January 8, 2024

Visualisation for bold climbing

Angus Kille

I’ve enjoyed the process of bold climbing ever since I became a climber. I’ve always been drawn to the psychological challenge, what bold climbing can teach me about myself and [in particular] the headspace required to be calm and in-control in a high-consequence situation.

I started climbing at a quiet trad crag with mostly poor gear and hard climbs (Nesscliffe in Shropshire, England). I would spend weekends there as a teenager, top-roping hard routes with friends and occasionally getting on lead on bold climbs. I quickly learnt that stepping from a lighthearted social scene onto a run-out E7 required a change of headspace.

For me there’s always been something really special about this headspace – you block out distracting sounds and even thoughts, everything seems to pass in a bit of a blur and nothing else is really happening at that time. I’ve got different words for describing that now, but at the time it just felt liberating to be free from teenage angst and to emerge at the top of a route full of adrenaline and endorphins (and adolescent pride). This sense of calm and control was one of many things that drew me into climbing and kept me coming back for bold routes.

There are various preconditions for flow, and plenty of different tools we can use to focus on the present moment, but for me visualisation has always been important. From my early days scratching around at Nesscliffe to my boldest trad climbs, I’ve used visualisation to put me into the headspace I’ve often described as a ‘bubble’. I remember standing at the bottom of Indian Face, one of Britain’s most infamous trad routes, visualising climbing high above marginal gear. I've done the same for countless intimidating climbs: I imagine myself, in the first person, climbing in gradually more stressful positions on the route, always in control, and feel the stress response in my body – my heart beating faster, my breath getting quicker and sharper and my palms beginning to sweat. Then I manage the stress response, often by focusing on my breath, breathing deeper and slower, still visualising being in control on the rock. It takes about 20 minutes to build this bubble of focus around myself, so that I’m more alert, less distracted and ready to climb.

It’s just like a warm-up – this stress warms me up for the stress I will experience on the route, just as my fingers might need to be warmed up for climbing. If I jump on a hard climb without warming my fingers up, I’ll have creaky fingers that won’t engage properly, I’ll get flash pumped, climb badly and I may well get an injury. In just the same way, if I jump on a bold climb without warming my mind up, I’ll be shocked suddenly in the stressful situation, I won’t manage the stress as well and I may well have some mild trauma.

This visualisation tool might not be for everyone, but it’s been indispensable for me. Many people will already feel stressed enough without the need to visualise anything for a ‘warm-up’, but personally I’m usually remaining calm or uncommitted to a route until I’m standing beneath it ready to tie-in. I find it most useful for redpoint/headpoint climbing, when I know what kind of stressful situations I’m likely to face, but I also use it in onsight climbing by simply imagining what might be stressful or psychologically challenging on a route. Although I’ve mostly used this visualisation to manage fear of falling on trad, I’ve discovered in recent years how effective it can be for fear of failure or performance anxiety, such as on a hard sport redpoint.

It’s important to remember that the stress response from visualisation will feel uncomfortable and challenging, and this response will need managing. You could try visualisation on a climb that you find a little psychologically challenging, but very manageable, and see if you feel better prepared having warmed up your mind for it. You will also need to have a clear idea of what tools you can use in the moment to focus and manage your stress response, such as deep, slow breaths or focussing your visual attention on a spot.

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DISCLAIMER: Strong Mind content may not be appropriate for someone suffering from a mental health disorder. If you are unsure whether you should try some of the techniques or advice referred to on this site or in this text, please consult your doctor or therapist first.

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