Proper, Planning and Preparation Prevents Poor Performance in Climbing

This classic maxim to get people to plan and think ahead is often applied to a whole manner of different situation, and it also holds true in climbing, especially if you are planning on pushing your boundaries. At its most basic it is refering to having done the ground work, for instant there aren’t many people who are going to get up after a prolonged period on the couch and climb at there previous limit.

If you have been out climbing at your limit for a few months and feel comfortable, then prehaps you’ve done the neccessary work to push those limits and step across that line in the sand to a new no mans land where anything can happen. If that’s the case then there are a few things you can do to minimise the unexpected.

First off consider draw the route, this diagram can take the form of anything from a very basic pencil drawing showing the expected path, and main features like corners, aretes, cracks, holds and quickdraw. Or it could simply be an image in your head.

If its and indoor route, try to include all the hand holds and which direct they look best to hold them, were you can shake out, which holds you clip off and where the crux section of the route is. These diagrams can also be used to break the routes down into sections.

If it is outdoors, where are the rests, the gear, if its a sports route where might you clip off. Where is the crux, where might you get a shake out. What shapes are there that offer a rest or respite.

If you start off drawing the diagram you will eventually find that there is no need draw it, as you can build a mental picture by breaking the route down, into easy climbing, hard climbing, crux sections, possible rests, even where there is protection. Often to achieve this you’ll need to view the route from several different view points, to get a better 3D image of the route, alternatively it is also posssbile to climb an easier adjacent route, allowing you a birds eye view of crucial holds.

Climbing an adjacent route will also allow you to get used to the type of holds, the angle of the wall, and even the style of climbing. This in turn will help you to imagine how you might climb the route in your own mind. At its most advance level you would include imagining a series of ‘What if’s’ – the gear isn’t as good as you thought, the holds are smaller, the rock is steeper, the crux is harder, the gear is better, etc…

The key Points are:
Start drawing a diagram of routes
Break the route into sections
Where are the likely rests/shake outs
Look at the route from several different view points to get a better 3D image
Climb an easier adjacent route to get a feel for the rock and another view point
Imagine how you might climb the route

How to Climb Harder Course

On the how to climb harder course we cover these skill sou planning and preparation as a tactic to improve peoples climbing. You’ll be amazed at how effective they are. To find out more or to check out when out next How to Climb Harder course follow the link.

how to climb harder

How Confidence Can Improve Your Rock Climbing Performance

Climbing is primarily a head game, admitting that you are in it for that moment of thrilling panic, as your breathe deepens and you face the only option, commit or fall. Crossing that line in the sand and facing life at its most primal, fight or flight! In that moment its not your strength or fitness that will get you through that dark alley, but you mind.

The thing is that today, you believe, you believe that you can do this, you’ve been climbing well all day. Each route a step up on the last one, you saw someone lead the route the last time you were at the crag, you know there’s gear above. A distant voice says ‘go for it’ as your stomach sinks. At that moment you move on and discover a new place, that ephemoral moment.

There are numerous theories, ideas, research and intervention that can at the very least make you aware of some of the components success or failure. This first situation could be numerous times in my climbing career that I have experience, be it when mine or someonelses confidence shines. This incident though occurred just after I heard of Bandurra, and his thoery of self efficacy.

….“Self efficacy refers to beliefs in ones capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations. Efficacy beliefs influence how people think, feel, motivate themselves and act” Bandurra (1995).

In laymens terms efficacy is self confidence within a given task and/or environment, that given how confident we feel at that precise moment of commitment is linked to the choice of activity we choose, do we commit or back off? The amount of effort and persisitence we give to an attempt under the threat of failure, even how we think about the climbing and our emotional reactions.

Research has tracked down four main building blocks of self efficacy which in order of influence are prior performances, vicarious experience, verbal persausion and arousal level. What Bandurra theorises is that if you develop the building blocks of efficacy then it increases your own personal beliefs in your ability to achieve your goals, and then you can start to realise those goals.

Science aside I have witnessed many days when a series of progressively harder and harder routes have lead to the successful ascent of a new grade of a climbers, none more so compelling than just after I had seen the diagram of the building blocks of self-efficacy. I had arranged to meet up with two climbers Hazel and Sarah, I had never met them before, in the emails we exchanged I had come to know that they want to push themselves on Slate, and that they had previous lead E2.

Unlike teaching beginners these guys were climbers though, and at some point you need to accept the risk. As we warmed up on a few sports routes I started to climb and point out a few things they could do to save a bit of energy, but other than that there was minimal ‘traditional’ coaching.

Instead I used a progressive approach, making each route harder than the last. Eventually the girls decided that they both wanted to lead a burly E2 laybacking crack. I sat back and observed from a distance, Sarah the first person up looked a little shakey on the lead but managed it fine when she choose to commit. Hazel on the other hand climbed it smoothly and in control. Now I know there is an argument for having a visual beta, but under Banduraa’s theory this would be classed as vicarious experience, in that you saw someone achieve your goal, and an inner voice has turn round and said ‘I can do that’.

On its own that observation was nothing to write home about, however on the second route the order was reversed. So first up was hazel, this time she was the shakey one, and Sarah climbed with a lot more grace and style.

The second route was a bit more complex than that though, as well as looking at the vicarious experience, I was assuming that the previous routes would have also bolstered there confidence as a perforamnce accomplishments. On top of that I also started to turn the cogs of verbal persuasion The route was an E3 in the guidebook and the look on the two girl’s faces and body posture changed, E3 to them was a big thing. They undoubtably had the skills and ability to lead this route but the anxiety of breaking a new grade was undermining their confidence.

So I told them that as one of the authors of the fourthcoming guidebooks to the area we were downgrading the route to E2 5c, rather than E3 6a. After explaining why we downgraded the route, I climbed it and tried to make it look as easy as I could.

By now the colour had return to their faces, and after climbing the route successfully, I re-awarded them with the E3 tick, for which I receive two very big smiles, for a coach there is no bigger reward than the overt satisfaction of people you work with. My next stop was to see where exactly I could go with this, so we went on to another E3, this time I told them the grade, climbed the route, and them let them both lead it.

The next day one of them climbed Comes the Dervish, they both had “the best weekend climbing”. I did tell them a week later that I had observed and to a certain extent helped the process along by choose rotues to help develop there confidence in stages, both were fine with it, but the real question was it all because of self efficacy?

Whether it was or not, the main thing is that improving you self efficacy is so easy that you probably do it already, what this and the following articles want to highlight are ways that modern sports psychology can be used to increase our climbing performance. The lessons to take from this, and the lessons we are going to cover over the coming months are going to address ways that we can build the four building blocks of Bandurra’s Self-efficacy or your confidence in a climbing situation.

Prior Performance

The easiest way and by far the most powerful way to increase efficacy is by using your previous accomplishment to build up in a steady progression. It is a delicate line between make too rapider progression and failure or too slower progression and stagnation. Get it right and everything works for you, over step the line and the wheels will quick fall off the wagoon, and you will undoubtably have a negative effect on you confidence.

The trick is to know you ability, know the routes you want to climb and then create a step by step approach to your route. Be it routes of similar style, length, difficult. If you have a route as a goal then you will probably have done your homework and know the demands through reputation. Later in the series we will cover goal setting, but as a starter concerntrate on process goals, like feeling comfortable on route of certain grades, climbing efficiently or placing gear rather than success or failure on specific routes.

As well as recent performance expriences it is possible to recall through a process of imagery prior performance. Whilst we don’t cover this specifically when we address imagery, the ability to visualise prior performance experience can help reinforce confidence and even reduce anxiety.

Vicarious Experience

Like your performance accomplishment, vicarious experience can be gained both directly from observation of both your friends and others, but also through visualisation. One of the mechanisms that it undoubtably works through is our natural behaviour to judge performances against our own ability, so whilst watching someone who you percieve as better than you will still help to increase your efficacy, you often gain more when you witness someone who you percieve as the same level or even worse than you at climbing. The reason being that in the latter situation you mindset will change to, ‘if they can do it, so can I’.

In terms of real observations and the ethics of watching someone climb route prior to climbing it, many of the elite climbers of today work to a strict on-sight ethic, where they try and insist that they have onsighted the route, only in the rarest of circumstances is this true. They will have undoubtably acculumlated some vicarious experience, be it through watching a friend, or having someone elses description of the route by which they judge their own potential to perform. The only thing that is inportant ethically is that you are true to yourself.

Verbal Persausion

For most of us verbal persuasion will come from those around us, be it belayers or friends you are climbing with. The right thing said at the right time can have really positive effects on your performance, verbal encouragement has been shown to improve performance in a variety of laboratory settings as well as in real life situations.

You can try this out yourself, next time your at the wall try traversing on a angle of wall that will result in failure, firstly traverse back and forth until you reach failure but have no one you know with you noting down the time you can hang on for, the next time you try, either after a substanial rest or on another visit, go with your friends and get them to call out lots of encouragement as see if you last longer? I tried this exercise on a few young climbers, two of climbers almost doubled the amount of time they manage to climb for.

This link to encouraging to success, can be equally linked to negative encourage whether that be through the direct communication of what you belays says to the more subtle language of their body or facial expression. As a belayer it is an import to remember that and remember that in giving someone the time to belay them, attentively, positively and with ethusiasm, should be repaid in kind by the climber. If it is not then consider climbing with someone that does. I have climbed a few times with people who seem to fill me with negativity, I think I only ever climbed with them twice.

An obscure voice that often persuade us to carry on or give up is our inner voice. This chatter of our consciousness is what the boffins call this self-talk, and the research is in its infancy by comparison to other sport psychological interventions, but we won’t hear anymore about this for a couple of months.


Arousal is a well researched area in sport, anxiety being one of the biggest obstacle and sometimes boosts to performance, as such research into the optimum aurosal levels for optimal performance in mainstream sports has created a drive to push research to answer some of these questions. Some of this research has used outdoor pursuits and climbing as it is easier to manipulate the anxiety levels, by having people lead or top-rope.

We will seperate our somatic from cognitive arousal and how these can effect our processing efficiency, conscious processing and even how they can cause performance catastrophies. On top of the causes and effects of arousals we will also examine ways to manage our arousal levels through relaxation, visualisation and self talk.

The thing to remember is you are in it for that moment of thrilling panic, as your breathe deepens and you face the only option, commit or fall off.

Performance Rock Climbing Coaching Courses 

The author runs performance rock climbing courses at Snowdonia Mountain Guides. These courses use many different techniques including confidence building to help improve your climbing performance.

If you want to find out more visit Snowdonia Mountain Guides

Imagery – A new Outlook for Climbing

Typically imagery and climbing has been basic at is very best, often it has been misleading and based on assumptions brought from other sports and disciplines. One thing my MSc has shown me is that imagery is not a simple thing and that there are many variables involved. One of the models that tries to encompass all of them is the PETTLEP model Holmes and Collins(2001)

Before we go into the PETTLEP model it is probably best that we look at what imagery can be used for. In the most part climbers use imagery or visualisation to imagine themselves climbing a route. It ‘function’ is to aid sequence memory and improve performance once on the route. There are many other functions that imagery can be used for, like anxiety reduction, increasing confidence, aiding recovery from injury and aiding other mental skills.

If you see what you are imagining as a stimulus, then the function is often a combination of the meaning you attach to that stimulus and the response you give to it. Given time it is possible to control the stimulus, meaning and response to imagery. The way that you can start control your imagery is through using it regularly, which has been shown to be around 15 minutes a day.

This model advises athlete to look at and consider the:


Each one of these will have certain considerations based on the sport, person, aim of the imagery intervention. However for simply visualising boulder problems research into climbing, and specifically bouldering points towards several key things that will help aid imagery. The first thing was discovered by my MSc supervisor Nicky Callow and Lew Hardy (1999, 2005) from SSHES, University of Wales Bangor.

What they found was that in bouldering tasks an External Visual Imagery Perspective (that is as seen by a documentry crew filming you) was better than an Internal Visual Imagery Perspective (seen through your own eyes). However better still was EVI with Kinesthetic Imagery (imaginging how it feels) was most effective.

They also found that for people with a higher imagine ability had more positive effect, and that whilst climber with lower imagery abilities didn’t benefit from the performance effects of Kinesthetic imagery they did find it increased there confidence in the task.

It not just as simple as that though as Craig Hall (1997) another one of the oracles of modern imagery research, believes that whilst research does point to various sports like climbing have a perspective that best suits the physical nature and type of task. The individual athletes preferred perspective needs to be the first consideration.

Hall, C (1997) Lew Hardy’s third myth: A matter of perspective. JASP, 9.
Hardy & Callow (1999) Efficacy of External and Internal Visual Imagery Perspectives for the enhancement of performance on Tasks in which Form is Important, JSEP, 21.
Hardy & Callow (2005) An Critical Analysis of Applied Imagery Research, In Handbook of Research in Applied Sport and Exercise Psychology: Internation Perspectives, WV, USA, Eds. Hachfort, Duda & Lidor.
Holmes & Collins (2001) The PETTLEP Aproach to motor imagery: A Functional Equivalence Model for Sport Psychologists, JASP 13(1)

Mental Skills: Making a Champion

There has been much research into what not only makes a good athlete but what makes Champion’s stand out from the crowd. Often they have looked at the amount of physical practice and training, finding that despite equal amounts, natural champions still end up on top. What research points to is that to make a champion, you need various mental skills that enable equal physique to be used to a much greater effect. The argument being that in order to make a champion you need to concentrate as much energy on training those mental skills and you do the physical and technical.

Williams & Krane (1993) highlight several key mental ingredients for champions including self-regulation of arousal, high self confidence, appropriate focus and concentration, positive preoccupation with sport, determination, commitment and that the athlete is in control. They also suggest for an athlete to achieve peak performance they go onto suggest several commonly used mental training techniques which are

  • imagery,
  • goal setting,
  • thought control strategies (self-talk, CBT, Hypnosis),
  • arousal management techniques,
  • well-developed competition plans,
  • coping strategies and
  • pre-competition mental readying plans.

    Whilst in climbing the physical side of training has been looked at extensively, in climbing the mental training techniques have been overlooked. One of the aims of this blog is to highlight many of these mental training techniques.

    Williams, J and Krane, V (1993) Chapter 11 Psychological Characteristics of peak performance in Applied Sport Psychology: Personal Growth to peak performance, Ed. William, J. CA, USA, Mayfield Publishing Company.

Redpointing, Onsighting and pre-performance routines

As I mentioned in a previous blog, on the key mental skills of elite performers, one of those skills is developing a pre-performance routine. Now most people will already have developed a routine that works for them, however here we are going to look at ways to enhance that routine, and make it work in your favour as much as possible. Often when we climb well it is because we have answered many of the questions of self-doubt.

To achieve a routine that works for you, then actually paying conscious thought to what you are doing and why, in those moment before setting off on a challenging lead. For me it starts before you even get your harness on, you need your mind to be positive, and thinking that you have prepared physically and mentally for the route ahead, be that training or practising being in scary position. In essence you need to have bolstered your confidence in you ability to climb the route, before you even stand at the bottom of it. For ideas see this article.

However there is more to a pre-performance routine, in climbing that might well comprise of racking up, with what you believe to be the right gear, warming up on the right route(s), looking at the route you are going to attempt in detail and imagine how you might climbing (including what if your first sequence doesn’t work, where the rests, gear and crux are). A really useful way to make sure you have thought through the process of climbing a route is to draw a simplified diagram and mark in as much detail as possible in terms of rests, handhold, gear etc…

Once you have finished imagining yourself climbing the route successfully, then start to focus on the job at hand, Look at you rack, it is all where it should be, your harness is done up and the rope tied securely where it should be, your belay has you on belay and is ready to go, your boots are clean your hands are chalks up and you are mentally ready to commit to the route.

As you step of the ground and make the first few moves any worries you had are left on the ground, up here you are in control.

A simple way to think about it is to:
1. Prepare (for the route)
2. Vanquish (Self-Doubt)
3. Imagine (success)
4. Focus (on the positives)
5. Succeed

Do you Dream of White Horses or is it just a Goal?

We all have a dream, whether its to scale the 3000ft vertical cliffs of El Capitan or something closer to home like traverse across ‘A Dream of White Horses’ at Gogarth. Whatever you dream is there are various strategies to set yourself goals, some of which are more effective than others at helping you reach your Dream. So when is a dream just a goal, and how can you turn that Dream of White Horses into reality.

The psychologist have looked at goals in a variety of ways, to start with though they categorised them into different types of goals which are.
1. Outcome Goal or Dream – The final goal or dream – e.g. Climbing Dream of white horses.
2. Performance Goal – Some form of measurable performance – e.g. Climbing the Grade of E1
3. Process Goal – The processes that make the Outcome or performance goal possible – e.g. Placing gear, staying calm, good technique…

So whilst for instance having a Dream Goals is important to make sure that there is a light at the end of the tunnel that is your training program. The important thin g is the proximity of that Dream. Too far away and the light at the end of that tunnel is going to be awfully dim for an awfully long time. The worry is that this goal will just seem too far away, and rather than direct your attention and effort towards reaching it, you will find that you disengage from attempting to achieve it. A dream goal needs to be close enough that it feels achievable in the medium to long term.

So whilst you actual dream might be to climb Right Wall on Dinas Cromlech, you might find that that simply isn’t achievable in a year, as such you end up setting more overt mini dream goals with Right Wall being a more covert one, at the back of your mind, with the mini goals making stepping stones across each few months and eventually you’ll reach that major goal. One of those mini dream goals might be a performance type goal, like climb at least 10 routes of E4 over the summer.

The important thing to remember is this goal proximity, if you are close to achieving a goal then the behaviour that you have towards that goal radically changes. The best example I can give is a bouldering one. Imagine there are three problems, one you complete easily, the next you find impossible and will takes week to work out and develop the strength require to succeed, the third problem is just out of you ability to link, you can do all the moves and you believe it is possible. What you’ll find is that the effort and mental attitude you towards achieving the third boulder problem will be far more intense than, if you find something too easy or too hard.

The last type of goal I want to talk about is the process goal. These are the most powerful types of goal you can set yourself. Unlike the Dream or performance goal, which offer a distance focus on the horizon, something to look forward to if you like. However what is a goal like “I am going to climb ‘A Dream of White Horses’ this year”, actual going to do to help us actually achieve it. This is where the process goal comes in, where if you like you think through the processes that climbing your dream would involve and set many mini goals that build up your skills, confidence and fitness to eventually reach your dreams.

Often this setting of specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time specific process goals is where people fail on there training regime. Often running head long into a regime of fitness training when maybe all they need was to work on their technique and ability to read routes! This is where the help of a coach can come in useful, assessing your needs and setting goals can be done through our online coaching or alternatively we can coach face to face or via Skype visit how to climb harder for more info.