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Five years ago, in October 2008, I had one of my worst days out climbing ever. It sticks in my mind because it was also a turning point for me. Several months previously I had climbed my first 8a and the week before I had moved out to live in Barcelona. Brimming with confidence due to my new found ability and excited about the prospect of having so many Spanish routes to tick on my doorstep, we headed out to El Falco in Arbolí. What followed was one of the most crushing experiences I have had as a climber. My partner put the clips in a 6a to warm up, and then it was my turn. I tied in and set off, but immediately I felt uncomfortable. Instead of enjoying the moves on a beautiful route in a lovely setting, I was near paralysed with fear. I managed to shake my way ¾ of the way up, but when I came to a slightly run out section near the top it was all too much and I slumped onto a bolt. 15 minutes later, on the verge of tears, I lowered to the ground unable to lead past that section. It was gutting, especially as the route was physically something I was more than capable of. After mooching around the crag in a huff and some soul-searching in the subsequent days, I decided that something had to be done and so I set about trying to transform my mental approach to climbing.

[caption id="attachment_5668" align="aligncenter" width="450"] Jules putting some new found steep rock technique into action[/caption]

At the time I was reading Jerry Moffatt’s autobiography, and this helped me realise that even the greats suffer psychological issues sometimes (albeit of a slightly different sort). But if Jerry could sort it out, then so could I! I set myself a programme of lead practice and tried to wean myself off top-roping and clip-sticking. It was a slow process, but every little step forward felt like a triumph, and every time I saw improvement I’d leave the crag on a massive high. Now 5 years on, I do sometimes feel nervous on lead, but I am able to contain it and block it out so that fear is no longer a factor in my climbing. It feels amazing!

[caption id="attachment_5669" align="aligncenter" width="450"] Good technique is essential for climbing hard![/caption]

As I became less scared of leading, other flaws in my mental approach to climbing became painfully apparent. It became clear to me that I was a choker – someone who crumbled under pressure (self-induced or otherwise) and who took 10 days to climb a route that should have taken two. On a roll now, I decided to sort it out. I read every mental training book I could get my hands on and started putting theory into practice at any available opportunity. Some practices worked straight away, others were abject failures and some I am still perfecting. But through using these techniques my ability to deal with the pressure to succeed has massively improved and I’ve been reaping the rewards. Last autumn we went to the Basque country and I spent the whole trip trying to redpoint the same route. The crux took you to a no-hands lie-down rest in a hole, and from there a slightly easier, but not easy, top wall lead to the chains. A top wall that I had, in fact, never managed to link clean. On the last day of the trip I got through the crux for the first time, but then dropped the top wall. Two more attempts saw me too tired to repeat the effort. With less than an hour to go before we had to leg it to the airport for our flight home, I tied in for one final attempt. By some miracle I found myself in the rest for only the second time all trip. I lay down in it for a good half an hour and visualised the top wall again and again. With only 10mins to go before airport-o’clock I set off totally in the zone. 2mins later I was clipping the chains and lowering off to glory. There was no way I would have managed that without all the mental training I had done.

[caption id="attachment_5670" align="aligncenter" width="450"] Training is hard! Make the most of it by optimising other aspects of your climbing.[/caption]

The more mental preparation I did, the more I started to analyse my climbing as a whole in more depth and to notice other areas of potential weakness. Two that really stood out were my technique and my eating habits. My technique is probably best described as a “work in progress”! Some rock-types just totally shut me down. Attempts to correct my bad habits were not very successful until last January when I went out to visit my coach in Spain and I made a break-through. Noticing how much I was struggling, he took me aside and gave me a back-to-basics technique lesson. Armed with this knowledge I then went about watching every video I could find on YouTube of climbers with good technique, hoping to learn some more lessons. Based on what I picked up from my coach (and the internet!), I then came up with some “technique drills” of my own, which have helped me weed out the bad habits and replace them with good.

[caption id="attachment_5671" align="aligncenter" width="400"] Climbing well above your gear is an essential part of climbing performance![/caption]

I also used to get ill all the time. Every 6 weeks or so I would get a cold or be bed-ridden with flu and have to take time off climbing. This was depressing to say the least. Alterations to my eating habits have changed all that. I have always been a fairly healthy eater, but it wasn’t until talking to a nutritionist that I fully understood the importance of consuming the right food at the right time. Timing, it seems, is crucial. With a vastly improved diet, I now get ill about once a year and I feel like my body can tolerate a much higher level of training without feeling terrible the next day.

[caption id="attachment_5672" align="aligncenter" width="450"] Is this you? Then you need some mental training![/caption]

All these things, improved mind-set, technique and nutrition, have revolutionised my climbing. However I wish there had been someone around five years ago to help me through the process. It would have saved me a lot of mistakes and wasted time and would have enabled me to get on with sorting out what was wrong a lot faster. I was chuffed to be asked to teach on the Optimising Climbing Potential workshop next month because I think it’s a fantastic opportunity for climbers looking to improve at whatever grade they climb. I only wish it had been running five years ago so that I could have been a participant when I first started out.

The workshop will cover four main aspects: self-analysis so that you can learn to look at your own climbing with open eyes and spot the areas for improvement; nutritional information tailored specifically to climbers; a technique class to weed out all those bad habits that we all possess; and a mental preparation class to teach you the techniques you need to feel comfortable on the lead and get the most out of yourself in high-pressure situations. It should be a great day, and I look forward to seeing you there.

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Jules Littlefair