Managing arousal levels, and matching arousal to imposed demand

A nice problem in the Trinity Alps. Photo Ryan Palo.

Climbing makes many different demands of us. We need to be able to speed ourselves up, then slow ourselves down. Try extra hard, then be incredibly gentle. Focus on what we’re doing in this section, but also notice footholds for the next section, and sometimes go fully out-of-body to circumvent pain and fear. This set of meta skills can be summed up as management of arousal level.

This is a huge area of skill development. The ability to hear the question in time is equally important to being able to answer it. We need to be able to change our mindstate on command, we need to know what mindstate to change to, and we need to know the right cues to get from A to B.

Climbers who are unable to control their mindstate would typically present as overly eager or overly aggressive. Half of learning how to climb slab is learning how to climb slab; the other half is unlearning how to climb everything else.

I like these four concepts for thinking about arousal level: tension, aggression, curiosity, and focus or “zoom.”

Tension: How hard I’m squeezing parts of my body; how much neurological tension I have “on hand” to apply to positions. Cues: deliberately squeezing muscle groups as hard as I can while I prepare for the attempt; sometimes using isometrics or props if needed; sharp inhalations through the nose and sharp exhalations through closed lips (pfft sound.)

Aggression: Basically, how much risk I’m willing to endure for the attempt. This could be construed as chance of falling, willingness to jump or snatch at holds, or how much skin I’m willing to pay from moving quickly. Cues: yelling, grunting, hard breathing, intense encouragement from spotters if desired, aggressive music if appropriate

Curiosity: AKA patience. How much to hang around thinking about the moves and finding the perfect balance point. Also, being curious helps me find a state of detachment from the outcome, which is good for first tries. If aggression is being dissociated, curiosity is being present in the moves. Cues: asking questions out loud about the route, breathing gently, soft focus of the eyes, awareness of other senses unrelated to the climbing

Focus/zoom: This is how much attention I plan on paying to specific details. Where curiosity is a more general sense of the attempt, focus is more about a “zoomed in” state of mind on each hold and foothold. Spending time on each hold to make sure I get it right. Having an intense mental awareness of each grain in the rock. This differs from the other states in that it may be active during the entire process of processing a climb. This is the trait that is least activated in gym climbing.

To pick apart focus and curiosity, consider a highly technical boulder that’s very steep. I need to climb fast and aggressively (high aggression) but I need to pay close attention to my body position and small details (high focus.) Curiosity might be a disadvantage in this case. On the other hand, if I’m scared a runout 5.7 slab, I probably don’t need to focus on the details – but I do need to stay detached from the outcome, so my body can do what it does intuitively (high curiosity.)

You can’t max out all four traits at the same time. Pretend each is on a five point scale, and you have maybe 10-12 points to spend in total. These radar graphs might make the point more salient.

For example, a slow slab might not require much tension or aggression at all, while providing advantage to a climber who’s moving thoughtfully and carefully. We might call this that route’s arousal demand:

If a climber attempts the route in a state of heightened tension/aggression, like the below arousal offer:

Then you can see that the resulting mismatch will result in the climber being psychologically unprepared for the route’s demands. I would call this arousal mismatch.

On the other hand, here’s an arousal offer from a climber who has taken steps to get themselves in the right mindset for climbing slow slab:

And, the resulting arousal match:

Those are just a few simple visual demonstrations of the idea of matching your arousal level to the challenge at hand.

Practicing arousal management

There are three basic skill areas to work on:

  1. The skill of identifying a route’s demands
  2. The skill of understanding whether your arousal level is appropriate
  3. The moneymaker – the skill of modulating your arousal level, with subskills for each trait and modulating it up or down, and further subskills of managing while climbing

Here are some examples for practicing arousal management:

  • Heading into an onsight I will consciously tweak up the curiosity and aggression. Especially true for steep walls.
  • On a rehearsed boulder I don’t need much curiosity. But I do need tension. Depending on the style, I also need aggression or focus.
  • On flash attempts and redpoints, I usually have a good idea of what mindstate I need to be in. Sometimes I ask others what they did, and use internal and external cues to try to adjust until I feel ready.
  • Use transitions in climbing terrain as opportunities to shift arousal. For instance, hanging at the lip, preparing to mantel, dial in your focus and let go of some tension and aggression.

Questions to ask yourself

Do you think about your mindstate going into challenging performances?

What cues do you use to get yourself in the zone?

How do you know what zone you should even be in?

What arousal traits do you overuse, or which ones should you spend some time cultivating?

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