Mental Training for Rock Climbing – The Rock Warrior’s Way

I recently attended a clinic given by Arno Ilgner, author of The Rock Warrior’s Way, one of the only books written on the topic of mental training for rock climbing.  The subject of the clinic was overcoming the fear of falling and learning how to develop more mastery of your mental fitness for improved performance in rock climbing. The clinic was held at the Rock ‘n Jamin’ climbing gym in Denver, Colorado.

There were eight attendees at the clinic, which began with each sharing the challenges they face in their mental fitness and what they hoped to get out of the clinic. Several attendees wanted to get more comfortable with falling or learn how to better judge whether a fall is safe or not. Beyond getting a chance to interview Arno (you can see an excerpt from our interview here), I was interested in learning to not dread falling. Often, when I work a project, I get exhausted from the repeated falls, and it can be very frustrating for me. I wanted to see if this clinic could help lessen that frustration for me, which sometimes saps my motivation.

Arno took the class through several falling drills where we fell, initially short falls on top rope, and ending in lead falls of 10-15 feet. We also did some other movement drills meant to help us recognize that our minds often lie to us and that we can often do things that our minds say can’t be done.

Here are some of my observations and lessons from the clinic.

  • When approached as a drill in and of itself, falling was actually fun. I usually don’t like the thought of falling on a near vertical wall in the climbing gym, but doing these drills made me very comfortable with those falls. The controlled environment put me at ease and I actually was smiling during and after some of the falls.
  • Arno talked a lot about how our attention tends to follow where we look, so where we look while climbing and during a fall is critical. This simple concept is powerful in practice. During one of the movement drills I noticed that nearly all the climbers in the clinic, and many that were just climbing at the gym, often would keep their eyes on a foothold while they moved their first foot up to a new position, but when they moved their second foot to a hold, they often would look away before establishing their foot on the hold. I asked Arno about this, and he told me that this is because most of us climb using the power of one leg rather than two most of the time. I could actually see that in the movement. Next time you are climbing watch what others do with their second foot. It was really eye opening for me, no pun intended. By keeping our eyes on that second foot placement, we can actually improve the engagement of our legs.
  • Another concept that I have long recognized and valued, and when I’m able to do it, has me climbing my best, is climbing with two distinct modes; thinking and acting. Arno told us that it is critical that we be in one mode or the other and to not mix the two. You are in thinking mode when you are figuring out your next move, the next gear, any fall consequences, or how you feel. You are acting when you commit to making it to the next gear or rest. I know that sometimes I catch myself somewhere in the middle. I see where the next rest or gear placement is, yet I don’t continue climbing until I get there. I may get halfway and decide to take an intermediate rest, often to reassess the fall or think about back tracking.
  • The most powerful takeaway for many was that comfort and safety in falling is a matter of having experience with falling. There are an infinite number of fall scenarios, and in order to broaden your comfort zone, you just need to practice taking falls. I asked Arno whether falling while working a project is a good way to practice, rather than doing so in a warm-up, and he said that is actually a better way to do it, provided you do it properly, as was instructed in the clinic. So, there is no shortcut. You just gotta take the falls.

In summary, I both enjoyed the clinic and learned from it. I am leaving for Rifle tomorrow and I’m sure that I’ll have a chance to practice my new found joy in falling. I’m really going to try and either be thinking or climbing.

I would encourage anyone who wants to learn to manage their fear of falling, to take Arno’s clinic when it comes to your area. You can find out about upcoming clinics at

Climb on…Fall on!

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