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Your New Climbing Superpower: Visualization

Much of the effects of training are rather obvious and follow a simple formula.  Hang on your fingers more, get stronger fingers.  Go through a month-long endurance training protocol, watch the time you stay on route go up.  Follow a regular power development circuit and feel the effortlessness of pulling down hard.  The semi-predictable transfer of training effort to performance outcome can be forecasted rather well.  On the flip side, there are those training methods you stumble upon that seem to exceed expectations and produce results above and beyond what feels intuitive and reasonable.  For some its taking on drills that hone basic techniques that unlock our true strength, for others it may be learning new exercises to develop actual engage of  core or upper body during crucial movements, and for others it may be developing a new mental framework for measuring success as a climber.  These sorts of things pay big dividends on time invested.

There is another training methodology that pays back big on our time invested and is ubiquitous in high performing athletes across all disciplines.  That training is visualization.  From Olympic skiers to the best rugby teams, it is a tool that garners much respect.  The best climbers in the world can be seen doing it in rehearsal before climbs or between sessions or burns.  The very best do it frequently and with an unmatched focus, which we will discuss.  This powerful training tool can help you develop your movement, strength, and mental prowess as a climber.  Notice the key world: training.

The Science

A classic experiment illustrates the value of visualization well.  The goal was to see how visualization would impact learning a new skill: basketball free throws.  Participants in Alan Richardson’s experiment were put into 3 different groups.  Each group was first taught to shoot free throws and then asked back 20 days later to assess their newfound skill.  The differences in each group lay in what they were asked to do between those assessments.  One group was tasked with practicing their shot every day.  The real live, hands on kind of thing.   Another group was asked to spend 20 minutes of their day visualizing, using this time to see and feel their shots going in.  The last group in the experiment was asked to do nothing but show up and shoot on day one and day twenty. 

Not surprisingly, the last group didn’t improve very much.  Turns out that sitting on your ass doesn’t do much for you.  You probably can also predict what happened to the group that practiced their shot daily.  They improved.  No big surprises here.  The group that was tasked with visualization had the most interesting results.  This group improved almost as much as the practice group.  The daily visualization of success helped to create that same success in real life.  Creating opportunity for their body to “feel” like they were making shots, translated to their ability to shoot better when it came time to show off their new found talents.

This is rather phenomenal when you consider that you can improve your physical skills in a sport without having to use physical energy, which is limited.  Climbing, like most sports, has inherent restrictions on participation.  Skin, time, energy, opportunity, all of these play a role in whether you get to climb and practice.  The idea that you can improve your climbing skills while lying in bed at night or when you take a mid-day break at work has some powerful implications.  Let’s look at the three key factors that are important to apply this: first person vs third person visualization, how to use all of our senses, and the idea of focusing these sessions to get the most out of your efforts.

First Person vs. Third Person

When trying to imagine ourselves doing something, we can do it in one of two ways.  The third person view, such as when a camera is following us around, is a default for most of us.  It is easier for most of us to imagine ourselves through the eyes of an observer.  The other way is first person, where you would see the action happening from the vantage point of your skull.  This is like seeing your actions through your own eyes.  This first-person view is a more effective way to visualize since it reflects what your climbing will look like, when you actually go to do it.  The goal of visualizing is to give your body the experience of the move, climb, repetition, etc., and form connections that closely mimic the physical actions.  The more you can make your visualization authentic and feel like your “reality”, the better the effects and the more you’ll get from your session.

Use All Your Faculties to Visualize

As mentioned above, the closer you can get to mimicking your reality, during visualization, the better.  If the goal is to give your body the opportunity to feel out a move or climb, then you want to do this as fully as possible.  When you climb your senses of touch, sight, hearing, and even smell are stimulated.  The more senses you can use in your visualization the closer you can mimic the real experience.  If you give your body and mind more information to work with, then you will form stronger impressions.  The difference between a shallow, choppy rehearsal of a climb and a deeply immersive, full-color visualization will have very different results.  Put in the effort to make the experience as close to what you’ll be feeling when you do it live.  This is easier said than done and will take some practice.  Try adding actual body movement as you visualize too.  Move you arms or legs and engage your muscles to mimic the movement.  Aim to give your body the most real experience you can.

Keep it Focused

Remember to keep your effort focused on a specific climb, a specific movement, a specific situation such as a competition.  There is a difference between daydreaming about climbing, and going through a very specific, intentional situation.  For example, if you are having a challenging time with a move on your project, take time to feel out what that move will feel like to stick.  Imagine yourself pulling down hard on that in-cut edge, flexing your arm as you twist and bringing hip into the wall to reach way past to the next hold.  Do that over and over and feel the ease of the move.  The effortless nature of it.  Then next time you are back at it, trying that move, compare your experience.  See what things feel like, what your mental and physical outlook is.  See if you can notice the difference.  Build on that by doing multiple moves or whole climbs. 

How to Add It

There are many ways to add this into your regular routine.  Try incorporating in a few moments during your warm-up, in between your band work, shoulder work, or cardio.  Take a moment and feel yourself doing some moves you’ve been feeling weak on.  You can add visualizing effectively during your sessions.  Take time to visualize between burns on your projects.  Close your eyes and mime out the climb.  Similarly, after a particularly memorable session, spend some time rehashing what went well, feeling it out and replaying the feeling in your mind to help you “remember” what coordination and strength feel like. 

The skill of visualizing is an impactful use of your time.  For those that do choose to add it as a regular part of their training, the results are noticeable and well worth the effort.  Many of us will try and eek out the most out of a strength training routine or commit to extra training days each week with the hope of improving.  Those are all valuable and important.  But in a world where many of the limitations we encounter are part of our mental game, and not our physical shortcomings, visualization can help all that other training come to life.  There is a reason that so many of the world’s top athletes do it and do it often. 

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