Skip to Content

Rock Climbing : Articles : Training and Technique : The Mental Toughness Error

The Mental Toughness Error


Submitted by arnoilgner on 2008-11-14 | Last Modified on 2008-11-24

Rating: 12345   Go Login to rate this article.   Votes: 19 | Comments: 28 | Views: 10322

by ARNO ILGNER


Rockclimbing Article Image1_large
Climbing Wunsch Dihedral, South Platte Colorado
Arno

Craig was pumped and needed to make a decision quickly. His last protection was a bolt ten feet down and to his right. He couldn’t see the crack for his next protection placement, but he knew it was just over the bulge above him. He knew about the crack because he had previously climbed this route, Zoo View, on Moores Wall in North Carolina. In fact, he had not had any difficulty climbing it, but he was having difficulty now. The climbing to this point didn’t quite seem the same as he remembered. Last time he recalled stepping down and traversing left, but now the holds were unfamiliar. Craig could feel his strength waning, but since he was absolutely sure the crack would be above the bulge, he committed. He climbed deliberately on the small holds over the bulge, but the crack wasn’t there; it was ten feet to his right. He had traversed too far left. He was on a precarious perch running out of strength, when his hand slipped and he fell. Craig fell and swung into an arête hitting his pelvis, back, and head. Fortunately he was wearing a helmet and didn’t break anything, escaping the incident only badly bruised.

It would seem as if Craig was being mentally tough by staying focused on the goal and not letting fear or the pump distract him; yet, that mental toughness resulted in a terrible fall and he barely escaped a serious injury. When we think of being mentally tough we envision someone whose mind has power over one’s body. It’s a mind over matter approach. We envision the climber staying committed to the goal without giving in to the desire to quit.

This mind-over-matter approach caused Craig’s mind to perceive the situation as he wished it to be, not as it actually was. With a mind-over-matter approach you rely on what your mind knows from past experience. This can be helpful to a degree in doing risk assessment, but it can interfere with perceiving the situation as it is now. This is what happened to Craig. He had climbed Zoo View before. He engaged Zoo View the second time with mental perceptions that he was “absolutely sure where the route went” and that “it wouldn’t be difficult.” Both of these perceptions were wrong. He was getting feedback from the situation (the route and his body) telling him that he was off route and too pumped for committing to a no-fall section. His mind, however, still attached to the old perceptions, ignored this feedback and tried to distort the situation to fit its perceptions. He then engaged an inappropriate risk and fell.

Mental flexibility, conversely, allows you to stay receptive to the feedback you get from a situation. The fact that a situation is stressful indicates that learning needs to take place. Learning converts stress into comfort. In order to do this conversion you need to take in the stress, accept it, and process yourself through it. Doing this requires flexibility, not toughness. You don’t distort the situation to fit your mind’s perception of it, but rather let go of your mind’s perception to see the situation as it is now. You do this in a matter-over-mind, not a mind-over-matter, approach. By engaging your body (matter) and keeping attention on the tasks your body is doing to climb, you allow your mind to accept and process the stress. What is required is to keep attention on the current task. Attention shouldn’t be on thinking about the climbing. This will lead to reinforcing the existing mental construct and enhance toughness not flexibility. Attention should simply be immersed in what your body is doing to climb.

Risk Assessment

Mental toughness can lead to taking inappropriate risks because the end goal can interfere with assessing the situation effectively. Mental flexibility allows you to take appropriate risks. When you are stopped at a stance, assess the situation, and then make a decision that will lead to taking an appropriate risk.

Climbing has “no-fall” and “yes-fall” risks. You determine appropriateness differently for each of these. In no-fall risks you weigh the strength, skill, and confidence you have left, compared to what is left to climb, in order to pass through the difficulties and not fall. You usually climb more slowly, stay on routes below your technical ability, and you do listen to your mind when it determines you can’t or shouldn’t continue.

In yes-fall risks you weigh the fall consequence you face — length of fall, obstacles, etc. — against your actual experience taking such falls. You climb more quickly, get on routes at or above your technical ability, and you don’t listen to your mind when it says you can’t continue.

A primary part of mental flexibility is determining what type of risk you are in and then engaging accordingly. Many climbs have both yes and no-fall zones. You could be on a runout trad climb, like Zoo View, that you’d label no-fall but has yes-fall zones close to solid pro. Or, you could be on a sport climb that you tend to think of as yes-fall but has sections where a fall could cause injury, like climbing to the first or second bolt or where the bolts are farther apart. Being mentally flexible means you do assessment several times on a climb and then engage accordingly. Mental toughness doesn’t have the flexibility to adapt to these distinctions.

Craig had climbed Zoo View before without much difficulty so it was within his technical difficulty. But the second time he was off route, not knowing it at the time, facing a no-fall situation in a state of fatigue. His mind, however, insisted that he was on route and ignored the feedback his body and the climb were giving him. His mind was tough and rigid, clinging to its false perceptions. After taking a Warrior’s Way course Craig learned how to be mentally flexible. He learned that the risk on Zoo View was no-fall and not appropriate to engage when the chance of falling was great. He also learned options he could have acted on based on the feedback he was getting from the situation. Doing this would keep him from being drawn in by the justifications of his mind. He could have down-climbed to his last stance to regroup and reassess. He could have rested at his current stance to regain strength. Doing this would have allowed him to see if he could collect enough strength to climb the no-fall section without falling. Or, he could have looked for more pro where he was, to convert the no-fall section into a yes-fall section. All of these flexible options would have been based on what was actually happening on the climb, not based on mental justifications about what should be happening. Matter (the body and the climb) directs the mind on how pumped you are, whether you face a no-fall or yes-fall section, and how to engaged based on the type of risk it is. Then the mind simply needs to stay flexible as the body engages appropriately. Climbing in a matter-over-mind approach allows you to keep attention fully on the task, based on the type of risk.

Mental toughness tends to force the mind’s current perceptions onto the climb — a mind-over-matter approach. Mental flexibility keeps the mind’s limiting perceptions from interfering with the feedback the body is currently experiencing—a matter-over-mind approach. Craig learned effective risk assessment for challenging climbs that he applied while taking the Warrior’s Way course. Most important, though, he learned the value of staying mentally flexible so he could process whatever happens on the climb to insure he engages appropriate to the risk and still performs at his best.

Arno Ilgner is the author and mastermind behind The Warrior's Way, the definitive resource for mental training for climbing. Go to www.warriorsway.com for more information.

Tags: traing

Twitter  Facebook  StumbleUpon  Delicious  Digg  Reddit  Technorati

28 Comments CommentAdd a Comment

 saxfiend
 More ArticlesArticle RatingsArticle CommentsProfile
 2008-11-20
5 out of 5 stars Another great article on the subtleties of mental training. Thanks!
 LamontagnedeGatineau
 More ArticlesArticle RatingsArticle CommentsProfile
 2008-11-20
3 out of 5 stars Yeah Man! The powerful mental power of mentalness!

There's good to this stuff, but let's not make it a religion please... The are enough of those hexentric nuts around these parts.
 byran
 More ArticlesArticle RatingsArticle CommentsProfile
 2008-11-20
If you can take a whipper in a "no-fall" situation and walk away with nothing but bruises then it's not really a "no-fall" situation is it? Sounds like Craig almost freed some burly variation, good for him for just going for it.
 climb_eng
 More ArticlesArticle RatingsArticle CommentsProfile
 2008-11-20
5 out of 5 stars Hey douche-tard, Craig was lucky, very very lucky. For all intents and purposes it was a no-fall situation. Generally, if you're fall involves slamming into objects, it's not a fall you want to take.

Great article Arno!
 angry
 More ArticlesArticle RatingsArticle CommentsProfile
 2008-11-20
Why a picture of Wunches Dihedral in Colorado and a story of Zoo View in North Carolina?

 farmlivingisthelifeforme
 More ArticlesArticle RatingsArticle CommentsProfile
 2008-11-20
Wow...I think byran has a right to state his opinion, regardless of whether he's correct or not. Isn't name-calling for 2nd graders?
 norskagent
 More ArticlesArticle RatingsArticle CommentsProfile
 2008-11-21
In the late 80s I witnessed much the same scenerio as Arno described. The climber's name was Chip, and he was a fair climber a few leads under his belt. One problem though, he hadn't led much at Moore's. Most of his lead experience was at Stone Mtn., where he had led up to 5.10. So I guess he figured Zoo View 5.7 at Moore's would go smoothly. He climbed up past the bolt, went left as Arno describes, got shakey, pumped out and fell. Because the pitch starts off the Crow's Nest ledge, it was not a clean fall. His head (no helmet) took a hit at the ledge and he had to be "rescued" by Fire, EMS, etc. He recovered physically but I don't believe he climbed again. By the way, the "left" version of Zoo View is the only way I have led the route. Not sure of Craig's exact path but there is gear to be had going that way, and a super resty stance shortly thereafter. jp
 nfowler50
 More ArticlesArticle RatingsArticle CommentsProfile
 2008-11-21
so lets say he didnt go for the ballsy move... what then? try to down climb? your already pumped, he had to fall
 dashclimber306
 More ArticlesArticle RatingsArticle CommentsProfile
 2008-11-21
Yeah just for the record Zoo View is pretty safe, bomber tcu's protect the part Craig was running out. If you skip them, however, the fall could be heinous. Glad he was lucky! Good article.
 debaser655321
 More ArticlesArticle RatingsArticle CommentsProfile
 2008-11-21
Alright article, but I agree with Dashclimber206. Craig has only 1 problem, he doesn't know how to find gear placements. There are definitely options for gear on Zoo View. Also, change the photo. It's very dishonest to use Zoo View as the climb of reference in the article and show some other awesome crack.
 norskagent
 More ArticlesArticle RatingsArticle CommentsProfile
 2008-11-21
Is downclimbing a lost art? Back-in-the-day we would routinely reclimb several sections of some trad routes, not only getting the moves wired but also getting higher protection arranged and essentially toproping up to the last gear for the redpoint. On early Zoo View ascents we would climb out and clip the bolt carrying only the quickdraw necessary, then back climb to the ledge. Then don the rack and climb the route.
 brent_e
 More ArticlesArticle RatingsArticle CommentsProfile
 2008-11-21
if you're saying "there is pro on Zoo View" etc I feel that you're missing the point to this excellent article. Mr. Ilgner is saying that the climber didn't assess the situation he was currently in properly. That Craig climbed into a situation based on a poor decision and because of that took a risk that was not properly thought out. He didn't have better pro and if he did the situation would be different and risk assessment different.

Thanks for the good read.



 rtwilli4
 More ArticlesArticle RatingsArticle CommentsProfile
 2008-11-21
I understand the point being made here but Craig took a whipper because he failed to see pro on Zoo View. I've done the 'traversed too far to the left' route and there is pro on it.

Even if there wasn't, what was the guy supposed to do? Down climb and then fall? How can that be good mental training? That just trains your mind to down climb to the last BOLT on any trad climb you might get pumped on. IMHO he did exactly what he was supposed to do. How are you supposed to train for those 'no fall situations' without actually climbing through them?

ALSO... There are some amazing pictures out there of Zoo View... why the hell are we looking at a picture of whatever dihedral that is in CO?
 naitch
 More ArticlesArticle RatingsArticle CommentsProfile
 2008-11-21
I'll weigh in here...I'm Craig. I think Arno mis-understood my description of the climb slightly, however it doesn't really affect his assessment, which is correct. There is a high (diagonal upward) way to traverse from the bolt and get established in the crack and a lower way (step down from bolt and then traverse horizontally left.) This horizontal traverse is what I had done previously but my memory of it was not correct. I was over confident and stepped down too far and therefore was way too low. My overconfidence did not allow me to focus on what my actual surroundings should have been telling me about the climb and dictate what I should be doing, was my error. I could have either, climbed back to the bolt (I had a decent rest there) or even back to the crows nest as another responder suggested. However, I was too far out and too pumped by the time I realized I was significantly off. I could also have looked for intermediate pro that may or may not have been available. I had tiny nuts, cams and balls 'n nutz which might have been able to have been placed. However, because I was confident in where I needed to go I didn't take that opportunity to look for them but started up over the slight bulge to where the crack should have been. However I had also traversed past the crack. I was on tiny 1/4"-1/2" holds with next to no feet and pumped out and then my hand slipped. So there were a couple of errors on my part as Arno correctly assessed.
 angry
 More ArticlesArticle RatingsArticle CommentsProfile
 2008-11-22
rtwilli, just for clarification, that "whatever dihedral" is probably the most spectactular 3 pitch route in the world. It's not exactly like he grabbed a crap photo.
 Tanis
 More ArticlesArticle RatingsArticle CommentsProfile
 2008-11-22
5 out of 5 stars Great article anyway.
 dockzilla
 More ArticlesArticle RatingsArticle CommentsProfile
 2008-11-22
I say that bolt should be chopped. What up?
 rockie
 More ArticlesArticle RatingsArticle CommentsProfile
 2008-11-23
Good read, thanks :)
Maybe change the picture to the correct one referred to, like those who knew it wasn't the same climb noted. Naughty, naughty, very naughty..
 mrdeadpt
 More ArticlesArticle RatingsArticle CommentsProfile
 2008-11-25
Children and Old Farts, chill out! No one put a caption below that picture saying it was Zoo View-- and get your egos out of the way trying to show how much detail you know about that particular route. Your'e missing the point. Arno is saying: See reality for what it really is and deal with what really is. The thought in your head isn't going to create a gear placement or hold that isn't there. Be mentally disciplined, but don't fantasize.

 arnoilgner
 More ArticlesArticle RatingsArticle CommentsProfile
 2008-11-25
Yes, I can do better to coordinate pic with article. I'll do that next time...
Arno
 aclimbinfool
 More ArticlesArticle RatingsArticle CommentsProfile
 2008-11-25
I don't think that picture is of Zoo View
 mturner
 More ArticlesArticle RatingsArticle CommentsProfile
 2008-11-26
As has been mentioned, downclimbing isn't always an option. If you're climbing up at your limit then climbing down will be damn near impossible. Often times rational assessment leads you to believe that continuing to climb up will be easier than climbing down. Hindsight is always 20/20.
 montana_g
 More ArticlesArticle RatingsArticle CommentsProfile
 2008-11-27
5 out of 5 stars Hey, I just read a cool study about expertise in chess. Apparently low-level experts perform worse than lower-ranked players when presented with a test that requires novel chess reasoning (the experts rely on entrenched behaviors). Only once players reach very high levels of expertise can they again free their minds for original thought.

Cool, eh?
 montana_g
 More ArticlesArticle RatingsArticle CommentsProfile
 2008-11-27
5 out of 5 stars Oh, nice article, by the way.
 mrdeadpt
 More ArticlesArticle RatingsArticle CommentsProfile
 2008-11-28
Again, using the chess example, the argument is against climbing "by rote" --going through the motions while you're all inside your head ("I've been on this route before")without awareness of what you are actually dealing with in the reality of the present moment.
 arnoilgner
 More ArticlesArticle RatingsArticle CommentsProfile
 2008-11-30
no, the pic isn't of zoo view.
-
mturner comment: "downclimbing isn't always an option."
You are correct. Downclimbing isn't always a possibility. I think a lot of the disagreement in the various posts here boils down to what each of us sets as the goal.
For instance, what is better, to commit forward or to downclimb, when you are in doubt? If you set the goal of achieving an end goal, like getting to the top or to the next rest/pro stance, then committing forward is the answer. This is because by committing forward you at least are going in the direction of your goal and you may achieve it.
However, if you set your goal to take an appropriate risk so you can learn and not injure yourself, then downclimbing is the answer. This is because the prospect of committing forward with a high chance of falling in a no-fall zone is too high. Better to downclimb even if you can only downclimb a few moves and then fall, that's a fall consequence you can deal with better than falling off after committing forward.
-
So what is your goal? To commit forward to get through any way you can, or to take an appropriate risk and learn?
Arno
 ripsawridge
 More ArticlesArticle RatingsArticle CommentsProfile
 2010-02-11
This kind of happened to me once. I was pumped, but _sure_ that above me the rock angled back. I looked down to see a nut fall out but the piton was still there. Then a foothold broke. I had a split second to decide, downclimb or commit to the move. I committed, and a few seconds later was in the air, I don't even know how. The piton pulled, it turned into a factor 2 fall. Ugh!
 grahamh
 More ArticlesArticle RatingsArticle CommentsProfile
 2010-05-09
I am surprised to see the use of the words 'could' and 'should' form both Arno and his client, Craig, especially Arno. I think it is a natural human desire to have greater control over our suroundings and our given situations both on and off the rock. I think Arno's book and teachings offer a lot to learn and grow from. I also think there are no absolutes.

Add a Comment