Don McGrath: How to Psychologically Train the Climber's Mind

Don McGrath mountaineering

Do you ever get so wrapped up in your own mind that you can't seem to climb anymore? It's a common problem among climbers – and one that Don McGrath knows well. After years of research and training, Don has developed psychological coaching techniques that can help any climber get past their mental limits. Read on to learn about Don's approach to mental training!

Tell us about yourself: How did you get into climbing? How many days a week do you climb? What type of climbing do you do?

I started climbing in 1991 when I was on a vacation trip to Yosemite. After several days of hiking in the Park I decided that I needed a break from hiking, so I took a two day climbing class from the guiding company that work the Park. The first day we did some slab climbing right near Camp 4. It was fun, but didn’t really spark me. The second day we climbed a short 5.6 route in the notch that leads to the summit of the Rostrum, with 1,000 feet of exposure. Wow, that got me.

Serendipitously a climbing gym opened up that summer not too far from where I lived. I started going there and picked up a strong love for climbing that has permeated every aspect of my life. I climb 2-4 days a week depending on the time of year and my climbing goals. In the early days I cut my teeth on traditional climbing. I loved long and challenging climbs, and I did lots of them. In the past ten years or so, I’ve focused on harder sport climbing. I’m working on getting my AMGA Rock Guide certification, so I’ve started doing more traditional climbing again. I still love it. I love it all.

What sparked your interest in climbing psychology and mental training?

After writing my first book, 50 Athletes Over 50, I found out that I really like to write. I started planning my next book. I decided to shift my focus toward my passion for climbing. A great way to do research for a book and develop a following is to blog, so I created my website and started blogging about what I knew and learned about training for rock climbing. About that time I was doing a lot of project climbing in Rifle, Colorado. I was finding that as I got close to sending a project, it became really hard for me to maintain my motivation. I would develop lots of anxiety around sending my projects and would get frustrated. I knew this was a mental problem and not a physical one. I started researching the topic of mental training and experimenting on myself. I started blogging about what I learned and the popularity of my blog increased a lot. That’s when I decided that my new book would be about mental training for climbers.

It’s funny how providence works. Around that time I had the good fortune to climb with Jeff Elison, a friend of a friend at the time. Jeff is a professor of psychology and a very good climber. Over a weekend of climbing together and talking about psychology and climbing, we hatched the concept that became our book Vertical Mind: Psychological Approaches for Optimal Rock Climbing.


Don McGrath and friends in the climbing gym

What do you think is your personal biggest weakness in climbing? How do you address it?

I think the biggest weakness in my climbing is my ability to focus on it. Like everyone, I have many roles including husband, brother, employee, boss, climbing coach, entrepreneur, author, as well as climber. Keeping all these in balance is a constant challenge for me.

The best tool that I found to help me manage this challenge is to have incredible discipline with my time. I’ve taken training tips from several sources and have come up with an approach to managing my time and energy that has helped me to be successful in my work as an engineering executive, have a successful marriage, make significant contributions to the climbing community, and be able to climb at a pretty high level given my half century plus vintage.

I’ve shared this approach with several of my coaching clients and they have found it super useful. They’ve told me that I should teach it to others. Maybe I will in the future.

Can you share a powerful story from a climber who saw great results from implementing the principles you teach?

I’ve heard from so many people who said that Vertical Mind really helped them, but I think the best example is from a climber named Gail. The year after Vertical Mind came out Gail contacted me about helping her. She lived in New York and wanted to travel to Colorado to work with me for a few days. I wanted to help her, but I thought the expense for her would be high. I suggested we do some coaching sessions over the phone and see how that went. I ended up coaching her for about eight weeks, helping her gain insights into how she thought about climbing. I gave her drills that helped her create more productive thought patterns and habits in her climbing. When we started working together Gail was feeling comfortable leading 5.7 trad. After our eight weeks together where we spoke once a week for about an hour, she was confidently on-sight leading 5.9 trad and was trying 5.10s. Gail is planning on making that trip to Colorado to work with me later this year, and I feel that now it will be beneficial.

If you could give a single psychological tip or trick to a new climber, what would it be?

This is a hard question. Just one….

The two biggest things that hold us back are fear of falling and fear of failure. Fear of failure tends to be more significant in people who have been climbing for a while and who have some part of their ego wrapped into how they climb. The fear of falling is more significant for new climbers. I would suggest to new climbers that they learn how to fall and start building up an arsenal of safe practice falls. This will help diminish their fear of falling, which in turn will allow them to try harder climbs with a high likelihood of falling. It is very hard to improve quickly as a climber if you are not willing to fall.

I teach Vertical Mind workshops that include practice falling techniques. I know that Arno Ilgner does too. Keep an eye open for either of these workshops at your local gym and enroll. It will be worth it.

Don McGrath sport climbing

Is there a different mentality required to be a successful gym climber vs. outdoor climber?

There is. The gym is a fairly controlled environment, while outdoor climbing can range from gym-like to remote adventure climbing. To be a very successful, safe, and accomplished trad climber, one has to have a lot of experience in that environment and have a high tolerance for uncertainty.

To be successful in the gym, one must put the time in the gym learning how to do the gymnastic style of climbing that typifies that environment. There is a big difference in the level of commitment and skill required, but both are challenging, great fun and rewarding in their own way.

What’s the most common psychological training misconception you’ve encountered?

When I talk to people about my climbing the most common first response is, “I could never do that.” Many people think that either you are fearless or brave, or you’re not and that only brave people can climb well. That is just not true. All of us have the need to develop mastery in something. If someone decides that they want to develop a mastery in climbing, they can, even if they have a fear of heights, don’t consider themselves brave, or are not particularly athletic. It takes work and time, but if you are willing to learn and put in the work required, you can become a very good climber. Your brain is responsible for every thought, emotion, and movement you have. Virtually all training is mental training and there are proven methods to train mentally, just like there are to train your muscles to be stronger.

Don McGrath and a friend hiking

How do you recommend people get their head straight on climbing days?

Most climbers experience some sort of pre-climb anxiety before they get on a route that will challenge them physically and mentally. The severity of this anxiety can range from very mild to paralyzing. The pre-climb anxiety in most cases is due to fear of falling and fear of failure, and the severity of the anxiety is related to the experience the climber has with falling and failure. The more experience with falling, the lower the anxiety around falling is. The same is true for failure.

I have coached climbers with severe pre-climb anxiety and a technique that I have found helps them is the use of a pre-climb ritual. Most of the climbers I have coached experience the highest levels of anxiety in the time between when they find they “are up” to climb and when they are engaged in the act of climbing. As such, the pre-climb ritual is designed to help them get through this brief but critical time. It is in this time that they had sometimes in the past opted to climb something easier or maybe TR the climb rather than lead it. The goal is to achieve a calm mindset prior to climbing and avoid a mindset that either causes avoidance or undermines the climber’s ability to climb well.

There are four elements to the pre-climb ritual I have used with climbers:

The safety check Having a sound safety check habit is not only a critical part of the pre-climb ritual for all roped climbers, it can also help put your mind at ease about any doubts about the system.

Deep, slow breathing Mother Nature has given us the gift of self-regulated breathing. We can alter our breathing patterns through conscious thought. If we slow our breathing, it stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which tends to calm us down and dampen anxiety. So, from the point when you “are up” to when you grab the first hold, work on taking slow, deep breaths.

Thought replacement Often the anxiety is made worse by thoughts of anticipated falling, failure, or difficulty. You can replace such unproductive thoughts with thoughts to help stay calm. My favorite thought is “I will focus on one move at a time.” After all, that is all that you can really do when climbing, right? I mentally repeat this phrase to myself as I put on my shoes, tie in, put on my chalk bag, and the other pre-climb preparations. 

Trigger phrases Using a trigger phrase just before starting to climb such as “It’s just climbing” or my favorite, “Alrighty then” can help break tension and put us at ease.

If you find that pre-climb anxiety has you either avoiding climbs you want to do or undermining your ability to climb well, you may want to experiment with a pre-climb ritual, and these exercises may help you.

What's the best way to get started with a psychological training program? What are some things to definitely avoid when getting started?

I suggest seeking out resources where you can learn the how and the why behind mental training. Obviously I like Vertical Mind, but there are other good resources too. The Rock Warrior’s Way and Maximum Climbing are popular and provide good insights.

I’m also a big believer in coaching. Seek out a coach who can help you outline a program and stick to it. Many climbers create a plan, but don’t stick to it. Coaches are great for that. There is a chapter in Vertical Mind where Jeff and I introduce something we call co-creative coaching to teach climbing partners to coach each other.

Don McGrath preparing to climb outside

You've got a lot of awesome books and material. Where would you recommend readers start?

Vertical Mind is a great start. For people looking for something free before investing in themselves, I have an e-book titled The 5 Climbing Mindsets and How to Train Them for High-Performance Rock Climbing that can be downloaded from

What was your "aha moment" with FrictionLabs?

As someone who takes climbing seriously, the concept of a company that takes chalk seriously really appeals to me. I have tried several of the FrictionLabs chalk products and I really like them. I like the fact that they offer different textures to appeal to different tastes. I’d like to do a comparison study and compare the different types of chalk to figure out which fits me best and I’ll blog about what I find out.

Anything else you’d like readers to know?

I’m working on a new book where I use climbing as a metaphor to help corporate teams reach higher levels of performance. I take lessons that I’ve learned in my climbing as well as in my work as an executive leader and draw parallels between them. I’m about halfway done with it and I hope to publish it in 2017. Anyone interested in learning more about the project or who has stories you think are relevant for my research on the topic can reach me at I’d love to hear from you.

Where can readers learn more about you?

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