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A bit over a week ago, the first ever Youth Climbing Symposium took place in Oakwood Climbing Centre, close to London. What can I say – wow, what an event! I felt really happy and – to be honest – honoured that I was asked to join this great line-up of coaches such as Patxi Usobiaga, Shauna Coxsey, Leah Crane, Udo Neumann, Patrick Matros & Dicki Korb, Melissa LeNeve, Tom Greenall and so many more. I loved the idea and the concept – inspiring young athletes, exchanging ideas & knowledge, for many of the kids: getting to know their role model (such as e.g. Shauna), learning from them and going home with a big spark of motivation & inspiration, remembering why they love climbing and why they want to keep going!

It's not self-evident that sport psychology is part of such an event. I think we all agree on that it's really important but firstly, one group session will most possibly not make a big difference and secondly, generally speaking, the main focus is still on physical training. And I totally agree with both points, physical training is (most) important (in first place) and also, one hour sport psychology won't make the difference in whether you become more chilled in a competition or not. BUT: I still believe that one hour can be enough to get to know what it even is, what you can do with it, how you can use it and how you can improve there. One hour can be enough to go home and be motivated to personally improve in this field, realising that it's an important part of any sport and an interesting, exciting, fun topic to work on, too. 

Why is mental training important for young athletes and adolescents?

Learning at a young age how to be "mentally strong" – reflecting your behaviour & actions, becoming aware of your own strengths and weaknesses, who you are – as a person and as an athlete, being empathic with others, being able to realistically estimate what to expect of yourself – all these skills we don't only need as (high performing) athletes, but also in our everyday lives, in our jobs. These "soft" skills are necessary in every life situation and, I believe, in the future even more mandatory with global changes such as increased automatism in jobs, AI, etc. (as what differs us from machines and AI is empathy, being self-reflective, motivating, creative human beings*). These young people are the leaders of tomorrow – whether as professional athletes in which situation mental strength is always required and can often decide between victory or setback, coaches (many athletes actually decide to become a coach/ trainer when finishing their own sport career and, then again, are influencing another generation through their actions and behaviour) or, last but not least, leaders in their job. Critical, self-reflecting, empathic people. Being supported by learning how to e.g. deal with setbacks is a gift that will benefit them in many areas of their life. But enough philosophical excursion for why (generally speaking) mental strength is important and why it makes sense to learn it at a young age – independently on whether you become a professional athlete later on or not. What did we actually do at the Youth Climbing Symposium?

Youth Climbing Symposium 2017

As always, when I write a short recap of an event I've been to, I'd like to give you some insight on what we worked on this time. One of the big topics was: ROLE MODELS. I thought this topic would perfectly fit as an introduction into the (big) field of sport psychology. Most of the athletes had just met their biggest role models throughout the day and were still buzzing with motivation and joy. Go, get a pencil yourself and try to answer the following questions:

  • Who is (are) your role model(s)?
  • Why do you like them? Why do you think they are cool?
  • What can you learn from them?

We later discussed several specific situations such as being beaten in competitions, injuring yourself, not doing as well as expected, not being motivated for training, etc. How do your role models – from what you know through social media, what you can watch and observe on livestreams, replays, events, knowing them in person – react in such specific situations? Professional, successful athletes are successful for a reason. It takes a lot, a lot of effort, years of training, never giving up, trying things over and over again, staying focussed & motivated and never forgetting why you do all this – because you love your sport. These things might sound self-evident when reading them like this. But still, there's a reason why not everybody is a Shauna Coxsey or Adam Ondra (disregarding physical requirements). Ask yourself, how often do you have a negative mindset, how often do you get frustrated in competitions, get upset about not seeing any improvements, get really nervous in competitions and only think about possible outcomes instead of focussing on the process, on the movements, on the joy why you are there? It's not only about the question how often you deal with negative thoughts and emotions, but (even more) importantly, how you deal with such situations. I believe that on this level, most of us can learn a lot from professional athletes.

Trying to see a situation from the perspective of someone we admire is an easy, effective and playful way of opening up new perspectives and solutions for our own problems. It's just a like playing a role game. Hence, this change of perspectives can help us to deal with stressful situations more easily and act more confidently (– such as we perceive our role models in such stressful situations). Did you know that this tool – "change of perspectives" – is commonly used in systemic coaching?

At the end of the sessions, everyone had not only elaborated what they could learn from their role models but they had it summed up into one big motto what was most important to them – something that they can hang up above their beds or in their room and reminds them whenever they are in competitions, when they are not motivated for training, when they're upset with an outcome of a competition, or any other similar situation.

Have you ever worked with the technique of changing perspectives? How did it work for you? What did you like about it, what didn't you like about it?