4 Tips for Becoming “Head Stronger”

One of the head-strongest climbers in the world, Alex Megos, crushing in the Frankenjura. Hörst photo.

One of the head-strongest climbers in the world, Alex Megos, crushing in the Frankenjura. Hörst photo.

Hanging on the rope with pumped forearms may be an all-too-familiar situation, especially if you are passionate about pushing your limits on the rock. And, given that your failure on the rock always seems to involve a lack of physical strength, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that “getting stronger” is the answer to all of your climbing woes.

While more physical strength can never hurt, realizing your potential in climbing demands that you strengthen your technical and mental game as well. Amazingly, a few simple tweaks in your technique, tactics, and mental game can yield a greater gain in apparent strength than a whole year of training in the gym!

Becoming “head stronger” begins with changing your modus operandi when a climb gets tough. For example, rather than quickly “taking” in the midst of a difficult sequence, push ahead and really try your hardest–assuming it’s a safe climb, be willing to fall trying. Employing this simple tactic will immediately increase your rate of success in climbing. Detailed below are four more powerful mental strategies to put to work beginning today!

1. Strive for Flexibility of Perspective The first key strategy is flexibility of perspective. To breakthrough a sticking point on a climb, you must get outside your current mindset. Detach yourself from the situation and visualize it from a perspective outside yourself. View yourself attempting the climb from a dissociated “on-TV” perspective, and see yourself climbing bottom to top as well as downclimbing from the top to the ground. It’s also a good idea to visualize how some great climber you know would attack the route—what tricks and tactics would he or she employ to send the route? Maybe dynoing past a long reach, searching a hidden hold, or finding a clever rest position. Make a game out of trying to transcend the block. Be creative and have fun, and all of a sudden, the moves will begin to reveal themselves to you. You might not send the route that day, but you’ll be making progress towards your goal.

2. Become a “Reverse Paranoid” The second shift in thinking is to become what I call “reverse paranoid.” No matter what problems you encounter, believe that the route wants you to succeed (even if you are currently flailing miserably). In this way, view each failed attempt as a signpost directing you toward a better course of action instead of becoming obsessed with a single way the route must be done. Many climbers fail on routes they are physically capable of doing because they ignore the feedback the route is giving them. Don’t fall into this trap—embrace the feedback of your setbacks as clues toward your inevitable success.

3. Leverage a “Mental Scrapbook” of Past Successes This third strategy is extremely powerful and it’s fundamental to achieving high levels of success in any field. Create a mental scrapbook of past successes that you can review on demand to fortify your confidence and persevere in the face of apparent failure. Relive in your mind’s eye the process of some of your greatest accomplishments, both climbing and non-climbing. Make these mental movies vivid and get inside them as if they were happening again at the present moment. Feel the exhilaration and joy of the accomplishment, then take that emotion and apply it to the difficult situation with which you presently faced. Forge ahead wearing the “mental armor” of your past successes and a whole new level of performance will begin to be revealed.

4. Strive to Develop “Hanging-On Power” The final strategy is what I call “hanging-on power.” Hanging on power is an attribute that all great climbers and high achievers (in any field) possess, which enables them to persist beyond ordinary limits. Sometimes winning or succeeding isn’t a matter of having more absolute strength or skill than others possess, it might just come down to being able to hang on and persevere longer. Hanging-on power is fundamental to all climbing breakthroughs, and it’s exemplified in ascents such as Adam Ondra’s mind-boggling Silence (5.15d) and Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s incredible nineteen-day first ascent of Dawn Wall (5.14d).

Hanging on power is an ability you develop by progressively subjecting yourself to greater and greater challenges that require higher levels of stick-to-itiveness. Just as in strengthening the muscles of your body, you strengthen mental muscle by challenging yourself and stretching the boundaries of what you think is possible. The bottomline: while some climbers give up at the first sign of adversity on a route (or after just a single day of failed attempts), the best climbers keep coming back and hanging on–mentally and physically–until they succeed. Foster this mental skill and you’ll outperform the masses in anything you do!

Copyright 2019 Eric J. Hörst. All rights reserved.