Mental Health and Training for Beginning Climbers
(5.10s on Lead or V3 for bouldering)

For many experienced climbers, the fear of falling can still be a serious impediment to projecting. Learning to fall is one of the highest priority skills for newer climbers. It is one of the most difficult to improve upon for most of us. You can learn steps to help, but only if you practice them. Remember that our fear is meant to keep us safe. Fear reactions are a normal and healthy part of our life. Fighting your body will not work. Simply ignoring or being in denial of these reactions will not work. Recognize what is happening in your body. Awareness of ones’ self is key to preventing a fear or anxiety response.

The Rock Warrior’s Way” is a book by Arno Ilgner. Published in 2003, it has been around for a long time, and continues to be a huge help for many climbers. Even BETTER, his mentees offer amazing classes on fall technique and how to master anxiety with projecting. Visit for more information. I highly recommend one of their workshops if you get a chance!

Start with breathing. Your goal is to PREVENT anxiety. For any athlete, once we allow the chemical chain of fight or flight to begin, it is almost impossible to stop. Practice breathing before you get out of bed. Practice while you commute. Practice during your warm up. Note the differences in HOW you obtain oxygen.

Adrenaline is NOT your friend when performing critical thinking tasks. Climb smart, not just hard. Adrenaline changes how our brain works; how we perceive and interpret danger. Our vision narrows so we don’t see all of our options. Our muscles tighten in anticipation. For climbers, anxiety means we over-grip, get tunnel vision, pull ourselves into the wall unnecessarily, position for falling instead of moving, and stop breathing. These things combined ensure we exhaust ourselves prematurely, thus ensuring the fall we dread. Great climbers are focused on the moves, not the fall. Look around as other climber’s work projects. Can you guess who is tensing up and about to come off? How many of them stayed so relaxed, the fall surprised you?

Part of your warmup for your first climb of the day:

  1. Breathe deeply. Allow your belly to expand and compress, not just neck-shoulders-rib movement. If you aren’t able to make this happen, practice in the morning before you get out of bed. 
  2. Sequence your climb. Look for rests, cruxes, places where falls are safe, and places where falls are not. Plan for each of those. Having partners remind you can be part of the plan.
  3. Pay attention to what your body is doing. Are you pulling your shoulders into your ears? Are your forearms getting pumped, even though you just started? Are your arms straight and your hips tucked into the wall? Are you using your legs to move to handholds instead of pulling on handholds to get your feet up?Are you breathing? Is your body quiet? (You should only hear your breathing, not feet). Is your grip as relaxed as possible? Are you turning hips and comfortably changing positions? (Not attempting to climb a ladder). ARE YOU BREATHING?
  4. Find a thought that makes you happy. Get those calming hormones flowing! What works for me? I hum one of my many favorite childhood theme songs. I challenge anyone to have a panic attack on a wall while singing about “Scooby Do”, “Finding Nemo”, or “the Smurfs”. I realize I’m dating myself here. You find what works for you!
  5. Practice makes perfect. Practice also builds confidence through experience. If it’s falling you fear, practice falling. It becomes part of every warmup. Falling is its own skill, both for bouldering, and on lead. Begin in your comfort zone with short falls. Expand that fall zone as comfort allows. For bouldering, confidence may require a bit of hip strength as well. Leave time in between falls for your body and mind to calm down, then immediately repeat. Familiarity comes from experience. “Familiar” shouldn’t be scary.

Be sure to visit our blog next week where we’ll cover mental health and training for intermediate climbers. And, if you’re looking to keep yourself accountable as you work on progressing in your climbing, contact us at ATHENA where we specialize in injury prevention, massage therapy, strength training, climbing assessments, core training, and sports nutrition.


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