article useful.

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9 Responses to Importance of a Pre-climb Ritual

  1. AJ Jordan says:

    Great tips and a great read. Would enjoy more articles on mindset and mindfulness while climbing. Will be trying this 4 step ritual at the gym this week. Thank you!!

  2. Andre says:

    Great tips Don. I struggle with anxiety before starting routes graded around my limit. I like to take deep breaths and then call on my favorite climbing spirit animal, the lizard. Being mindful of the lizard and mimicking his movements helps me to keep my body close to the wall and my pulling tends to move deep into my back and shoulders. This is good for vertical walls. On overhanging routes I like to think of the monkey, how he hangs all day on straight arms. I like how you focus on the mental aspect of climbing so much, keep up the great writing.

  3. Hannah says:

    As a person starting to do more leading and less top roping/following while climbing, I appreciate this article! My trigger phrase has become “do it, honey, do it”.. an inside joke from The Doors lyrics. I’ve also found using ‘thought replacement’, or having a mantra, is as useful while actually climbing as it is during the pre-climb.

    Do you have any thoughts on how to deal with fear during high exposure climbs?

    • don says:

      Hannah, your ability to deal with fear on exposed climbs has a lot to do with how many times you have experienced exposed climbing and been successful in that situation. Your scripts around exposed climbing. You need to build up an arsenal of exposure experience, then you can implement the mind sets I’ll talk about in my next article on mindsets for delicate and dynamic climbing.

      I hope this helps!

  4. kneville says:

    I scope out the route. Can I place a first piece on tiptoe from the ground? Where is the stance and the placement for the second piece, and the third? What are the move sequences between them? Is there gear that I should be saving for upper sections? Mentally rehearse that first sequence of moves again…. In a sense, I’m climbing in my mind, engaging the cognitive processes, before I ever leave the ground.

  5. Nate says:

    Very good article. I will be passing this info on to my friends who have issues with these very same things. Hope to to read the other two articles.

  6. Clarky says:

    Great article. I have def been there and can relate to fear of falling af5er seeing friends take some horrendous falls. Made thinhs a lot worse for my own climbing and really struggled to get my head back into the game. Would be really interesting tonread some other articles. Thanks for a self reflecting article .

  7. This is great Don. Super helpful, even after having read Vertical Mind. Really nice for keeping me on track and making the teaching easier to digest, in little bites. Thanks!

  8. John Kelly says:

    I have tried multiple things to combat anxiety. I am confused where it comes from and if it is a failure thing or falling. Why is it sometimes worse than other times. I have tried the positive mental preparedness and calming breathing. I have also just gotten pissed and in my mind the route like a high school bully that I’m nose punching. I think it takes both calmness and aggression, which are polar opposites. It’s the mixture that’s the hard part for me to figure out. It’s like baking, too much of one and not the other and you get flat greasy cookies.