Knowing the importance of concentration to effective risk management and optimal performance, it’s essential that you step onto the vertical stage armed with techniques to fortify mental focus. Developing unbreakable concentration, however, takes a long-term commitment to gather and maintain focus every time you climb. In fact, improving concentration requires a comprehensive effort to reduce distractions and properly direct focus in all aspects of your life. You can’t just turn on a high level of concentration while you climb; you must also learn to wield your concentrative powers at work, at school, and in doing all other important tasks.
Here are five techniques for enhancing and maintaining concentration before and during a climb—although you can also apply these strategies in the quest to improve your focus in everyday activities.
1. Deal with Potential Distractions Before You Climb
The first and most obvious step to improving concentration while you climb is to preemptively deal with possible distractions before you even start up the route. For example, knowing that noise on the ground or a talkative belayer often disrupts your concentration while leading, you can address this matter as part of your preclimb ritual. Express to your belayer (or spotter) the importance of his attentiveness, and kindly ask other climbers to limit their movements and noise until you complete the boulder problem or climb.
Same goes in trying to marshal maximal focus at work, school, or elsewhere. Turn off cell phones and nix any distracting background noises; predetermine that you won’t check e-mail or deviate for any reason from the task at hand until a certain point in time; and since your eyes often lead your focus, go somewhere that shelters your eyes from environment distractions or other movements.
An interesting research finding is that listening to classical Baroque-style music helps deepen concentration and improve focus, especially when faced with a large amount of information to process. The musical pulses common to Baroque music, such as Bach, have been shown to affect brain waves in a way that may enhance creative thinking, problem solving, concentration, and learning. Some university professors now play Baroque music in the background during lectures and tests, and countless others (including this author) have discovered the benefits of playing classical music while writing, reading, and studying, as well as during mental-training exercises such as visualization.
What about other styles of music—do they have the same positive effects on concentration? Perhaps. While faster-paced music and pop songs with lyrics do hold great potential to change your mental state and engage you in the moment of the music, they tend to make concentration on complex tasks more difficult. For example, I’m sure that you can sing along with a song on the radio (or talk on the phone) when driving in steady traffic on a familiar road. In trying to navigate a chaotic traffic in unknown city, however, I bet you have found it sometimes necessary to turn off the radio (and cease a conversation) in order to concentrate your complete attention on figuring the next turn and staying alive. The same is almost certainly true in climbing or performing any other complex task—subjecting your mind to engaging music or conversation will degrade concentration, whether you recognize it or not.
2. Use Rituals to Narrow Focus
Use of preparatory rituals is a natural, and powerful, way of narrowing focus before you climb (or engage in any important activity). By engaging in a sequence of steps and procedures in the hours and minutes leading up to a climb, the conscious mind is given a series of operations on which to target focus. For example, going through a progression of physical warm-up and stretching activities followed by a familiar sequence of preparing your gear and examining the route, the mind becomes engaged in task-relevant processes and is less likely to stray toward external distractions or internal, nonproductive thoughts.
In this same way, you can develop rituals to help focus your mental state in a wide range of life activities. Given the complexity of the world we live in and the ease of getting distracted, using rituals that deflect distractions and narrow focus will not only improve your concentration in all you do but also elevate your mental state in a way that increases the effectiveness of your actions. It should be no surprise, then, that peak performers in sports, business, and elsewhere habitually employ well-refined rituals to narrow focus and shelter their eyes and ears from irrelevant cues and potential distractions.
3. Use Self-Talk to Direct the Conscious Mind
Earlier you learned the harmful effects of negative self-talk to your conscious state and ability to concentrate. It is obvious, then, that proactively directing positive self-talk is an indispensable tool for maintaining a focused, effective mental state. Examples of beneficial self-talk include simple instructions such as Relax, Stay in the moment, Keep breathing, Focus on footwork, and Soften the grip, as well as encouraging statements like I can do this move, I love adversity, Keep going, Hang on, and One more move. By filling your conscious mind with copious positive self-talk, it makes it difficult for outside distractions or negative thoughts to enter your stream of consciousness.
An important distinction in directing effective self-talk is that you never state the effect or outcome that you don’t want to happen. Saying to yourself, for example, Don’t feel nervous, Don’t fall, Don’t blow this move, or Don’t feel scared brings the unwanted outcome into your conscious mind and thus makes it more likely that you will experience the very state or outcome you hope to avoid. This is often called the pink-elephant effect, since if you say to yourself, Don’t think of a pink elephant, you will instantly see a pink elephant in your mind’s eye! Such reverse polarity self-talk might be viewed as a form of self-sabotage, and it’s actually a common bad habit of internal dialogue for many people. Make it your goal to forge a new habit of thinking. Strive for a greater awareness of your self-talk as well as better quality control in the words you speak to yourself.
4. Keep Your Eyes on Task-Relevant Targets
Whether concentration narrows or divests in a given moment often depends on where your eyes are pointing and what you choose to focus your vision on. Suppose you are lead climbing and glance to the rock or ground below you—in shifting your eyes downward, you open the door to visually engaging some distraction on the ground or perhaps even pondering the exposure of your current perch. In doing so, you sever task-relevant focus on the move at hand, in addition to blocking out important proprioception of body tension, muscular tension, and your center of gravity. The performance impact of this lost focus is decreased efficiency of movement, increased mental tension and anxiety, and an unfortunate increase in the chance that you will lose your nerve, pump out, or fall.
The best climbers avoid this cascade of distractions by locking their vision onto task-relevant targets and allowing their vision to stray only when they are at a good stance, rest, or ledge. Knowing this master skill, you gain a powerful insight on how to gather and maintain focus as you climb—direct your eyes only at objects that are relevant in the moment! Specifically, your eyes should target only the holds you are about to engage, the gear you are placing, and the rock immediately around you. Make this your modus operandi—and avoid straying eyes as you climb—and you will discover a new level of concentration that quickly boosts your climbing performance.
One vital task-relevant target that many climbers fail to focus enough on is foot placements. A common problem is focusing the eyes and mind on finding handholds, and allowing the feet to find the holds with only quick glances or peripheral vision. Once again, you can learn an important lesson by observing how elite climbers turn their face and lock their eyes on each foot placement. Rarely do they feel for holds; instead they see each hold as a target and place the foot onto the target’s bull’s-eye (that is, the best part of the hold). This entire process might only take a second or two, but it’s a distinct step in the process of performing each move with utmost precision and economy.
Perhaps you are now thinking that you can make this process of targeting each foot placement into an excellent practice drill. Absolutely—do it! To best improve your footwork with this drill, see each foothold as a target onto which you narrow your focus, observing it vividly, and then place your foot precisely on the best part of the hold. Similarly, you can go beyond just seeing a handhold as a place to grab by consciously zooming your vision onto the details of each hold. By seeing the unique shape, angle, depth, and texture of each hold, you will be able to engage it with optimal positioning and minimal force.
One final tip: When you are struggling to maintain concentration on a route, simply narrow your visual focus to the hand- and footholds before you. Pause for a moment, and direct a tight, yet relaxed focus on the hold you’re about to engage next. Observe the minutest detail of the hold and marvel at its novelty. This simple five-second exercise will erase distractions and create a powerful focus to continue climbing onward with high efficiency.
5. Keep Your Thoughts in the Moment
Keeping your thoughts in the moment, detached from judgments and thoughts of outcome, is an immensely powerful Zen-master-like mental state. It’s important to recognize that your body can only be in the present, so the invaluable mind–body synchronization that gives birth to peak performance is only possible when your mind is also in the present moment! Thinking about anything in the past or future makes mind–body integration impossible and peak performance elusive.
Engaging in meditation or prayer before you climb is an excellent way to quiet the mind and get in the moment. When you quiet your mind and eliminate distractions, your attention will naturally focus on the most important matter of the moment. On the rock, this single-pointed focus will shift effortlessly from hand- to foothold, or to gear placements and risk management, as needed. In being in the moment, the potential outcome of the climb, as well as people around you, wield no power to distract—you will climb onward as if you are the only person in the world.