Focus is all about summoning maximum concentration and attention at the moment it is crucially needed. Most climbers think of this when its time to send, but the ability to summon and maintain sufficient focus is also vital during daily training. With training cycles that last for months, often involving several weeks of training on plastic, maintaining this focus can be quite a challenge. When I have to post-hole through two feet of fresh snow to get to the Lazy H for a workout, the moment of tying in for a difficult send may be the furthest from my mind. Regardless, the effort & attention given to the ensuing workout, completed two months before booting up below my project, could have as much bearing on the eventual outcome as the effort put into the redpoint attempt.
Although the constant need to cultivate & sustain focus can be draining, repeatedly going through your process can help “hone your instrument” so to speak, making it much easier to manifest that vital focus when it comes time to perform on the rock. Everyone will have a slightly different process for getting into the proper “zone”, and many climbers have different ideas on what that zone should look like. For example, some folks prefer complete silence while others want their mates shouting encouragement. When I’m in my “zone” I don’t hear anything at all, so you might as well save your breath 🙂
Below are some strategies you can try, some geared more towards training activities, and others more towards performance:
1. Eliminate any external distractions. This may take some foresight, a bit of planning, and perhaps a significant amount of negotiation. If you expect to get good results out of a training session, you can’t be answering phone calls between sets. The rest period between sets is meant for resting. There is no extra time built in for doing chores. Spend your rest time analyzing the previous set, making notes in your training log, shaking, chalking and otherwise preparing for the next set–physically AND mentally. Here are some things I do to facilitate this:
— Set up a block of time when family, etc will leave you alone. Discuss this with significant others ahead of time and provide a weekly or monthly schedule if necessary so they can plan around your obsessive/compulsive behavior 🙂
— Isolate yourself from others (if needed). Some training partners can be a great aid, others just want to gossip. My wife understands that it’s best for everyone if I’m left alone during timed workouts, but I enjoy company for less rigid workouts like Limit Bouldering
— Turn off/unplug phones, laptops, etc.
— Select appropriate music. Music can be a powerful aid for cultivating the right mood, which is key to achieving the proper state of arousal. I prefer Heavy Metal for hangboarding, and Hip-Hop (we used to call it “Rap” when I was a boy) for bouldering/campusing. Avoid radio, or other sources of noise that you can’t control. Especially avoid things that will make you laugh, as this can completely ruin a workout. A few years back I was listening to sports radio while hangboarding when Dan Patrick told a story about his child’s field trip to a local zoo. This was just after “March of the Penguins” came out. At one point one of the children disappeared, only to re-appear a while later drenched from head-to-toe. It turned out this child had jumped into the penguin tank, kidnapped a penguin, and stashed it in his backpack. The image of this soaking wet child with a stowaway penguin strapped to his back kept popping into my head during hangboard sets. You can’t squeeze hard while laughing, and so several sets were essentially wasted. As John Cusack said in Hi Fidelity “I just want something I can ignore” (at 1:21 in the clip below).
2. Keep mental reminders at hand. During training, it can be extremely helpful to keep the ultimate goal in mind, to remind yourself why you are enduring this discomfort. In addition, more specific mental cues can be equally helpful while progressing through the individual steps of your routine. Here are some examples:
— Make permanent notes in your training plan log sheet. These can be anything from “tape Middle finger base here” to “Remember to squeeze on this set” to “Breathe!”
— Place photos, posters, inspirational messages, etc near your training apparatus. You may find your eyes wander during monotonous activities like hangboarding, so give them something to look at that will help direct your attention back to the task at hand. For example, friend of the show Jonathan Siegrist used a sharpie to write “Try Hard!” in the center of his hangboard. I like to post photos of the routes I’m training for. I have some behind my hangboard and some in the Lazy H.
— Post a list of personal bests near the apparatus. Although the ultimate goal may be weeks, months, or even years away, give yourself something to strive for in the here and now.
— Make notes on keys to your project. This can be anything from one or two key points, to several pages of blow-by-blow beta for an entire route. Keep in mind that endless detailed descriptions can be overwhelming at the moment of truth, so try to come up with no more than a handful of the most critical reminders, such as where and when to shift your hips when executing the crux dyno, details on how to grasp an irregular hold in the crux, or reminders to relax in certain sections or get “aggro” for others.
— Remind yourself of good habits. Concepts like remaining calm, breathing deeply & continuously, and trusting your beta are universal to all routes. Keep this in your mind and repeat them to yourself like a mantra while you climb.
— Utilize verbal cues. If you find your mind drifting, be ready with verbal cues, which can help jar your attention back to your current activity. These can be as ridiculous as “na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na- CLIMBING!” (sung to the tune of the Batman theme), or something more specific such as repeating the name of your upcoming project or long-term goal.
3. Control your breathing. As The Rock Warrior’s Way points out, breathing is the key to the mind-body connection, in that it is a subconscious activity that can be controlled consciously. Utilize this link to keep your mind calm and attentive and your body relaxed and supple:
— Start your huffing and puffing before you start the training activity or performance. Its much easier to maintain a good breathing routine once you’ve already started, not to mention that it can help to start a strenuous activity with fully oxygenated blood. I also find that starting this rhythmic breathing while I’m booting up helps to calm my nerves and send a signal to my belayer that I’m getting into my zone.
— Re-establish a good rhythm. Whenever you get to a rest point, a clipping stance, or while chalking up, note your breathing pattern, take a few full deep breaths, and try to maintain it. You can practice this using the “Finding Calm” drill described on page 63 of the RCTM.
— Focus on breathing during your training. Often while climbing difficult sequences good breathing habits are the first thing to go. This is understandable since the mind is pre-occupied with route-finding and other critical activities. This is often not the case while training, where movements are simple/non-existant or well-rehearsed, so use these opportunities to force yourself to breath properly under severe strain. Hangboarding is perfect for this, but so are Supplemental Exercises, Linked Bouldering Circuits, and Route Interval where you are climbing relatively simplistic terrain that you have dialed.
4. Establish a routine. Hopefully by now you have a reliable process that you can count on to get yourself into your “zone” when needed. If not, observe some of your local heroes and adopt some of their behaviours. Once you’ve figured out what works, practice it in your daily training and out on the rocks. Most things improve with practice. Here are some things that help me get into my zone:
— Do things in a consistent order. The order is somewhat arbitrary, but try to keep it consistent, and try to get deeper and deeper into your zone with each step. For example, when I show up at the crag, I usually like to drop my pack, then run over to my project to re-assure myself that it’s still there. Half joking, but seriously I want to know that my draws are still on it, figure out if there are other suitors I will have to coordinate with, make sure no key holds are wet, etc. Although I can’t control any of these things, having the information as soon as possible allows me to plan around any inconveniences. If I know the draws aren’t fixed, I can incorporate a dogging burn to hang the draws into my warmup. If the route is wet, maybe I can delay the start of my warmup to coincide with a likely time when the route will be dry. This simple ritual helps me relax once I arrive at the crag, and allows me to focus completely on my warmup, rather than worrying about some catastrophe I can’t control. Once I’m warmed up, I like to migrate to my project well in advance, providing plenty of time to get ready to go. The first thing I do is verify the draws are in place, then I stick clip the first bolt if “necessary”, then I tape up if necessary, tie in, sip some water, discuss my strategy with my belayer, and then I start putting my shoes on. I’m chalking up throughout these steps, but one finally dip and wipe is always the last step.
— While performing on rock, identify a point during your preparation where you stop the chit-chat with your belayer or other bystanders. For me, once I start to put my climbing shoes on I’m in game-face mode. If I have pointers on where I want the belayer to stand, direct the rope, etc, I discuss those before my hiking shoes come off.
–For timed training sets, get a feel for how soon before the start of the next set you need to arrive at the apparatus, chalking up, etc. For hangboarding and LBC’s or other timed intervals, I prefer to never leave my zone once the workout starts, but if I get pulled out, I want to be back to focusing on the ensuing effort at least 60 seconds before the set starts.
5. Keep your eyes “caged”. Vision can dictate where your mind is at, so try to keep your eyes focused on things that will re-enforce your mental focus.
— While training, stare at your fingers, the timer, the next hold, or a motivational photo; whatever you find most effective at keeping your train of thought on the current set (i.e. not at the cute blonde in the sports bra). Same goes for rest intervals–don’t go gazing out a nearby window or flipping through your iPhone. Focus on your training log, your apparatus, and any mental cues you have available.
–Limit your depth perception. This trick may take some practice, but it can be very helpful. Particularly while performing on rock, try to see no more than 5 or 10′ ahead, unless at a rest, but even then keep your eyes on the route and only on the route. Often during a redpoint or onsight ascent, we are anxious about a looming roof or other distinct crux. Obsessing over that point won’t help you fire the slab 30′ below it. Keep your eyes focused on the climbing immediately in front of you. Obviously on an onsight you need to plan ahead somewhat, but generally long-range planning should be done from the ground or from a good rest stance.
— Don’t look down! A bit facetious, but seriously, the only thing you need to see when looking down is your last piece of solid pro and an attentive belayer. Everything else is a distraction waiting to happen. Granted, it may be prudent to down-climb during a challenging onsight, but at that point the way up is down. Focus on the task at hand: the series of moves immediately in front of you. I attribute this tactic to my earlier success as Big-Wall Free Climber. To this day I have few recollections of the view down El Cap, but many memories of the view up. Teach yourself to ignore things that aren’t relevant. 5.12 is 5.12, whether you are 80′ off the deck or 800′. And the ground is just as deadly either way, so there is no need to waste attention on the added exposure. There will be plenty of time to admire the view from the summit.
6. Be your own CheerLEADER. You know your belayer is just dying to shout at you while you climb, so give them something to shout–something specific that YOU will find helpful. When you’re outside, get your belayer involved, or call upon the peanut gallery to re-enforce key points during the effort. Same goes for a training partner or partners during training activities. Some recommend cheers include:
— Any specific, subtle crux beta that you are inclined to forget (i.e. “One – Two – Three – Four, flag that leg or you’ll barndoor”, but less lame)
— Reminders to breath at points where you are inclined to stop breathing (cruxes, dynos, awkward sections, or core-intensive sequences)
— Re-assurances like “You can do this!” or “You got this!” Avoid diminishing the objective with comments like “This rig is easy”/”you should be able to hike this thing”. Presumably its a challenge for you, and that’s why you chose it. It will be hard, and you should be prepared to try hard during your ascent.
— Encouragement to try hard during stopper sequences: “Allez” if you’ve been to Europe and you want everyone else at the crag to know it (otherwise “Go for it”, or “come on” works almost as well) 🙂
— Finally, if you find such things distracting, ask the gallery for silence before your start, or ask your belayer to ask them once you’re in the zone.
If you have any tips or tricks of your own for cultivating focus, please share them in a comment below!