Motivation in Climbing

Over the past year I’ve been working with Arno Ilgner of the Warrior’s Way for mental training in climbing.  When we first started working together, I had just finished the biggest project of my career, a 5.14 trad climb in Boulder Canyon, CO, called China Doll. I had worked on it over a year and put in about 70 attempts before sending.

After the thrill of the send wore off, I felt emotionally and physically wrecked, and had a lack of motivation to climb anything- particularly difficult climbs.  How could I top this achievement?  What’s next for me in climbing?

When Arno and I first started working together, we discussed the concept of motivation in climbing.  He simply asked me what motivated me, and honestly I hadn’t put a ton of thought into it.  But after some introspection, I realized I had an achievement-based outlook.  Arno urged me to shift from an end-goal motivation to a learning-based motivation.  He expressed how it’s still great to have goals of course, but not have a timeline attached to that goal.  It’s okay to stick to your end goal but how you get there is out of your control- it’s important to not put the pressure of a time-frame on it.

I had always made one big yearly goal, and so this was hard for me to grasp at first.  The timeline pressures I put on myself inherently stressed me out, but did it help me achieve my goals and keep my motivation?

I was afraid that my shift in thinking would lead to a decrease in my drive to succeed.

This couldn’t have been further from the truth.

Over the past year I’ve learned how to come back to that ‘beginner’s mindset’ in climbing, and now I love it more than ever.  With Arno’s help, I’ve realized that it’s okay to go through cycles with my climbing.  I can’t always perform at 100%, or work on something ridiculously hard all the time.  It’s actually a lot more fun to have cycles in climbing- just like in life- like a time to train, a time to project, a time to do moderate multi-pitch, and a time to onsight.  In fact, that’s the beauty of our sport- there are so many options and they’re all great in their own way.

It’s easy to get frustrated if we’re not performing to our expectations.  And I’ve had some high expectations of myself over the years.  I’ve learned to notice that little voice in my head saying, “you’re too weak, you’re not good enough, not pretty enough, not smart enough,” etc and label it before I get sucked in to its deep dark hole called the ego.

I’ve also learned that people judge other people and it really doesn’t mean any more than that.  It’s human nature.  I do it, too- and that’s okay.  I’ve been caught up with harsh comments on social media, over-thinking them and actually starting to believe them.  Ultimately, it’s a waste of time to put my heart and soul into other people’s negativity.  Their judgements are usually about them anyways.

Shifting to a learning-based motivation is a continual process for me.  I still feel frustration sometimes, but I’m able to reel it in faster.  When I’m on a climb and fall off, I look for what I could have done differently quicker than I used to.  Leaving out that frustration part is liberating.

In fact, without frustration being a part of climbing, I’m more motivated.  I really enjoy learning, and there’s always so much to learn about climbing, whether in training or on specific routes- they’re all so unique.

How did this shift happen?

Arno and I have been doing specific drills.  It’s simple really, but simple does not equate to easy.  It’s all about getting out of those spinning wheels in your head and coming back to the present.  Live in the moment.  So cliche, but so true.

When I feel like my thoughts are taking over, like when driving in traffic, I find ways to get out of my mind chatter and into my body.  I’ve found the easiest way is to notice my breathing and make it audible, count breaths purposefully, and notice and incorporate my environment through sight, sound and touch.  If you’re sitting in traffic, look around you without judgment, simply notice the other cars, the lights, the buildings, the lines in the road.  What do you hear? Maybe humming of cars beside you, honking, the breeze through your window.  What do you feel?  That breeze on your skin, the pressure of your feet on the pedals.  Again, without judgement, just noticing and observing.

The same idea works for climbing.  If I’m in the gym and feel my mind wandering, wondering what others are thinking of me, or wishing I was stronger, I come back to my body through breathing and my senses- then focus on the task at hand.  I observe my boulder problem, visualize my sequence, and notice the shape and texture of holds.

Again, they’re simple principles, but not easy- it takes work to shift your thinking.  Embracing the work in everything you do, and not wanting something from nothing, is another principle introduced to me by Arno.  I knew that the more work I put into something, the more satisfaction I would ultimately get once I achieved it.  But focusing on the work part- not just the success- keeps me enjoying the process now, not just once the job is done.

I hope that sharing part of my journey over the past year in mental training with Arno can inspire you to look deeper into your motivation in climbing and life as it has for me.  I’m excited to continue on this path of feeling alive and being in love with climbing more than ever.

If you’re interested in learning more about mental training in climbing, visit his website at:


Resting with Charley, my favorite crag partner, in between pitches in Boulder Canyon, CO.



Enjoying the creative movement on Rage, 12c of Obed, TN.





    1. Kirsten · · Reply

      You are incredibly inspiring, for so many reasons. I love that you are working on the mental aspect of things, and are open about it. I know I can relate about having low self worth, and its great to know others have not only felt similarly, but have learned to understand their emotions, and let them be just that. Emotions.
      Some food for thought on differences between men and women:

      Hope this all is ok for posting :). Have a great day, Heather, all my lady crushers, and well, everyone.

      1. Thanks so much Kirsten for your kind words and reaching out. I’m really excited to watch this youtube video…thanks sweetie and happy climbing!

      2. I just watched this and absolutely loved it. I’m going to share away to my husband and friends. Best to you, thanks so much:)

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