© Jon Griffith
When she’s not big wall climbing or scaling some of the world’s most notorious routes, British climber Hazel Findlay can be found helping fellow climbers up their mental game via her work as a mind coach. Fascinated by the mental side of climbing, Hazel works with experienced elite climbers as well as newbies wanting tools and strategies to overcome mental barriers.
Hazel has been climbing since she was eight, initially competitively (she was a six-time British Junior champ) until she switched to rock climbing at the age of 16. She has since free climbed Yosemite’s El Capitan multiple times and was the first British woman to climb a trad route at E9.
You’re a mind coach as well as a successful big wall climber. Did your interest in mindset stem from your own climbing experiences and challenges?
Yes, it did. I always thought the most interesting thing about climbing was the psychological aspect. I noticed from a young age that some people were climbing to their physical potential and others weren’t and this was largely due to their mindset.
Do you ever get nervous ahead of a climb, and does experience enable you to reframe your nerves as a positive thing?
Yes, I do often get nervous. I try to remind myself that being nervous means I care. And caring means that what I am doing is valuable and challenging. Of course, it’s not always easy to stay positive but mental training is about trying and training and not getting things right all the time.
You’ve free climbed El Cap multiple times. What did you find the most mentally challenging aspect doing this?
Four times now! Big walling is very mentally challenging because you really have to perform on a given day. You can’t just come down and rest and go back up. You can spend two weeks prepping and getting to the top of a wall; it’s a lot of time and energy. You’re also at a low point physically and mentally after that many days on the wall and yet you still have to perform.
What mental strategies do you employ on tough climbs such as free climbing El Cap?
I try to remind myself that there is value in all the climbing I’ve done even if I don’t succeed in free climbing the route. In this sense, I’m trying to prioritise learning over achievement. I try to focus on the next move or the next pitch and not get distracted by thinking about the whole goal because it’s too big.
Do you have any pre-climb rituals before you approach a tricky or important climb?
I’ll just try to tune into my sensory feedback instead of being lost in thought. Thoughts are often about past and future whereas the body is present. So I’ll focus on what the chalk feels like in my fingers, or my breath or zoom in to what a piece of rock looks like. I also do one audible breath out to cue focus and hard climbing.
Can you tell us about your mantra ‘Let the body climb’?
We like to think that our conscious mind directs the body. That we tell or force the body to climb when in reality a movement as complex as climbing is done with subconscious systems. Knowing that, it’s better to silence the conscious directing mind and let the body get on with what it knows how to do.
Can you recall any climbs where your head got the better of you?
Recently I had a project and I experienced a lot of performance anxiety. I usually get the better of this kind of negative mindset, however I was struggling emotionally in other areas of my life and just coming back from an injury. This added mental strain made it difficult for me to focus on the process as I had become too attached to the end. At times like this, I remind myself that the more I struggle with these issues, the better I’ll be at coaching because the better I’ll be able to understand the problems of my clients.
As a climber, what’s your relationship with fear like?
You experience fear often as a climber. Usually in low levels but depending on what you’re climbing it can be quite powerful. It could be a fear of falling, fear of injury, fear of death, fear of what other people think, fear of failure. It’s how you manage these kinds of fear that is important. The road of mastery in climbing is about facing these fears or unknowns incrementally. Gaining experience in climbing is about converting something that was scary into something that isn’t anymore.
How important is it to experience and accept ‘failure’ in order to build a good climbing mindset?
I think that there are many conceptions of failure. If you want to have a positive mindset for climbing performance and enjoyment, then having a positive conception of failure is important. A positive conception might look like ‘failure means not trying or not challenging myself’. Or failure means ‘not climbing at my limit’. A negative conception looks like ‘failure means not sending my project’. This positive conception of failure prioritises learning over micro wins. Of course, we need goals and sometimes we don’t complete them, but you haven’t failed in the positive sense of failure because you have learnt so much in the process of trying that goal.
Not completing a goal just means that you weren’t ready to overcome that test you set for yourself and that you need to go back and refine your training to try again or try something different.
You’ve talked about using visualisation – is this something you use regularly or only on harder routes?
I usually only use it for hard projects. Or if I feel nervous about a day climbing I may visualise how I want to feel on that day.
You work with everyone from pro climbers to everyday climbers on their mental performance. What’s the biggest fear or barrier to success that your clients report?
Fear of falling is a common barrier to success. However, fear of failure and fear of what other people think are pretty insidious limitations in all of us. Coming to terms with these more social negative mindsets is a difficult but incredibly powerful process.
Fall practice is the only real way to get over fear of falling. Or at least I don’t know of another way. It’s simply a type of exposure therapy. You incrementally increase your exposure to the thing that scares you.
What climbing plans have you got for the rest of 2019?
I have a lot of coaching and speaking commitments over the summer so I think I will just climb casually and train. Then I have a project I want to try in Yosemite in the fall.
What are your favourite items of kit for training and climbing?
I love La Sportiva shoes and Black Diamond still make the best cams.
Are you sponsored by anyone right now?
Black Diamond, La Sportiva, Sea to Summit and Motion Nutrition.
You can follow Hazel via her social channels: www.instagram.com/hazel_findlay, www.facebook.com/hazelfindlayathlete and www.twitter.com/hazel_findlay. Visit her website at www.hazelfindlayclimbing.com.