Sneaking in a last minute session, either at the crag or at the wall, can be excellent and can feel very rewarding but in my experience, while they’re not to be sniffed at, I don’t tend to find they’re my best sessions. For me, my best sessions are ones that I can build up to in advance.

My preparation for my climbing sessions can often build up days in advance or even sometimes, from the end of the last session! And what this allows is for me to mentally prepare myself and get myself in the right frame of mind to perform effectively.

So what’s involved in this pre-climbing ritual and how can we use this to get that little bit more from our climbing sessions? In this article, I’ll look at some of the ways I get ready and what’s going through my head before I even walk through the door of the climbing wall or get to the boulder.

The first step is the last step: rituals and routines

That moment when we finally step off the ground can be crucial to success. Think of a competition setting: mess up that first move and it’s nil points and game over before it’s even begun. Equally, stepping on to a tough trad route without being totally zoned in can set us up for failure or, even worse, make things very dangerous very quickly. Even projecting boulder problems requires getting our head in the game in order to maximise our chances of success.

One last minute adjustment we can make is to build in some rituals and routines into our practice. It’s difficult to offer any specific suggestions here in terms of what to do as any ritual or routine will by it’s nature be very personal and often, they come about very naturally. However, let’s have a look at some personal examples.

A popular ritual – also used during the climb as a mental reset – is to chalk up. For me, this has developed further and my current ritual before any hard attempt (as in try hard) is a double slap of my thighs with both hands. Initially, this was to get rid of the excess chalk on my hands after I’d chalked up one more time before setting off but now, has become synonymous with me going all out and pulling hard. Watch me on a relatively easy climb and I won’t bother. But put me on a tough project and I’ll throw a thigh slap in just before I pull on.

Interal or External Stimulus?

That being said, one should be cautious using any particular object or external stimulus when coming up with any routine or ritual. After all, if you rely on an object and then that object isn’t there, for whatever reason, you risk losing the very thing that was intended to bring everything together.

Thankfully, there are lots of other options; ones that are more internal. One topic very much in vogue at the moment is breathing or more specifically, conscious breathing. I’ve been known to adopt this one in the past too, mimicking Swedish climber Richard Ekehead from the classic climbing film Hard Grit. Just before an attempt on the Millstone classic, Master’s Edge, Ekehead puffed out his cheeks twice, making a distinctive blowing sound, like trying to blow out a candle. I used this for years as a prompt for me to pull hard and give it beans. These days, I still occasionally do the same but often combine simply with a deep nasal breath, which also seems to work to calm me down.

And of course, there’s the classic: visualisation. Picturing yourself climbing the moves, in either first or third person, can be a great way to mentally prepare for a redpoint attempt. In this context, it is usually done while staring at the holds. It is possible to really dig deep into this technique and even achieve a meditative state, eventually achieving a true flow state, although this can be incredibly difficult to achieve.

Finally, remember that the key is not whether the ritual leads to success on the project but whether is leads to better mental focus.

The author going through some visualisation with a client on a Prowess coaching session

Getting Psyched on the Day Of

The day of a climbing session, especially the first one for a little while, I’ll be thinking about my evening all day.

The really strange thing is that I don’t particularly need to do anything differently during the day; merely knowing I’m going for a session can be enough. The key point here is I recognise and think about my evening climb every now and again during the day and feel my energy levels surge slightly. I’ll think about what I am likely to encounter at the wall, which projects I might get on, which panels might’ve been reset recently. For outdoor projects, I’d be keeping a close eye on the weather and I’d ensure I’d got just what was needed prepared in advance to really make the most of the available time.

As the session draws closer in time, so too it should draw closer into your focus. As tasks are completed, they become less of a barrier to be finished before climbing commences; one less thing to worry about. Like obstacles in the way, slowly they drift off to the side leaving only one thing in your mind.

Tuning In

Music, for me and for many other people, can be a phenomenal motivator and getting the right tunes blaring can be just the ticket to get you fired up and ready to go.

As another anecdotal example, I used to swim with a club and the swim sessions were quite late in the evening, at 9pm. By this time I’d often crashed out and was lacking motivation to get up and go to the pool at all, let alone swim hard. The key became the music I listened to on the way there, in this case usually a track called Run Boy Run by Woodkid. The beat of the song nicely matched my cadence when swimming freestyle and got me psyched every single time.

Music is equally personal, with myriad genres appealing to different people. Whether it is rock, hip hop, jazz or classical, the key is to find the right music to get your heart rate up, get your mind firing and get you in the right place to switch on once the climbing starts.

Suitable Projects for the Day and a Project List

Walking into the wall blind can be a daunting proposition and if you know what’s there already, it can be really useful to have an idea in mind as to what you’re going to throw yourself at next. Aggregate competitions are an excellent example of this: where there are always a rook of problems that you’ll be looking at next.

Having a Project List can equally be a good way of picking just the right option for the time you’ve got. This is a link to my personal blog and my approach to having the right options for any given day off.

Having an outdoor Project is great but you are at the behest of the weather. You’re also at the mercy of how you’re feeling on that given day. In the film The Lappnor Project where Nalle Hukkataival climbs the first ascent of Burden of Dreams V17, there are dice being rolled across the screen. All the dice need to come up 6s as a metaphor for Nalle to succeed. Nalle had one specific goal he was aiming for but doutbless tried other climbs during that time too.

The key to a good Project List is variety. Different grades is crucial, allowing for days when you’re not at the races but still want to go out and work hard. Different aspects can be important too, with some that catch the wind and dry quickly, some sheltered from the sun, some short walk ins, some longer for longer days and so on. Ideally you’re after about 10-15 mini-projects on the list to give you the best chance of success, with one or two major ones at the top.

Mentally Sequencing

On long term projects where the sequence is something you’ve been working on for a long time, the moves are often ingrained in the brain.

My example here is Carnage at Bas Cuvier, Fontainebleau. I’d been trying it for four years, every Spring trip and was bored of sitting under the same piece of rock for two days of my nine day trip and having no new ticks to show for it. With the trip planned six months in advance, I decided to train properly, for once in my life. I made myself a training routine that matched the holds on the problem on the Beastmaker (right hand crimp-slot, left hand sloper, with the reverse to maintain balance), I set a replica on a systems board in a local gym and I practiced the moves before heading back out to try again.

Crucially, though, was the mental part. I remember driving home from work, suddenly realising I was working through the moves for the climb in my mind. Weeks before departing, I was ensuring the moves were freshly wired into my brain, ready to be recalled as needed. It worked, my mind totally ready when the moment came, partly thanks to the mental preparation weeks before I left home.

Walk ins can be a good time to get mentally focused. Here, the author walks in to Cuisiniere in Fontainebleau

Longer Term

Earlier in my life, when I had less personal committments, my annual climbing trips were, usually, planned the previous year – it helped me to break up my year and gave me that next trip to look forward to. As the time to departure drew closer, my thoughts would drift towards what might be, what I’m keen for and what success levels are going to look like.

We’ve touched on this above but for very specific projects, it may be effective to set deliberate, specific physical training plans. While these training plans are primarily there to develop the required physical strength for your project, one shouldn’t discount how effective they can be for mental preparation too. I’d even go so far as to suspect that for some people, their actual physical strength may not have changed but the amount they apply during their redpoint increases due to how better mentally prepared they are. [see Climbology by Craig Berman, paricularly the section on Perceived Exertion.]

Perhaps replica climbs are as much about muscle memory and strengthening neurons in the brain as they are about strengthening muscle chains. Either which way, using our training time to focus on exactly what we’re training for seems like it requires no extra effort with a very large potential gain to be made.

There can be no time limit to this, nor is it specific to boulder problems. Daydreaming of a planned trip, to topping out on a big wall in Yosemite or summitting a Himalayan Peak, all can be enhanced through visualisation months in advance. Likewise, incorporating a project or trip into your training may just give you the extra little motivation you need to succeed.