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Hazel Findlay on Mental Health and Climbing 

Black Diamond Athlete and mindset coach Hazel Findlay shares her thoughts on climbing and mental health, ahead of her free online Q&A for TCA.

Physical and cerebral challenges

I’ve been interested in the human mind since I was a child and it is one of the main reasons why I remain totally in love with climbing. Climbing is a unique sport because of the states it pushes your mind into. Even lower risk areas of climbing such as indoor climbing, sport climbing and bouldering can be very psychologically uncomfortable. The complexity of movement required to climb well necessitates a type of focus that other sports can do without. For those interested in their own mind, climbing is the perfect sport.


Focus on wellbeing

Climbing like many sports also contributes to your general mental health. From my own experience of what my life is like with climbing and without climbing I have a clear understanding of how climbing brings a stillness to the mind and gives me the joy that makes life meaningful. A shoulder injury prevented me from climbing for 7 months and although I learnt many things from this experience I returned to climbing more grateful to have climbing in my life than ever before. As a coach, I prioritise the wellbeing of my clients over performance outcomes. Not only is this ethically ‘right thing to do’ it’s also the case that any gains in performance are short-lived if the wellbeing is compromised. It’s from this place that I write this blog on mental health in climbing. First I’ll lay out why climbing is good for our mental health and what we can do during lockdown as a substitute for these benefits.


Why is climbing good for your mental health?

1) Nature

Being outside in nature is calming and enjoyable. Natural beauty encourages the mind to be present with what is happening right now instead of wandering off to worry about what it might be doing in the future or should have done in the past. The awe we feel in the presence of nature enables us to understand that which is bigger than ourselves and helps us to put things in perspective.

2) Social

Even if you only have access to indoor climbing, it can still improve your mental health. Climbing is a very sociable sport because it’s difficult (although not impossible) to do it alone. The problem-solving nature of climbing also encourages interaction with others even if you’re bouldering. Humans are social animals and it’s important for us to have friends that we share meaningful experiences with.

3) Purpose and direction

Approaching climbing with a mastery mindset adds further health benefits. To try and master a skill like climbing can fill your life with purpose and meaning. Many people find that goals and ambition aid their mental health because it gives them direction. Many people suffering from depression note that their lives feel meaningless and they feel lost; learning and improving at something like climbing can be an antidote to that feeling.

4) Presence and flow state

Climbing can lead to flow state experiences. Flow state is the state you’re in when you’re completely present in the moment despite doing a challenging task. Everything falls away and you’re just there with the rock. These experiences leave you feeling exhilarated.

5) Mental Training

Climbing is an uncomfortable sport in the sense that it pushes people to leave their comfort zones. If approached in the correct way learning how to respond to the stress of climbing can be incredibly empowering from a mental training perspective. If you can manage fear and stress in a climbing situation you can learn how to do the same thing in any stressful situation that might crop up, for example in the work environment. Understanding our emotional responses to certain situations and learning how to control them is a great tool for personal development and improving mental health.


What to do if you can’t access climbing right now?

If you can’t climb at the moment because climbing walls are closed, don’t worry, other activities can fill the gaps that climbing has left. If you take all the points above we can try to come up with some ideas of replacements. For example, to get our nature fix how about going for a walk near you, watching a nature documentary or doing an outdoors lockdown-friendly sport like running or biking.

For your social interactions form a bubble with a few people (ideally those you live with) and focus on making your time with those people special and supportive. You can also connect online however I’d recommend video or audio calls instead of texting, so much of the human connection is lost when we communicate via brief written sentences.

For those of you who are motivated to improve your climbing, you can still have purpose and direction in lockdown by engaging in home training. There are many workout routines you can do with very little equipment. There are several communities such as Catalyst climbing who are offering live workouts which would also contribute to the social factor and feeling connected to the climbing community.

Moments of ‘presence’ are especially important right now. Fortunately, presence is always available to us, we just have to take a moment to notice. However, if you’re having trouble with an over-thinking mind consider starting a meditation practice. I can recommend apps Headspace, 10% Happier and Waking Up. You can try to access flow state in other areas of your life; perhaps at work, playing games with friends or with a new hobby such as playing an instrument or juggling.


The obstacle is the way

As for the final point about mental training, one of my favourite moto’s is ‘the obstacle is the way’ which means that any challenge we face can also be an opportunity given the right mindset. We’ve all struggled a lot this past year, some more so than others but with any hardship there is space to grow and learn. How can you turn your current situation into an opportunity to develop yourself as a person even if that just means learning how to be kinder to yourself in hard times. Thanks for reading and I wish you all the best with your mental health in these difficult times.

You can follow Hazel on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, read her blog or listen to her excellent Curious Mind podcast.


Join us for an online Q&A with Hazel on Thu 18 February at 7.30pm
Register now


Read more on mental health and climbing as we share guidance, articles, stories and events throughout January and February.


Photos courtesy of Hazel Findlay.