Aidan Roberts recently climbed Alphane, a 9A boulder in Chironico Switzerland. As Aidan has also been doing one-to-one performance coaching with me (Hazel), I caught up with him to hear his reflections on the process of climbing Alphane from a psychological perspective.
When working with elite athletes like Aidan, who already has a strong mindset and ability to focus, the aim of the coaching is optimisation; in the same way a top athlete keeps trying to get stronger fingers, a smart athlete also keeps trying to optimise their psychology.
The coaching was focussed around Aidan ‘letting go’ and relaxing a little more when he’s climbing. It’s very easy to try to over-control the movement in bouldering to the point where you over-think, build tension and lose efficiency. For Aidan, we introduced some tools that helped him ‘let go’ and trust his body more. These included first-person rehearsal (often known as visualisation), focusing on sensations in the body versus direction from the thinking mind, and breath work.
In this interview Aidan answers Hazel’s questions about his journey to climb Alphane, his mindset around big projects and also what tools he’s being using on and off the wall to make sure he’s at his best when it matters most.
First up - how did it feel to climb Alphane, from bottom to top.
It was an amazing sensation actually. The way I’d summarise it is that I knew that my body was trying hard in terms of its physical ability, but I didn’t need to try to try hard, and as a result was quite detached from my body and actually doing the climb felt surprisingly effortless.
It was my first try from the start that session and I felt remarkably calm. Nothing went wrong as I climbed. I had a lot of faith that my body knew what it needed to do without me telling it and as a result I could climb with a very clear head. I’m not usually that good at doing this so it was quite a novel experience, but I guess it worked out for the best.
Tell us more about how you approached the process of trying the climb from a psychological perspective
So I’ve never actually put so much time into experimenting with my mind and attention when climbing. Generally my approach has been to be very explicit about the details of the moves which I learn, and carefully retain this information so that I can run through the checklist for each move when I get to them. But of course this is reductive. The complexity of climbing movement hugely exceeds the brain's ability to just ‘tell’ our body what to do. I’d often felt that these direct and explicit cues would reduce random error and also somewhat help distract me from any doubts which can creep in. But this of course leads to a pretty active brain while climbing which I do feel to be counterproductive. Perhaps it can reduce random error, but likely at the cost of fluidity and efficiency.
Most of my time on Alphane when I tried it last spring, I’d adopted this approach. And I got close! But I often found that it was explicit doubts which seemed to impede me on such attempts. So it certainly felt liberating to manage to climb with a clear mind. But it didn’t happen by chance! It took a good few Zoom calls and some reflection from Hazel’s coaching to convince me it was worth giving a shot. And then I managed to achieve a clear mind while climbing through patience and practice.
Now take us back to the start, how did you end up trying Alphane, why did you set it as a goal?
I actually started trying it to support Shawn when he was getting close to the FA. I’d been spending some time with that group who were over from the States. They’re a lot of fun, nice to spend time with and I felt I had a lot to learn from them.
Then I tried the climb and the moves were just so fun, every one of them felt like a puzzle. And every session leaves you exhausted without trashed skin. I felt like I was learning so much about my own climbing and my attention to detail, I was getting stronger and I was having a great time doing it. So I found that I wasn’t so result-focussed when trying it.
Then I had to step away from it in Spring. I still looked forward to just having sessions on it when I came back but I suppose at this point there’s a certain point of pride in completing something you have started (this has always been quite important to me in most things I do). But I was fortunate that it never felt like a hardship.
I guess the motivation for coming back and finishing this climb was that it felt like an opportunity for me to really understand a lot about projecting and apply it to something near my limit. I have aspirations to continue this process of development and apply my learning to something which feels very ambitious to me, perhaps in an attempt to one day contribute something towards climbing mastery.
In general, how important is the goal-setting process for you and what does it entail?
Very important for me. I don’t think there’s an awful lot which I’ve achieved within climbing or academia or whatever I set my mind to which wasn’t explicitly thought through and established as a goal. I was always encouraged to do this at a young age and I’m very grateful for this as I feel it gives me the time to properly understand why I am applying myself to the task I set myself to and therefore allows me to focus without uncertainty.
My Dad is a management consultant and so the simple format I generally follow is to consider the ‘Result’, what I’m looking to achieve and why it’s important to me, acknowledgement of my ‘Reality’, my current situation and where my limitations lie and finally my ‘Response’, how do I bridge this gap?
How do you manage expectations and performance anxiety when training for, and trying big projects?
Now that I’m solely an outdoor climber, I really don’t struggle so much with this actually. I don’t really worry much about expectations of others, after all, climbing is a rather solitary endeavour. My own expectations can affect me more, but I have remarkably few actually. I don’t particularly feel I lack confidence in myself at all but I generally never subject myself to a time pressured expectation that I ‘should’ do something.
I think a lot of this comes from my acknowledgement of the permanence of rock, it’s essentially timeless! And I find the insignificance of our act of scaling such piece rock a pretty relaxing idea. It is almost confirmation to me that I can be driven by my passion of climbing itself to do these problems, it makes it quite a peaceful process.
The times when I do feel anxious are the fleeting moments when my thoughts are a little irrational and I have a moment of ‘I could do this and therefore I should do this’ but I don’t believe it’s helpful and often arises during the moments before trying to attempt something when I know I’m close. I spent some time rationalising these thoughts and they feel to burden me less these days.
What mental training practices did you use alongside physical training prior to returning to the boulder?
There were a series of mental exercises I practised. I started meditating relatively regularly and it felt helpful, not only from a wellbeing perspective, but also in my ability to clear my head which felt valuable on the climb itself.
Alongside this, an exercise I hadn’t explicitly dedicated time to before, was 1st person rehearsal. As in rehearsing the moves as if I were climbing the problem with focus on how the holds feel. That was my main focus when climbing so it made sense to rehearse it in that way too. I had an awareness of how the holds feel under my skin and this left the rest of the climbing movement to my implicit system [unconscious, fast, automatic, high capacity system]. I think this rehearsal really helped as it gave me a little more faith that my body knew what to do. Almost like transferring the knowledge of the moves from my conscious explicit systems [slow, controlled, low-capacity] to my unconscious implicit systems.
How do you get focused before trying problems?
Mostly through breath. Perhaps in contrast to other boulderers, I find that I climb best and make fewer mistakes when I’m calm. So generally I’ll use breathwork to achieve this state. I’ve actually started trying to include breaths into the sequence of moves in climbing too. I have a tendency to tense up a little too much when I climb and when I’m too tense, I can struggle to even breathe properly. So by ensuring that I take breaths I am able to relax. So I introduced some pretty decisive forceful breaths which seemed to work quite well.
For Alphane you tried some new mental management tools - what are they and how did they help?
I feel like I already covered the exercises I practised away from the boulder but I did also experiment a little during the process of working the moves and sections. The main objective for me was to relax a little as some video analysis with Hazel had made it clear I was pretty tense when climbing. The way I addressed this was to focus on the sensation in my fingertips and maintain this as my point of focus throughout the moves, essentially forcing my body to move a little more intuitively. I admit I was a little sceptical of this and anticipated a few more random falls but turns out I could trust my body a little more than I realised. It’s been a cool feeling actually and something I’ve since applied to other, less maximal boulders to a relatively high degree of success.
What's next for you?
So I’ve got quite a lot of my trip out here left and I hope to follow my nose a little more. I feel fortunate to have a lot of things which I’m excited to try. In the past I’ve felt a little aimless after big goals and clutching at straws for things to do next. It’s nice to have a little break from projecting. But in fairness I haven’t been so good at it as I’ve swiftly found a neighbouring project which feels a good bit more difficult than Alphane which I’ve had a few sessions on while my friend Will has been working on Alphane.
Beyond this, I’m happy that I’ve not only done this climb but also feel that it’s improved me as a climber and I look forward to applying the skills I’ve learnt and newfound psychological practices to future projects. The obvious candidate is returning to Burden of Dreams in Finland. This boulder requires me to be a good bit more powerful, but more so feels as though it will epitomise the need for me to ‘let go’ throughout its movements. A challenge I look forward to delving into.
We recently had Aidan on the Strong Mind Podcast where we had an in-depth conversation around mastery and flow in high-level bouldering. You can listen to part one for free on the Strong Mind Podcast channels and listen to the second part by becoming a Podcast Member.