Improving Concentration – Part 3

This is the third in a series of articles on mental training, based on concepts from my new book, Maximum Climbing, now available! –EH


Photo: Focused and sending at the Wailing Wall, UT. Hörst photo.

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 two techniques for narrowing and maintaining your climbing focus —although you can also apply these strategies in the quest to improve your focus in everyday activities. (View the prior articles with more focus-building techniques: Focus #1 | Focus #2)

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.

Use Willpower to Narrow Focus Despite Adverse or Imperfect Conditions
Leveraging willpower to narrow your concentration flies counter to the core concept that focus must gather naturally (as a result of eliminating distractions and quieting your mind), yet it is sometimes possible to will focus in adverse situations or when a deadline or competition outcome is on the line. This rare occurrence is the stuff of master climbers who are subjected to an acute or onerous situation in which they must direct intense focus in order to prevail or even survive.

A classic example of this is when an elite climber summons laserlike focus to complete a project climb on the final date of a trip or in flashing the final problem to win a competition. Chris Sharma has done this many times, in somehow being able to simultaneously tap into the energy and urgency of the situation while also detaching from the pressure to perform. In more than a decade of participating in bouldering competitions, Sharma has on-sighted more final routes than any of his peers—and he’s also been able to apply his laserlike focus to send cutting-edge rock routes like Jumbo Love (5.15b), a mind-boggling 250-foot overhanging pumpfest that currently may be the longest, hardest route in the world.

No doubt there are many elite solo rock climbers and alpinists who similarly will razor-sharpen their focus to prevail in their high-stakes endeavors. Think of Alex Honnold performing his unbelievable free solo ascent of the NW Face of Half Dome, or a mountaineer like Ed Webster pulling together the mental focus and will to survive in descending unknown territory on Everest with frostbite and virtually no equipment or food. Extreme situations will sometimes bless a climber with almost unlimited ability to focus and endure, and it just might be enough to “miraculously” survive an impossibly harrowing predicament.

As you grow in experience and mental skill, you too may someday find yourself in a situation in which you can will intense, sustained focus in order to prevail. Perhaps it will be in wielding the focus needed to send a competition final’s route as the crowd howls, although it will more likely be in an outdoor climbing venue where you must summon peak concentration to succeed on a project before the weather turns or your road trip ends. Or perhaps you’ll someday find yourself marshaling focus in extricating yourself from some big-wall or alpine ordeal. Whichever of these situations you someday find yourself in, you must accept the reality of the situation—yet dismiss worries and paralysis by overanalysis—and act with complete trust that you possess the maximum climbing skills, experience, and willpower to see yourself through.

Announcing the release Eric Horst’s

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

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Copyright 2010 Eric J. Hörst. All rights reserved.