Monday, January 20, 2014

A Short Introduction to Psychological Training for Mountaineering and Skiing

Tough physical training is crucial for mountaineers, climbers and skiers. What about mental preparation, however? When climbers, mountaineers and skiers are asked what the biggest obstacle is to them fulfilling their potential on the cliffs or the slopes, many answer that it is psychological barriers. Many of the same people admit, however, that their mental or psychological training to accompany their physical training is minimal. Psychological preparation is, of course, crucial and the principles for successful mental training are very similar to those for physical or technical training. For example, it takes long term commitment and patience before one can expect to see results. Deciding to plunge into intensive mental training the week before a major climb or a skiing event is all very well and good but it is unlikely to make a major impact on your performance.

Many mountaineers and climbers in particular profess the effectiveness of the self-talk technique. It is a particularly useful technique for climbers because of the isolated, nature of their activity, which can last for hours or, in some cases, weeks. Self talk in the context of a climb could be repeating a mantra such as this during a particularly difficult point: “I am feeling tired now but this is the worst it is going to get and my body can work through this point. I can feel my body getting stronger and it can cope.” For a skier it may be “I can ski fast and I am going to ski fast” or “quiet mind” if staying calm and focused is a challenge for them.

Goal setting and reinforcement

Firstly, it is important to identify whether there are flaws in your typical approach to climbing mountaineering or skiing. Common problematic approaches include negativity and fear of failure. These negative obstacles can be tackled through a number of techniques. One is goal setting. This way, climbers or skiers have clear and digestible objectives. Another is to imagine success. If you are a climber, you may want to consider reading reports of previous successful attempts of the climb you are about to pursue or talk to people who have already done the climb in order to strengthen your positive image of how you will carry out the climb successfully.

Similarly, a skier may want to look up Youtube videos of people navigating the same or a similar course to one they are about to tackle in order to ensure they have a specific, positive mental image. It is also important for climbers and skiers to try and be as specific as possible when trying to implant positive imagery of success in their minds before a big event- such as their specific physical actions and moves, the nature of the environment and the timing of the endeavour. Of course, action movies can also offer powerful if less specific imagery relating to success. According to one recent article on ski trends, “ski films will get much better at telling stories rather just film gung-ho maniacs jumping off ever more improbable cliffs” so ski movies could become an increasingly useful motivational tool for skiers over the coming years.

Another term that you might hear in the realm of mental training is reinforcement. Reinforcement is activity or experiences relating to your task which will motivate you to carry out the task or carry out a task to the best of your abilities. “In high-altitude Mountaineering, it may be important that climbers find value in undertaking the dog work so that others may succeed,” argues Cooke. “Another intrapersonal reinforcement for international Mountaineering may be the desire to interact with other cultures or with transcendental experiences of just being in the mountains,” he goes on.

Dealing with altitude sickness

Evidence suggests that experience does not have significant impact on a person’s physiological ability to cope with high altitudes in the long term and that any acclimitization does not last long. Mental training can make a difference, however. One important technique is to have a very specific idea of which parts of a climb will be difficult in terms of altitude by marking the high points of a climb on a map beforehand. You should also prep yourself on the symptoms of altitude sickness so you can quickly recognize any symptoms you develop on a climb, instead of attributing fatigue to the fact you are not fit enough or being lazy, thoughts which could quickly demotivate you.

Bad altitude sickness can also sometimes be a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are some techniques to prevent yourself from falling into the self-fulfilling prophecy trap. One is to make sure you read up on altitude sickness so you have a solid overview of the facts of altitude sickness- its context, causes and symptoms. Every time you think about altitude sickness in the run up to a climb repeat these facts in your mind like a drill. That way, when it comes to the actual event, your thoughts about and experience of altitude sickness are more likely to be anchored in facts and reality rather than your psychological fear of it. That said, there is no point in being positive about being able to easily deal with altitude sickness to the point where you are being unrealistic. If you psyche yourself up that it is going to be easy then it is more likely that when it comes to the event and altitude sickness does kick in that you will panic. The key is to be realistic. If you are overly nervous about altitude sickness in the run up to a climb then a popular technique for preventing self-fulfilling prophecies is to try and channel those fears out of the body by finding some kind of way to relax and release those fears. That could be through anything from sports to listening to music.

--Melissa James, Freelance Blogger

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