Eyes on the Prize: Attentional Focus in Climbing

I spend a lot of my time reading research on coaching, teaching, learning and various other related topics. Motivation, psychological aspects of coaching, I spent a lot of my Master’s degree sponging up as much as I could find and I’ve carried on as best I can since then. So when someone says something about one of these models that I’ve not heard before, my ears tend to prick up.

Frankly, I’ve studied these models inside out and it’s rare I hear notable adjustments. But then a coach like GB climbing coach Tom Greenall isn’t just anyone. The phrase he said: Outcome Aware, Process Focused.

It’s so succinct, it’s brilliant. I talk about Outcome and Process based thinking all the time to climbers but I’d never described it so brilliantly. So what was it about this simple phrase that excited me so much? Well let’s dial it right back and start from the beginning, explaining the difference between Outcome and Process based thinking, dispelling some myths and showing you some pictures of coloured in circles that explain what on earth I’m talking about.

Sequencing is a good example of thinking about the process of completing a route before you set off, rather than solely focusing on the final holds

Outcome and Process?

These two terms are all related to the way that we think when we are participating in something; in our case, when we’re on a climb. It’s pretty simple really and should resonate with you as a climber (or a coach) from climbs you’ve tried and completed in the past.

Firstly we have Outcome Based thinking. When we’ve adopted an Outcome based approach, we’re thinking only about the end goal. In climbing, this is usually finishing the route that we’re currently trying. We’re not thinking about the sequence or the moves, we’re not thinking about the holds or indeed anything else. The only thing on our mind is about getting to the end.

On the other hand, we’ve got the Process Based approach. As you can imagine, this is about what happens on the way to the outcome. It’s not simply about whether we finished the route but how we got there, what happened on the way. Was our form good? Was the sequence right? Adopt your best faux Californian accent and say “it’s about the journey, man, not the destination”. I’ve tried to tell people about this before, it’s a HUGELY useful way of thinking about, erm, thinking when trying to perform.

[Below is an example of a climb where a Process-based approach was essential for success. This is me on Rock Atrocity Wobbly Block start 7c+ at Parisella’s Cave, where I realised that front-three fingers on the flake in the middle put my elbow in the wrong position and it required the weaker back-three fingers instead. And Outcome-focus missed this crucial piece of beta and it was only with the adoption of Process-based thinking that I was able to succeed.]

But the problem is, when you search this model online, the most popular responses you get are all discussing one thing: which one is better. Nearly all of the articles I’ve read (usually to give people a reference to read) look at each on in isolation and try to pick the best one. And that question alone is fundamentally flawed. Neither one is better, we need to have a bit of both.

The best way I’ve found of explaining this is through football. [I know a lot of climbers don’t like football but hear me out, it’s not super technical.] Imagine we have a team who have figured out that the outcome = scoring a goal and they are 100% Outcome Based. So what happens when they get the ball? They shoot. And it doesn’t matter where they are on the pitch. How many games do you reckon they’re gonna win?

Flip it and let’s say we have a team that is 100% Process Based. They are so intent on playing amazing, intricate, attractive football that they don’t really think about scoring a goal. Sound unlikely? Yeah, it’s actually happened. The Dutch team of the 1970s were renowned for their Total Football approach, which was a beauty to watch but when they took it too far against West Germany in the 1974 final, they lost 2-1. They didn’t pay enough attention to the outcome and it cost one of the best teams ever to play the game the trophy they deserved. [Note: there are many explanations for the failure of the Dutch to win the trophy that year, this is my own interpretation.]

While it would be strange to see someone take an entirely outcome based approach on a climb, you do see it on a micro level. On a session, I observed a youngster who clearly couldn’t reach the next/last hold of a climb and yet instead of thinking what else he could do to get himself closer, was desperately craning and stretching to try and touch the last hold with two hands. He’d become blind to the process and in that moment, had become entirely overcome with the outcome: finish the climb and it’s all good.

Now as I’m sure you can imagine, these examples very rarely happen. (Even the Dutch scored the opening goal before they forgot the whole point of the game.) We will (almost) always maintain at least a little bit of both approaches. And yet once we look at the model – taken out of context – we see articles suggesting that Process Based is better than Outcome Based. They compare each in a binary fashion as is commonplace for many people with most topics. As we’ve said, we need a little bit of both.

However it’s this ratio that becomes important. Which brings us back to our opening phrase from Tom.


Our Focus

What we often find is that while people will be aware of the process of getting somewhere, their mind will undoubtedly be on the outcome. No matter how well we climb something, it rarely sticks in the memory unless we finish the route and this idea overtakes our thinking.

This approach works for us for a long time in our climbing careers. With climbing being an instinctive movement (think of climbing a ladder for example) we can let our subconscious take care of the moving around bit and concentrate on the end point. But only up to a point.

At some stage, as the movements get more complex, our instinctive movement skills aren’t sufficient anymore and we need to start thinking about what we’re doing. Suddenly, we need to change our focus from being Outcome Focused to being Process Focused, while still being aware of the Outcome that we’re aiming for.

It’s almost like a spectrum that we go through as we begin on our climbing career (a term I hate but it summarises nicely).

  1. We begin as Outcome Based, leaving our instinct to take care of the Process for us
  2. At some stage, we become Outcome Focused, Process Aware, usually as we need to concentrate on one or two hard moves in the middle of a climb
  3. Eventually we want to strive for Outcome Aware, Process Focused where our attention is on the moves that get us to the Outcome that we’ve kept a beady eye on in the background

Using This in Context


If you’re finding that you’re too Outcome Focused, try this exercise:
During your warm up climbs, complete your boulder problems/routes but as you set up for the last hold, drop off the climb and leave it unfinished. Ideally you want these to be moves that you can easily do, the purpose being that you are stepping away from the outcome of the route deliberately. You’re saying “it doesn’t matter if I finish this climb, it’s about what I do on the way that counts”

This is obviously a climbing website so let’s put this back in context of improving our climbing performance. What do we mean by the process of climbing?

In the simplest terms, the process are the moves that lead us to the top and so thinking about the sequence, often by route reading then we’ll have a better idea of how to get to the top more efficiently; the journey and not the destination, remember. Other classic examples of focusing on process include thinking about our footwork or finding resting positions. These are things we can focus on and improve that make getting to the top of the climb more efficient/easy. For example, if we can be better at using our feet, by concentrating on placing them purposefully, precisely, in the right direction and with enough pressure, we stand a better chance of achieving our outcome i.e. getting to the top.

Drills can be an effective way of developing our climbing skills out on context ready to be able to reapply them better when needed i.e. getting better at the Process and benching the Outcome

There are a multitude of things on which we can focus. Indeed, that is one of the aspects that makes climbing so varied and appealing to so many. When working with clients, I use the popular TTPP model, breaking any “performance” (at any grade) into its technical, tactical, physical and psychological components. Focusing on any one of these will qualify as process based and which one we choose to work on will depend on our own strengths and weaknesses and on the climb we’re attempting at the time. Delicate and precise footwork is really important but if we’re trying a big dyno and we’re finding we’re not really giving it our all, perhaps it is better to bench footwork for now and instead concentrate on committing to big, dynamic moves.

All the while, we do need to keep the outcome in the back of our minds. For example, focusing too much on getting one move absolutely spot on might distract us from the fact that if we power through on that move, we can indeed get to the top. In essence, we need to be careful not to take our process-thinking too far and drift into perfectionism.

Coaching is a hugely effective way of improving areas of the process of climbing that you’d not really thought of or in ways you weren’t aware of (hint hint)


The Outcome of a task (in this case a climb) is usually fairly straightforward to understand (getting to the top of the climb). Meanwhile the Process is what we do along the way. While we will begin our climbing career being almost solely Outcome Based, at some point we need to incorporate some Process Based thinking into our approach.

While we never want to entirely lose sight of the Outcome that we’re aiming for, we need to dial it down to be less of a focus and more something we’re aware of in the background. Crucially, we need a bit of both.

Eventually, once we get to the point of taking our climbing pretty seriously, we need to move our thinking more to Process Based but without becoming such perfectionists that we lose sight of the Outcome. All of which leads us to the phrase that will guide our progression:

Outcome aware, process focused

If you wish to improve your own Process of climbing, either by improving your technical skills, your ability to apply them in the right way at the right time or the mental aspects of applying yourself, why not get in touch to arrange a session? In person or remote sessions available. Click here for more information on courses or use the form below to get in touch