COPING WITH COMPETITIONS

Last weekend, the first Austria Cup took place at the Klimmerei in Bürs, Vorarlberg. I have been to this gym several times before and I have really liked it ever since it had opened: the people are nice, the atmosphere is really chilled and the boulders are usually really well and creatively set. I was looking forward to this competition, curious to try some cool boulders, meeting and hanging out with people and try my best. I was not disappointed - the boulders turned out to be really cool, creative and different, and on top of this - I (surprisingly) made it into finals. Wooo! Congratulations at this point to my friend Katha Saurwein for masterfully taking the win!

Having had time to reflect on the competition, I would like to take this opportunity to share some sport psychological tricks to help climbers who want to improve competition performance.

But before we get serious, here is a little video of me doing my first ever triple dyno in qualifications (see link).

Why am I posting this? Well, normally I would say that triple dynos are not my thing. I can't remember ever actually having done one. I was therefore close to skipping this boulder in qualifications to focus on others that would suit me better and where I would possibly have more chance on topping out. However, I decided to give it a go nontheless and after one weak try, I figured that it could actually be possible - I just have to focus right. And so this is were the first mental strategy comes into place, which I would like to talk about:

1. Breathing

Our breathing runs mostly unconsciously, shallow breathing is part of everyday life. We often breathe consciously and deeply only in great effort and emergencies. Inhalation is an active process in which the interaction of many muscles is necessary. A lot of athletes pay attention to a proper breathing technique to exercise lung capacity and endurance. Additionally, breathing exercises help to relax almost immediately and foster concentration. 

Recently, I have regularly done breathing exercises for relaxation. I really wanted to discover what impact breathing would have on my performance and wellbeing. In this context, I want to mention that as with any other muscles, training our brain takes time and repetition. We need to train it regularly.  So this why I have started doing breathing exercises on the train, at home, in study breaks... and directly before starting a boulder. But it does work - and I can really recommend it to anyone! Having trained it, it now calms me down immediately and gets me into the right activation and concentration mode for a good try. 

What I have to add here is that this works really well for me as I would consider myself as rather active. To reach my perfect activation level, I have to calm down a bit. There are others that might be too calm - they need to find a strategy to activate themselves instead, which "wakes them up".

Instructions for a breathing exercise will be posted in one of the next blog posts. So stay tuned!

2. Focus on what you can control

Boulder jam mode, 20 minutes left on the clock. I start calculating. Will it be enough for finals? Someone comes over, five boulders (out of 8) ticked. Shivers, I only have four, I have to top the next boulder, the other athletes most possibly have at least five boulders, too. The next one is really hard, I need to be fully concentrated. I cannot focus on my climbing though as the main thing I think about is the end result. 

I'm sure this or a similar situation has happened to many of us. Whether it's in finals where you only have 5 minutest time, in a World Cup qualification when you know you have to top a certain amount of boulders to make it into semis or get to a certain point in a route because everyone else got that far. Even if it's not competition related - we might have experienced similar situations on rock when we really knew that we could top out a route/ a boulder and this would be a milestone in our career and we get really nervous because... what happens if we won't make it?

However, when you think of it: Can we really influence the end result by focussing on it? No, no one can. Not even top climbers. What we can influence though is our performance, our actions, the process. We can control how we climb, how we do things: how we prepare ourselves, how we warm up, how we concentrate, how we move our body, how we crimp, how we jump, how we motivate ourselves. So instead of focussing on how many boulders we have to top out to make it into finals (or how far we have to climb in a route) - let's focus on what we actually can control. The end result (finals or whatever) is a consequences of our (best) performance. 

3. Know what you can expect

As said, the end result (finals or whatever) is a consequences of our (best) performance. How come, that we are still disappointed sometimes? Let's give a (totally exaggerated) example - but it will make the point: If a beginner said they wanted to compete in a World Cup final this would be absolutely unrealistic and irrational because of their current abilities. So the question is, what can we achieve? With our current strength, our preparation, our circumstances - what would we realistically be able to achieve? It's important to learn what we can expect of ourselves realistically. And realistically means taking all circumstances in account that influence our current life: Have I lately had an injury? How does this influence my performance? Do I have any limitations? Do I have to do lots of schoolwork at the moment and is school really stressful at the moment? Do I maybe even have troubles at school, get bad marks and maybe be downgraded? Do I have all the support I need - from my trainer, family, friends? All these circumstances, the training beforehand, etc. influence our competitive performance and therefore have an impact on our best possible performance. So what is actually in our reach? Do we have to adapt our goals? How can we possibly get rid of irritating factors that have an impact on our performance? Setting ambitions but realistic (!) goals is an important strategy to firstly prevent frustration and disappointment, secondly enhance long term motivation. If where we want to be is not where we are yet, we shouldn't give up! Just remember that we can always keep training (physically and mentally).

4. Control your thoughts

It's easy to say we can control our thoughts, but how often have we come close to topping out a boulder or a route and have fallen on the last move (or close before)? If it is not a physical reason, it may be a mental one. One possible reason (out of many others of course) may be negative thoughts that come to our minds. "I can't do this" or "what if I fall now", etc. Thoughts like this promote focussing on failing or negative consequences of our acting instead of focussing on reaching the top and succeeding. This little shift of concentration may be a reason why our attention may already have faded away - and why we don't reach the top. I would like to quote Margo Hayes in this context when she climbed Pure Imagination (8c+) about a week ago: "On the send, I had to make the decision of whether to give it my all, or let myself be lazy and not put 100 percent effort into it. For me, that quick decision is the key to succeeding on a climb." We have to want it and give 100%. Not knowing whether we want it or thinking about (negative) consequences increase the chances of failing. So if we have such thoughts on the wall, what shall we do? First of all, recognizing them, writing them down. In a second step, we should reframe them into words that push us or make us go further (e.g. "ok I can do this now", "ok it's a challenge" or whatever - everyone has his own motivating words). In a further step, we have to train train train them in practice. As said, our brain is a muscle that needs regular training, too. 😉

5. Have fun! 

If we don't have fun with what we're doing, we should have to ask ourselves why we are still doing it. Love it, change it or leave it.

madeleine eppensteiner