Improving Concentration – Part 1

This is the first in a series of articles on mental training, based on concepts from my new book, Maximum Climbing, available April 2010. –EH


Photo: Aimee Tetreault relaxed and focused on Strike A Scowl, New River Gorge, WV. Hörst photo.

In climbing, a focused mind joins you to the rock like a fifth appendage, whereas an unfocused mind weighs you down like a heavy pack. Your pursuit of a better performance experience, then, demands that you develop the ability to create and maintain a focused mental state, despite whatever distractions or adversity you face.

Legendary extreme alpinist Mark Twight describes how such a highly focused state affected his climbing. “On certain routes,” he says, “I achieved a mind/no mind state of mystical connection to the mountain so powerful I knew I could not fall or make mistakes. I could read my partner’s mind. I was not affected by gravity. I lost myself on those days. I became the mountain.”

No matter whether your preference is bouldering, cragging, or alpine climbing like Twight, training to improve your concentrative abilities will gradually lead you to experience a similarly distinct and advantageous mental state.

The opposite of concentration is distraction, and this explains why many climbers have a tough time sustaining concentration. There are myriad of possible distractions, both external and internal, that can sever your concentrative link to the moment as you climb. Looking at activity on the ground or checking your belayer, wrestling with your fears, or pondering the outcome of the climb will all break concentration and degrade performance. Learning to block out distractions is therefore central to improving your concentration.

In its essence, concentration is about being fully engaged and mentally in the moment. Below is one of the several techniques I teach climbers to employ in order to strengthening their concentration and connection to the rock. Check back each month for new techniques and tips–learning and using these mental-training techniques will absolutely enhance performance and transform your experience on the rock!

Focus Technique #1 – 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.

Announcing the much-anticipated release of
Maximum Climbing: Mental Training for Peak Performance and Optimal Experience

  • Maximum Climbing is a useful and fascinating read for climbers of all ability levels.
    –Lynn Hill
  • Maximum Climbing teaches you how to climb better by flexing the most critical muscle, the three-pound one between your ears.
    –Duane Raleigh,
    editor-and-chief, Rock & Ice
  • In this fascinating book, Hörst reveals many of the secrets to climbing your best by tapping into the vast potential of the human brain.
    –Ally Rainey
  • In this book, Eric Hörst provides climbers with a clear path to athletic mastery.
    –Steve Bechtel
    , Elemental Training Center

Learn more at:

Copyright 2010 Eric J. Hörst. All rights reserved.