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A Beginner’s Guide to Visualization Training

A discussion regarding visualization training and its uses both on and off the rock. Projecting is made easier through in-depth analysis

Though strength always helps us become strong, flexibility more mobile, and power more powerful, climbing requires more than muscle groups. Climbing happens as much in the mind as in the body and, to progress, we must appreciate those aspects of the sport which are a little less obvious.

Today we are going to discuss visualization training, why it is important, and how we might incorporate it into our sessions. Visualization is one of the tools that help us consider how we might climb our project with the strength that we already have.

This method of training is important because most project-based climbers already do some form of physical training. What becomes frustrating for the motivated athlete is plateauing or regressing despite physical progression. Knowing that you are strong enough to climb the boulder, yet being unable to do so, is tough on the psyche.

It is in moments that some form of self-assessment must be made. It is reasonable to assume that most people are strong enough, or nearly strong enough, to climb their projects if they can do all of the moves. Even if a climber cannot do all of the moves, if they can hold all of the positions and can generate to each of the holds, it is likely the athlete is strong enough to climb the line in a single push.

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Though it might feel like the climb would become easier through greater strength, this extra power would not solve the necessary body-positions required to finish the climb. All of the physical training in the world will not teach the climber how to move. This is why it is good to practice visualization and general mindfulness.

Think back on your last projecting session. You entered the crag stoked and powerful. After a quick warm up, you fired off attempts. Maybe you already had all of the moves before this session. Maybe this is the session that you stick that final crux.  After a few good goes, you have become too fatigued to link the whole project. What could have happened if the time had been spent visualizing how to climb the difficult sequences as opposed to simply throwing try-hard at it?

Visualization Training

Visualization training is the process of imagining yourself on the wall. Climbers tend to have at least some thought of the way they look on the route and how their body is moving. The problem here is that it can be tempting to view our climbing in the third person when the experience is lived in the first person.

Training pre-emptive, first-person visualization takes practice and intent to be effective. Though it might be hard to slow down when you are excited at the crag, it is easier to take your time if you are working on your home wall or at the gym. The reward for this process is ascending the climb in fewer attempts. If there is a reset in the gym, taking the time to visualize before flash attempts is an excellent way to progress this skill.

Begin with easier climbs. It can feel silly or redundant at first, but breaking a climb down into all of the moves you would normally pick on-the-go is a skill worth practicing. It may feel pointless at a lesser difficulty, but as the level increases, the importance of this practice becomes increasingly clear. This is evidenced by the fact that nearly everyone sequences at a certain point. Why shouldn’t a climber sequence every attempt? Why shouldn’t a climber visualize the act of ascending the climb on every burn?

Though the athlete will have to think harder, the number of boulders at a certain difficulty that they climb in single attempts will increase. For a proof of concept, try the MoonBoard Benchmarks next time you are at the gym beginning with the easiest. Suddenly, the difference between doing a small amount of V3s and a large amount V3s is how well you read the boulder from your first attempt.

The Process

Step 1

Read the beta of the boulder problem.

Step 2

Identify the crux.

Step 3

Visualize each hand and foot movement of the problem from a first-person perspective. This means:

  • Knowing, spatially, where every hold should be.
  • Knowing your beta on the available holds. Maybe that means matching some holds, or an unintended sneaky heel hook.
  • Visualize the swings. This includes catching holds and generating to holds. On dynamic moves, where are you having to look? Are you focusing on foot placements or in directing yourself toward handholds? How much are you generating?
    • This process and the above processes within Step 3 are aided by closing your eyes. If you are able to fully imagine the moves and the grips with your eyes closed, it will be significantly easier to move precisely when your eyes are open and you are on the wall.
  • Visualize a couple of betas if the crux is difficult to read. Does one beta seem more likely than another? This process will allow you to switch betas mid-attempt if necessary.

Step 4

Execute.

Step 5

Assess. Did it go according to plan? If you did not send, what could you have done differently? The greater the depth of this question, the more effective the next attempt will be. Figuring out which foot you want to use is important, but figuring out how you want to use that foot is even more useful in the long term. Run through these steps again until the boulder is complete and then move on to the next.

Evidence of Progression

Though you are sure to notice effects of this sort of training immediately, the majority of your progress will be made in the longer term. The consideration for body position and the depth with which you consider foot articulation, grip position and wall angle will be the most transferable skills from boulder to boulder and session to session.

The most difficult part of visualization is making it a habit. It slows down the session and asks the climber to not waste any attempts. For most gym climbers, this is difficult because we want to climb as much a possible. Conditioning ourselves to only burn with intent will stimulate more productive burns as we will be more rested and single-mindedly stoked on getting through the difficult section of a climb for which we have had to consider for so long between attempts.

Featured Image of Solomon Barth