Priming Your Mindset

This article is part of a series exploring research done for an upcoming book about mental training for rock climbing, tentatively titled Think – Play – Send!

In a previous article, we discussed the architecture of our brains. You can refresh yourself of that post here. Our brains recall things by association with other things and the strength of the association is formed by experiences that link these thoughts together. In the previous example, if I am exposed to red fire trucks often, I will likely have a fire truck close to the surface of my thoughts when I see the color red or when I hear the word “red.” These associations can be powerful and help determine how we react and respond in a situation. To help reinforce this concept, read and answer the questions below in order.

What continent is Kenya in?

What are the opposing colors in the game of chess?

Name any animal.

According to Dean Buonomano, in his book Brain Bugs, 20% of people answer zebra to the last question, and 50% name an animal from Africa. What happens here is called “priming.” The first question, if you know your geography, gets you thinking about Africa. The second question gets you thinking about black and white. When asked to name an animal, your thoughts are hovering in parts of your brain associated with Africa and black and white. Your brain has been primed to think of a black and white animal from Africa, a zebra. That’s wild, isn’t it.

Buonomano goes on to explain how our brains have “bugs,” that make it not reliable in some cases. He uses the following exercise to illustrate this point. Read the list below.

candy, tooth, sour, sugar, good, taste, soda, chocolate, heart, cake, honey, eat, pie

Without looking back at the list, which of the words below are in the list you just read.

tofu, sweet, syrup, pterodactyl

Chances are that you thought that sweet or syrup are in the list, or maybe both. It turns out that neither of these words are in the list. The associations between sweet or syrup and some of the words in the list may be so strong, that you think the words are in the list. So, the ability of our brains to recall things or experiences associated with other things is a double edged sword. It can help us rapidly recognize or recall things, but it can also have us recall inappropriate things.

This is important when it comes to your mental warm up, where you create your mindset for climbing. You want to create an experience that brings forth associations with being strong, confident, in control, and having fun. If you are preparing to attempt a hard project climb, you want to create a mindset of success, one where you embrace the challenge. If your warm up does not create the proper mindset, you will likely not have your best performance or experience.

Most experienced climbers like to do three or four climbs at an easier grade in preparation for trying a climb that is hard for them. They typically start with one or two climbs that are physically and mentally easy for them. They then follow that by one or two climbs that require them to engage mentally and physically. Doing the initial easy climbs help you make the transition from having your coffee and breakfast to getting prepared to rock climb. Doing climbs that are challenging, yet not hard for you, brings the experiences of hard climbing to the surface of your awareness. You experience the pump, break a sweat, start breathing harder, and have to tap into your ability to concentrate. These things all help get your brain and body primed for hard climbing.

On your next warm up, think consciously about what you are doing in making the transition to climbing and putting yourself in the mindset for harder climbing. By being aware of what you are accomplishing in your warm ups, you will be more likely to achieve the state that you desire and send that project.

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