Matt Samet is an accomplished rock climber with credits to his name including redpoints of Rifle 5.14a’s Zulu, Roadside Prophet, Gropius, and Get Shorty. Also to his name, add bold first ascents such as Hueco Tanks highballs Big Right (V9) and Chewbacca (V10), which have not been repeated to date, and Primate a 5.13b X headpoint at Seal Rock in Boulder, which has seen only one repeat. A well rounded climber, Matt also repeated Peter Croft’s outrageous Evolution Traverse (VI 5.9) in the Sierra Nevada.
I interviewed Matt about his training, focusing on how important his mental state is to his climbing performance. Below, I’ve summarize a few items that I took away from my interview with Matt, followed by the entire interview.
Insights from Matt Samet:
- Rock climbing is nearly all mental. Nearly every time I’ve failed, it has been due to my mental state.
- If you have pre-climb jitters, take a walk away from the cliff and clear your head. Alternatively, I just get on the route and stop procrastinating.
- When you’re at a rest, you can improve your rest by hanging deeper on your arms to further relax your muscles. It takes conscious focus.
- Developing a learning attitude rather than an accomplishment attitude has helped me develop as a climber.
- Always have a plan for where both of your feet are going.
Q: How long you’ve been climbing?
A: I’ve been rock climbing consistently since 1986, so it has been 26 years.
Q: How did you get started rock climbing?
A: When I was around 12 years old, I used to go to Olympia, Washington in the summers. One year when I was out there, my father’s roommate from college, Bob, introduced me to the sport. I’d go there, stay at Bob’s, and scramble peaks or do some easy fifth class climbing. I’d be exposed to it for about a week, and then I’d go home and I wouldn’t climb again for a year.
Q: How about your climbing background and your progression? How did you get to where you are today?
A: I started climbing consistently with the New Mexico Mountain Club when I was 15. I was finally old enough to take their courses, and for me that was huge because suddenly I could do this thing that I only got to do once a yea , much more often. I climbed as often as I could with the club, which did most of its climbing in the Sandia Mountains, near Albuquerque.
When I turned, I think, 16, I got my driver’s license and didn’t have to rely on my parents to take me to club outings anymore. I started to find friends closer to my own age who I could climb with, and went and sought great mountain adventures.
Around 1988, we started to sport climb more, because we thought it was fun. Some of the guys in the club would say, “Oh, you shouldn’t climb on those routes, they’re only bolted, you don’t know if those bolts are good.” It’s sort of funny in retrospect.
In 1991 I moved to Boulder, Colorado where I live now. About that time, Rifle, Colorado was starting to take off as one of America’s big time sport climbing areas. I got heavily into sport climbing up until around year 2000. From then until now, I started to mix it up again because I got bored with sport climbing. I’ve gotten got back into traditional climbing and mountain climbing. So in a way I’ve come full circle.
Q: How important is your mental state to your climbing performance?
A: For me I think it’s almost everything. If I had to put a number on it, I’d say it’s 95%. If you climb consistently and maintain a baseline level of fitness, it seems like your body is always ready. It seems like your body is always up to performing at probably close to your peak physical level. Almost every time I’ve failed or not pushed through to success, it was because my a mental issue. Either I wasn’t trying hard enough, I was scared, I was apprehensive, I didn’t put in the proper effort in the first place, or I was distracted.
Q: I find that it’s so intertwined. When I’m physically training a lot my mental fitness is much better. I have more self-efficacy.
A: That’s a really good point. It’s probably easier to find that groove more often when you’re fit, because you’re climbing a lot and because you know you can rely on yourself. On the contrary, you can be plenty fit and just not find that groove at all.
Q: Can you recall a time that demonstrated to you the importance of the mental aspect of climbing?
A: Back in 2000 or 2001, a few of us were into head-pointing poorly protected climbs around Boulder. We would top rope a climb and get it wired, then lead it. trying first ascents without bolts and we might top rope first to kind of wire them out. I was with my friend Steve Levin on a winter day in Eldorado Canyon, and we spied a short, but attractive line.
The protection consisted a some very small RPs supplemented by taped on hooks. It was pretty sketchy. The first time I tried to lead it, even having top roped it many times, I was very scared. I got up about twenty feet and it all of a sudden occurred to me that, “I can’t do this.” I recall saying to myself, “I have no business doing the next move. I don’t think I can do this. I really don’t belong here.” It wasn’t something physical that was keeping me from doing the crux move, I just could not stay calm. I tried to down climbing and I fell off right. One of the hooks caught me and it actually held. With the rope stretch I came down softly on the crash pad we had at the base of the climb.
Q: Did you try again?
A: When I tried it again, I got into that flow state. I was free of thought. I just climbed and completed the route without a problem. I was a little nervous leaving the ground, as you always are, but then I got caught up in the movement. The first time, I was thinking first and climbing second, and that’s what held me back.
Q: Since mental state is so critical, how do you mentally for climbing?
A: I don’t, and I probably should. I’ve never really done much mental or physical training. I used to solo a lot on the Flat Irons. I don’t know if that was training, so much as just being young and stupid.
I have meditated in the past, but that was to help with general life anxiety issues, not with climbing per se.
Q: Now here’s one of the big reasons I started this project. Most people will answer that way. They know they should train mentally if climbing’s 90% mental, and yet they don’t do it.
A: Yeah, I think that’s a great idea and a great point. The only book out there that I’ve read on the subject is The Rock Warriors Way.
Q: What really started me on this project is that I was reading this book by Matt Fitzgerald who is runner and he’s written many books on running, and he was talking about this training in running where you don’t mentally train and physically train, you do both together. It’s integrated brain-body training, where you move your fatigue set points in a very specific way by putting yourself in that position where you’re running at that fatigue set point. I think this concept has merit, because I used to be a runner, and I have also experienced this in my climbing.
When you work a route, that’s what you’re doing. You’re putting yourself at that point where you’re doing hard moves over and over and over again, at your limit.
A: That’s true. As you do the moves, your fatigue set point gets higher and higher and you’re more comfortable, and when you’re more comfortable you’re less gripped. It then becomes easier to climb.
Q: How would you describe your ability to manage anxiety before attempting a hard climb?
A: Before a big endeavor I definitely get nervous. To deal with this, sometimes is just leaving the cliff and go for a walk to look at something besides the climb. Things like that have helped me I think a little bit, just to center and to not be obsessive about a thing that’s causing my fear.
Another thing I do to deal with pre-climb jitters is just get on with it. Even if I know that I should be resting longer physically between attempts, I’ll just think, “I really can’t take this angst anymore, I’d rather just go up there and see what happens.”
Q: How do you warming up?
A: As I’ve gotten older I’ve definitely gotten better at warming up. I used to do just one or two routes and then jump on whatever climb I was trying to do that day. Now, if I have the whole day to climb I might spend half the day warming up, just doing easier routes. I’ll do a progression like a progression, a 5.9, a 5.10, a 5.11, and a 5.12a.
I don’t know if you remember back in the ‘80s and ‘90s when people used to care how many tries a route took, and they would not want to get on a route if they were going to fail. That counted as an attempt. I think that you need to ditch that mentality and get on routes with an explorer mentality.
Q: When you’re working a project, you try to take more of a learning attitude and see what you can learn, and not be so caught up on how well you do.
A: Yes. I don’t even count tries anymore. As I’ve gotten older, I’m definitely less averse to top roping a climb either, if it gives me a low stress way to learn the moves. I know that some people disagree with this choice, but that’s OK with me.
Q: Do you have a special way that you train your ability to rest and recover?
A: I once had a chance to climb with Johnny Dawes when he was in Boulder about five years ago. We were just up at Flagstaff bouldering, and he was telling me how he teaches climbing movement, something he has done for over 20 years. We were doing the upper Y traverse, which has several series of crimps, followed by rest jugs. I’d get to these jugs and just do what I was always do, which is hang on straight arms and chalk up. I remember Johnny saying, “Okay, rest.” I said, “Okay, I’m resting.” And then he said, “Rest again.” By that he meant straighten your arms some more. I did and he said, “Rest again.” And I did it again, and one thing I noticed right away is that I truly was able to hang and rest more deeply when I focused my attention on it.
If you sag as low as possibly can onto your skeletal frame, you can rest a lot better. It takes a conscious focus to do so. You need to consciously say to yourself two or three times, “Straighten, straighten, straighten your arm.” You’d be surprised that you can sag a half inch or an inch lower than you thought you could, maybe your feet can even go a little lower.
Q: Do you have any specific ways that you train your footwork?
A: Footwork is probably the weakest link for most if not all of us. I have not worked on my footwork specifically in a long time. I do remember doing the “Silent Feet” drill, which is especially applicable in the gym. In the gym, you can hear your foot kind of plunking down on a hold or scraping against the wall when you’re not using your feet well. This helps build control and precision in use of our feet.
One other thing I try to always think about is having a plan for both of my feet. It’s a pretty easy to get into the habit of seeing a big foothold, high stepping onto it with your left foot, and not pay a single thought to your right foot. Then you find that you can’t reach the next hold, whereas if you put that left foot up high and thought about where does your right foot go to best support this left foot, then suddenly there’s a whole new world of possibilities.
Q:” Do you utilize visualization in your training?
A: One thing I will do is I run through beta in my head before I go to sleep at night. For me that’s like counting sheep. It helps me sleep.
When I do this, I try to visualize the whole route. I visualize every hold and every body position. about all the holes.
Q: What is your biggest challenge in remaining focused while you’re climbing?
A: For me, one of the toughest things is that I can get to a good rest, and I can stay there so long that I get psyched out about what’s coming up. The flow of my climbing gets interrupted by camping out at a good rest. I might hang out there so long that my resolve sort of crumbles and I don’t leave the rest as mentally focused as I could be.
Question: What do you do to manage this?
A: Before I leave the rest I try to re-energize myself the same way I do on the ground. I increase my breathing frequency, I stop thinking about other things, and I force myself to think about the sequence that’s coming up in order to re-direct my focus.
Q: What is your physical training like?
A: I’ve never been very scientific about training. I make sure I climb at least three days a week. Given my schedule now, usually two of those are in the gym. I try to have a balance between power and endurance. If I go to the gym two days a week, I’ll try to do one day for routes, the other day for bouldering.
Q: So you have a unique workout that you particularly like that you can share?
A: One thing that I used to do on rock that got me in great condition is that I’d go up in the Flat Irons and I’d go up the first, second and third flat irons. They’re all side by side and I’d solo two or three routes on the first. Then I’d go over to the second where I’d do some bouldering. All I needed for this was my shoes and chalk bag.
Then I’d go over to the third Flat Iron and solo one or two routes. I’d finish up by bouldering at a spot called the Ghetto. The whole circuit took five or six hours to complete. I’ve found that this sort of undiluted, raw volume was great training. It was fun too.
Q: How about any other advice for people looking to improve their climbing?
A: Work on your footwork. Work on your technique. I think people get too hung up on strength. My wife for example she’s really fit and works out all the time, but she had plateaud in her climbing. She did some technique session with a good climbing coach here in Boulder, and just a few session took her from 5.11A to 5.12B.
It happened quick too, so obviously the physical potential was always there. It stayed with her too.