Two Focus-Training Strategies

The ability to narrow and maintain focus is a crucial climbing skill, especially when fearful thoughts begin to scatter focus while on lead or amidst a high-ball ascent.

Fortunately, just as doing pull-ups strengthens your arms, doing mental training will strength the mind. Toward this end, I present to you two mental training strategies that will strengthen your ability to focus. First up I’ll describe a practice drill to emply at the climbing gym or while toproping outdoors. Then, I’ll teach you a nifty preclimb strategy for gathering your focus before starting up a boulder problem or route.

Singular Focus Drill
The goal is to climb an entire route by focusing solely on one aspect of movement. For example, climb a route with your complete focus on just hand placements. Focus on finding the best way to grab each hold, using the minimum amount of grip strength necessary to hang on, and feeling how your purchase changes as you pull on the hold. Place as little focus as is safely possible on other areas such as your feet, balance, belayer, and sort forth. For now, let these areas take care of themselves—allow your intuitive sense to determine where your feet go and how your balance should shift.

Chances are, you’ll find this exercise quite difficult. Your thoughts will naturally wander to other tasks or even be directed to distractions on the ground. If this occurs, simply redirect your focus to the predetermined task—in this case, optimal use of handholds. It is this process of becoming aware of your lost focus and returning it to the critical task that you are after. Sharpened awareness of lost focus is tantamount to gaining control of focus.

Repeat this exercise regularly but change the focus each time (onto, say, foot placements or your COG positioning). Work on increasing the length of time you can maintain a singular focus—this helps build mental endurance. With practice, you’ll discover that the process of directing and redirecting focus, as you ascent hard routes, will become largely subconscious. And on the rare occasions when your focus does wander away from the task of climbing, your well-trained mind will instantly recognize this loss and redirect the focus back to the climb.

Pinpointing Your Focus
Now I will teach you a technique for narrowing your focus and quieting your mind in the moments prior to starting up a climb.

Stand at the base of the climb, assume an extended posture with your shoulders back, close your eyes, and place the fingertips of your dominant hand against the rock face. Your fingertips should be touching the wall lightly (not gripping a hold), and your hand and arm should be completely relaxed. Now take three deep belly breaths, inhaling through your nose to a count of five and exhaling through your mouth to a count of five to ten seconds. Let a wave of relaxation wash across your body, and then narrow your focus to the tips of your fingers touching the rock.

Concentrate singly on the sensation of your fingertips touching the rock—you should begin to feel the thermal energy moving from your fingers to the rock (on rare occasions when the rock is hotter than your body, you will feel thermal energy conducting to your fingertips). Maintain a relaxed, singular focus on the energy exchange between your fingertips and the rock for anywhere from thirty-seconds to a minute or two. If your focus ever wanders, simply redirect it to your fingertips. Soon your mind will become completely still, as all your focus is pinpointed on the tips of your fingers. Upon reaching this state, open your eyes and begin climbing.

Copyright 2009 Eric J. Hörst. All rights reserved.