Why you should Think and Play in order to Send

This article is part of a series exploring research done by professor Jeff Elison and Don McGrath for their upcoming book about mental training for rock climbing, tentatively titled Vertical Mind.

After I published the last article about mental scripts, I had many people email me asking to explain how to change the scripts that I talked about. In this article, I’ll introduce the process for altering scripts and suggest that your training should include Thinking and Playing in order to Send. Based on the research around changing scripts, the following is the recipe to follow.

  • Raise to consciousness: need to know I’m doing it; coach, video, or friends can help
  • Pick alternative – “what should I do instead?”
  • Catch yourself when you are about to follow the old script and replace with the new
  • Repeat the previous step over and over and over: Practice – drills: in safe, even fake environment, perhaps exaggerate response!
  • Practice in affective environment!!!!  Affective means emotional – under stress, in the heat of the moment. 

The first three steps are THINKING steps

The fourth step is a step where you PLAY and practice, creating new scripts

The final step is where you go for the SEND!


The remainder of this article is about the research behind the THINK steps.

Building on existing theory, psychologist Albert Ellis developed a process to help people identify and change maladaptive patterns.  His original ABC model has been extended to D and E, but let’s start simply – with the first step: C.  C represents Consequences, the things we don’t like.  These negative consequences may be our anger, feeling bad about ourselves, or failing to achieve our goals.  That’s right; C is first in the process of making changes.  A and B come before C chronologically, but we aren’t interested in every ABC, just the C’s that bother us.  So, we start there – when we become conscious of something we want to change.

Identifying Consequences sounds simple and sometimes it is, but applied to climbing, we sometimes have to dig deeper.  For example, let’s say you don’t like falling.  That makes sense, but now dig a little and ask yourself why do you fall?  Because you aren’t strong enough?  That’s an easy answer.  There are many reasons climbers fall that end in “I wasn’t strong enough.”  Picking just one, as a working example, it is often because we overgrip.  If I can identify something like overgripping as a Consequence, then I’ve done this more than once, probably often.  In fact, I probably do it unconsciously and automatically.  Therefore, my brain has created a script, and it is that script that I need to change.

Ellis would now have us jump to A: the Antecedents, the things that “cause” the Consequence.  When do you overgrip?  Under what conditions?  Maybe it is when you are 3’ or 5’ or 10’ above a bolt.  Maybe it is when you have put pressure on yourself to onsight or send THIS go.  Let’s go with the latter.  Now we have a summary statement: “When I feel pressure to send NOW, I overgrip.”

Figure 1 illustrates the general ABC process.  Figure 2 captures our climbing-specific example involving falling due to overgripping.

model for modifying rock climbing scripts

Figure 1: Ellis’s Script Changing Model

Figure 2: Ellis’s Model Applied to Rock Climbing

Ellis explains that we do things, even bad habits, for a reason – or multiple reasons.  Often we are not explicitly conscious of these reasons.  We may have developed implicit beliefs without knowing it.  To understand explicit versus implicit here, compare these two things you know – who was the first president of the United States versus what are the rules of grammar?  We explicitly know the president, meaning we can “explicate it” – we are conscious of the answer and we can put it into words: Samuel Adams?  Or did he invent beer?  In contrast, we know the rules of grammar implicitly: we use them constantly, but we are not conscious of most of them and cannot put them into words.

B stands for “beliefs.”  These are the reasons, explicit or implicit for why we do what we do.  Not surprisingly, B comes between A and C.  In other words, some situation (i.e., Antecedent = pressure) triggers Beliefs that lead to an undesired result (i.e., Consequence = falling).  Any ABC sequence is a script.  Uncovering the ABC’s is an effective technique for achieving Step 1 – raising our scripts to consciousness.

Returning to Beliefs, Ellis argues that these intervening beliefs often are not rational, especially the implicit ones.  Continuing with our pressure-leads-to-overgripping example, what might some of our beliefs be?  One, if I don’t crush this hold, I’ll fall.  Two, other people will think less of me if I fall.  And we could probably list many others.  To understand Ellis’s method, let’s just focus on the first one: falling.

The next step is “D” (Debunking), to question the rationality of these beliefs.  What is the evidence in favor of them?  What is the evidence that counters them?  Usually we can come up with at least a short list, if not a long one.  Is it necessary to crush this hold to prevent falling?  Probably not!  Exhibit One: How many times have you been at a clipping stance, pumped, getting more pumped, crushing that hold to make the clip – and as soon as you do and feel safe, you find that you can rest on those same holds?  Maybe crushing it wasn’t necessary.  Maybe you could have taken two seconds to relax, loosen your grip, reduce your pump, and then clip.  That’s what Ellis calls counterevidence.  The more the better.  Exhibit Two: Think about a route you have wired, one you’ve climbed dozens of times.  How hard do you grip those holds?  Probably half as hard, or more likely one-tenth as hard as you did on the onsight.  If you don’t need to crush them now, then you obviously didn’t need to crush them then.  As they say on the Infomercials: “but wait, there’s more.”  You may explicitly or implicitly be thinking you need to crush that hold in case your foot slips.  Fair enough, that may be a valid reason.  Then again, is that “reason” driven by “emotion” – fear of falling/pain or fear of failure?  We can start a whole new line of questioning those beliefs – and we will in later articles.

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