Why Mental Training is So Important: 5 Tips to being mentally tough – by Tiffany Hensley

Don McGrath:

I was really lucky to recently connect with competitive climber Tiffany Hensley at a recent ABS event. Tiffany was super enthusiastic about our new book Vertical Mind because she has come to know the importance of her own mental game when it comes to high performance climbing. I was excited when she offered to write a guest blog post and share her insights. So, here are some of Tiffany’s insights.

Tiffany Hensley rock climbing

Tiffany climbing

Tiffany Hensley writes:

I’ve been climbing since the age of seven, and over the years I’ve learned a lot about the mental aspects of climbing. When training expert Eric Horst said that mental fitness was 30% of the climbing game, I believed him. Udo Neumann, the Head Coach of Germany’s world famous bouldering team, said in the first issue of The Circuit World Cup and Performance Magazine, that fitness was only the door to performance climbing. “What you do with that fitness,” says Udo, “is what sends the hardest climbs.” 

I competed in climbing for 15 years, nine of them internationally. In 2008 I reached my decided peak, placing 4th in the IFSC Bouldering World Cup in Vail, Colorado, and winning the North American Climbing Championships in Canada. A few months later, fresh from high school, I competed in the World Games in Taiwan where something changed. My focus changed from tunnel-vision focus to wide-eyed, boundless curiosity, hungry to see the world. This lead to a year of extremely motivated sport climbing overseas in Spain, France, Austria, Slovenia, and away from competitive climbing.

When I came home to the United States, the magic wore off and my climbing suffered. Undeveloped mentally, unable to handle home, my voice stiffened with stress and the pounds added on. After months of suffering negative progress, compounded with depression, I needed big life changes. So, I became vegan, moved to Boulder, Colorado, and enrolled in a University. 

I also was hired as a coach at The Spot Bouldering Gym, where I dove into the training literature. Despite my research, I felt that there something I was missing. In Europe, Mexico, and every other country I had previously climbed in, the climbing teams were mentality strong. In the US I’d met many strong-minded climbers, read Dave MacLeod’s blog, studied Eric Horst’s blog, and found that Horst suggested the mental aspects of climbing was a whole third of the training pie. I didn’t know what this meant. 

I then attended a coaching session with Douglas Hunter in Las Angeles, my first coaching session in 8 years. One thing that he suggested struck me. He suggested that it is key to find motivated climbing partners.

Why were other people so important, I wondered. I found the answer with a sport climbing partner named Juan. For 26 days we met every morning, and I climbed at least one 5.13 and one V7 during that time. I felt that I was back on track. Juan was a positive partner, energetic, and we bounced good energy back and forth.

After this 26 days, I felt confident physically and socially. I was strengthened by hard work, physical suffering, cold weather, running, and intensive studying. What was this energy I had gained, specifically?

I decided to hit the road in search of understanding this source of strength. So, a few months ago I bought a Sprinter van and drove 6,000 miles across the Western states, driving alone for 68 of 70 hours.

And what did I find in my journey, as I stopped and climbed across the US?
Empowerment of the mind is the most powerful tool for training. Mental conditioning is what brought me out of my slump, and it is what enabled me to continue climbing well.

Some mental rules of thumb that I discovered, and which worked every time were:

1) Every fall teaches us something about the climb.

A fall is never a waste of time, frustration is. Envision each fall fueling your determination.

2) Before every attempt, visualize the climb while turned away from the wall. 

Muscle memory can be formed without being on the wall. Neurotransmitters send twitching signals to the muscles you as you prepare for the climb.

3) Open your shoulders, raise your arms, and breathe.

This physical movement is a ‘power stance’ that helps you feel more powerful.

4) Think of a catchy line from a song. 

You don’t need speakers. You can set your own background music in your head for a hard climb to help stay focused.

5) Lastly: No expectations!  Don’t be afraid of failing. 

This doesn’t mean not to care, but don’t think about or dwell on falling. Building up a fear of falling before trying a climb, whether it’s the day before, the morning of, or the minutes up to trying the climb directly effects how you actually climb.

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2 Responses to Why Mental Training is So Important: 5 Tips to being mentally tough – by Tiffany Hensley

  1. Eric Walden says:

    What a wonderful set of words. Thank you Tiffany for sharing your tips.
    Having grown up in and around Yosemite my climbing path has always been one of traditional style yet in the last year or so I have turned to like sport climbing for its unique challenges.
    After climbing trad for nearly 20 years now I have always climbed under the set of rules that you just do-not want-to-fall. Sport climbing has really opened up a new door into the climbing world for me. A place that is balanced between physical strength and overall health as well as mental control. The book ‘Vertical Mind’ has taken me steps above where i used to be mentally as a climber. A fresh breath into my world of climbing.