Today’s post is from guest contributor Anna Enright, a climber, mother to 2 climbers, and a psychiatric clinical nurse specialist. She works with the youth team at MetroRock Climbing Centers on mindfulness practice for competition performance. We’re lucky that she’s shared some of her tips for honing your focus and awareness to send your next project!
A few summers ago, after years of watching kids in local and national competitions trying to perform their best, I became interested in learning what qualities enable certain climbers to succeed in a high pressure setting and others to falter in the same situation. How can an athlete cultivate those qualities if he/she is having difficulties when performing under pressure? After scouring the literature on the topic of peak performance, I found articles in the fields of neuroscience, positive psychology and mindfulness. Key mental skills include focus/attention, confidence, empowering thoughts and the ability to regulate emotions and energy.
What is mindfulness and what does it have to do with rock climbing? Dr. Shauna Shapiro says mindfulness is “the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing and not be overly reactive or overwhelmed by what is going on around us.” There is robust research on the positive impact that a mindfulness practice has on enhancing the neural pathways which are related to emotional control, focus, attention and stress regulation. For any athlete who has been in a competitive setting, awareness, emotional control and focus are invaluable skills to possess.
Training focus and awareness is key. Climbing is inherently a mindful activity. Focusing on the route and visualizing moving to the finish is an exercise most climbers engage in. Unfortunately, once on the climb, especially if it is challenging, we lose focus and forget to scan ahead, breathe and allow our body to direct us. Thoughts of “this is too hard, I’m pumped, I don’t want to fall….” , trigger negative emotions, tighten our muscles and interfere with a peak performance state. If mindful, one can observe this is happening and using the breath, the eyes, and the feel of the holds can help shift the focus back to the present and climb.
I use a three-pronged approach, which includes:
- education about mindfulness and background theory
- shifting your mind from external distractions to internal focus
- visualizing a peak performance with a competition script that is practiced for weeks before a competition
Below are some specific narratives for exercises that I use to focus the mind on the present and cultivate mindfulness. After practicing these exercises on the ground I can apply this focus on the wall.
Focus on Breath: Start with taking 3-5 intentional breaths before each practice. Shift the focus to the breath by following it in and out once or twice each time you begin a climb. Notice the movement of the breath entering the nose and following it to the belly, notice the belly rising and falling as the breath moves back out the nose.
Focus on Sounds: Use your ears to shift the focus to what sounds the ears are picking up, far away sounds and sounds that are soft and subtle (the sound of the breath, the heart beating).
Focus on Body Awareness: Shift the focus to the present moment by feeling where the body is making contact with the floor if standing, a chair or the ground if sitting or lying down. What are the eyes seeing? Shift the focus to the eyes. If the mind wanders, bring it back to whatever the chosen focal point is.
Visualizing Peak Performance: Think about a time in practice or competition where you have climbed your best. Think about not only the technical aspects but also the emotional. How does it feel to be in that moment where everything just comes together? What are your thoughts saying to you? What was your energy like? How confident were you? What came together on that particular day that allowed your best self to come forward? Now, instead of focusing on the past, visualize climbing with that mindset in a future setting.
Write a Competition Script: Jotting down a few powerful phrases which speak to the individual athlete’s peak performance state, in the form of a competition script, is another tool that can help an athlete point the brain in the right direction. These key phrases can help focus and remind an athlete of what’s important when faced with the challenges of competition. For example: “I got this! I’ve trained hard! This is my moment! Dig deep, focus, breathe, slow and steady…”
I’ve been practicing mindfulness meditation for the past few years. When I decided to teach the youth team climbers mindfulness, I thought the challenge would be engaging kids in this process. However, most youth were open to talking and learning about managing the emotional challenges of competition. These skills can be applied to other performance situations as well. I’m so honored to be able to bring these practices to the youth team at MetroRock Climber Centers, which will inevitably empower them not only in sport, but in other aspects of their lives.