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IMGCA Article - The Mental Game of Climbing


The Mental Game Of Climbing

Handle Your Fears And Stay In The Moment

Bill Cole, MS, MA

The mental game of climbing is one of the most challenging areas of coaching I have done in over 30 years. Climbing can be exhilarating, exciting, alluring and adventuresome. It can also sometimes generate lots of fear and doubt. This anxiety, of course, causes mental, emotional and muscular tension, and this causes problems for climbers. Climbers freeze up, use too much muscular energy, move too quickly and impulsively, make poor decisions, lose balance and coordination and have trouble maintaining concentration. They lose their nerve to go up, or to take calculated risks and they lose enjoyment from what was once a fun and challenging sport. But there is hope for those climbers who fall victim to fear, doubt, over-thinking and indecision.

I've been mental coach to competitive climbers who have won highly competitive events and who have climbed some of the toughest slopes on the planet. When we were shooting a segment of our TV show, The Mental Game TV Show ( in Denver, Colorado, I led blind adventurer Erik Weihenmayer up the slope of a mountain in Golden Colorado, high above the Coors Brewing Company world headquarters. Erik Weihenmayer ( is perhaps the most famous blind athlete in history. He remains the only blind person in history to climb to the top of the world's highest peak—Mount Everest—on May 25, 2001. That accomplishment got Erik his own cover in Time Magazine. What follows are some mental game of climbing techniques I taught Erik that you can use in your own climbing.

1. Use The Proper Time Zone: The ability to consistently stay in the moment when needed is what marks all great athletes and performers. This is even more important when fear and doubt is present. All three times zones are valid and can be helpful, depending on what you want to accomplish. Good uses for the past time zone are to review a performance or recall a past great move or experience in order to ignite a current move. Good uses of the future time zone are to review a game plan, to create contingency plans to handle problems, to picture yourself succeeding, and to psych yourself up. The problem with the past time zone is that it is the depository of regrets and anger over missed opportunities or mistakes. The problem with the future time zone is that our mind zooms into it when it is fearful, in doubt or focused on an exciting or negative outcome. As you climb, you can use the past and future time zones between moves for positive reasons. But once you decide to make a new hand hold or foot hold, you must already have left these two zones to be firmly in the now. The now is the place that gives you the highest awareness and alertness levels, and allows you to make real-time adjustments in your performance.

You should also use the "green light" concept here. Consider a traffic light with its red, yellow and green lights. Once you are in "the now", consider that you have a green light to make a move. If you have a red or yellow, pause. You can tell you are in the now by the feelings you have. You are sense-based. Your mind is clear and relatively empty of thoughts. Your muscles are alert, yet relaxed, and your emotions are clear, not apprehensive. This cluster of sensations signals that you are in the now, you have the green light, and that you can make a move. You should also use the technique called "the three R's" between moves. The three R's stand for Review, Release and Reset. After a move, evaluate briefly, for three to five seconds, the move you made. Did you like it? Is it solid? Are you in good position? Next, release that thought, and any emotions behind it. Finally, reset your mind, body and emotions and get the green light so you can make your next move. That's it. Simple. But the problem is that it's so simple that climbers often forget to do it. But on any great climbing day you've had, you had already been doing this. Otherwise, how could you have cleared your mind into the present moment for each move?

2. Use Attachment Breathing: The goal, as we have learned, is to make contact with the present moment and to get the green light so you can make your move a quality one. Here is another technique I taught Erik that he immediately loved and started using. This is called attachment breathing. What you do is exhale a small breath of air each time you begin your move. The volume of air does not have to be large at all. Simply make the exhalation and continue it until you make the hand or foot placement. That's all you need to do. Breathing out keeps you focused on what you are doing at that very moment, so your mind cannot wander. It also prevents you from tensing up from accidentally holding your breath. Continue breathing out with each succeeding move.

Now you have some new mental insights into the mental game of climbing. And now you know more about how to manage your mind, and how to maintain contact with the present time zone and how to use attachment breathing. Take these out to your next climb or tournament and put them to good use. Good luck!

Copyright © Bill Cole, MS., MA. 2014 All rights reserved.

This article covers only one small part of the mental game. A complete mental training program includes motivation and goal-setting, pre-event mental preparation, post-event review and analysis, mental strengthening, self-regulation training, breath control training, motor skill training, mental rehearsal, concentration training, pressure-proofing, communication training, confidence-building, breaking through mental barriers, slump prevention, mental toughness training, flow training, relaxation training, momentum training, psych-out proofing and media training.

For a comprehensive overview of your mental abilities you need an assessment instrument that identifies your complete mental strengths and weaknesses. For a free, easy-to-take 65-item sport psychology assessment tool you can score right on the spot, visit This assessment gives you a quick snapshot of your strengths and weaknesses in your mental game. You can use this as a guide in creating your own mental training program, or as the basis for a program you undertake with Bill Cole, MS, MA to improve your mental game. This assessment would be an excellent first step to help you get the big picture about your mental game.

Bill Cole, MS, MA, a leading authority on peak performance, mental toughness and coaching, is founder and President of the International Mental Game Coaching Association, Bill is also founder and CEO of William B. Cole Consultants, a consulting firm that helps organizations and professionals achieve more success in business, life and sports. He is a multiple Hall of Fame honoree, an award-winning scholar-athlete, published book author and articles author, and has coached at the highest levels of major-league pro sports, big-time college athletics and corporate America. For a free, extensive article archive, or for questions and comments visit him at

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