Date: January 25th, 2018
About Dr. Chris Heilman
Dr. Christina Heilman is a Sports Psychologist, as well as a personal trainer (CSCS and ATC) who earned her PhD in Sport and Exercise Psychology from the University of Utah. She is an avid skier, but loves a lot of sports, including all aspects of rock climbing.
She does work with athletes of all kinds, one-on-one and in group/team settings. She’s also just finished writing a textbook on sports psychology called Elevate Your Excellence: The Mindset and Methods that Make Champions.
Chris is the same sports psychologist you heard Sam Elias talk about in my interview with him about his experience with the BD Bootcamp. He credited Dr. Heilman with a lot of his success after the bootcamp because she helped him become calmer and more focused on and off the wall.
I also interviewed her a while back and you can listen to that here: www.trainingbeta.com/media/chris-heilman.
Dr. Chris Heilman Interview Details
I talked to Chris about the highlights of her new book and what we can all do to change our mindsets for the better.
What We Talked About
- Using imagery to send projects and stay calm
- Setting realistic goals to avoid disappointment
- Performing well under pressure
- Decreasing limiting beliefs
- How to stay motivated, even through injuries
- How to balance winning with well-being
Dr. Chris Heilman Links
- Chris Heilman’s website: www.mindset-coach.com
- Chris Heilman’s instagram: @mindsetdr
- Her new book: Elevate Your Excellence
- Sam Elias’s article describing his experience working with Dr. Chris
Training Programs for You
- Check out our Route Climbing Training Program for route climbers of all abilities.
- Our other training programs: Training Programs Page.
Please Review The Podcast on iTunes!
Please give the podcast an honest review on iTunes here to help the show reach more curious climbers around the world 😉
Neely Quinn: Welcome to the TrainingBeta Podcast, where I talk with climbers and trainers about how we can all get a little bit better at our favorite sport. I’m your host, Neely Quinn, and today we are going to talk about the mental side of climbing, training, sending, projecting, and all of the the things that are hard for us mentally- as well as physically. Today my guest is Dr. Chris Hellman. She is a sport psychologist and she’s actually been on the show before. I was introduced to her by Sam Elias, who credits her for some of his success. She helped him tame some of his frustration and anger when he was climbing, and it brought him more peace of mind and less stress so that he could send harder. And that is what we are hoping to give to you today. She is going to give you some tips on using imagery for climbing, setting realistic goals so that we can not get so disappointed when we don’t reach our big goals, and performing under pressure. We talk about limiting beliefs, how to stay motivated, and a bunch of other stuff that will hopefully really help you when you’re out climbing and preparing for climbing. I know that I learned a few things from her, and we talk about some of my limitations, and yeah. It was a good conversation. I’m going to just let Chris take it from here, and enjoy this podcast episode, and I’ll meet you on the other side.
Neely Quinn: Alright, welcome back to the show Chris, thanks for talking with me today.
Chris Heilman: Yeah, I’m honored to be here.
Neely Quinn: I’ve had you on the show before, and that went really well. It was a really popular episode, actually, because the mental aspect of climbing isn’t something that I think we touch on as much as we do the physical aspect. For anybody who didn’t listen to that first interview with you, can you give us an introduction to yourself?
Chris Heilman: Well, my name is Chris, as you should know. I live in Driggs, Idaho- a small little mountain town in the Tetons. I’m a huge skier, I also really enjoy climbing and running. I’m a sports psychologist for mainly mountain athletes here in a little small town. I work with a variety of people from youth climbers to professional climbers, specifically for this podcast too. People in their 40s or 50s who are recreational climbers that understand that your mind is really important. Climbing, in sports, you generally do it with your body, but it’s really won in the mind. I work with anybody who really likes the mental aspect and wants to hone in on improving themselves in that way.
Neely Quinn: It’s a really unique niche that you have for yourself. Would you say that there are a lot of people who do what you do?
Chris Heilman: Sports psychology, yes. It’s a growing field because it’s starting to be broken down into like, oh, there’s not something wrong with your head, you’re not a head case, it’s actually one of your most powerful assets, and how can I use it to my advantage? Sports psychology has been an organization since the 70s. It started exactly the same year as athletic training, and I was an athletic trainer for several years. Now it’s gaining popularity because I think people really believe in it, and really believe in their mind. As far as sports psychologists helping mountain athletes, there really isn’t anyone that I know doing that besides me.
Neely Quinn: Yeah. I mean, I live in Boulder, you know, a super active town, and I don’t know anybody who does what you do. Do you work with people just in person, or do you work with people over Skype or anything too?
Chris Heilman: Mainly my business is virtual, so over Skype and FaceTime, from people around the world. Australia, France, Sweden, Greece, as well as the United States. I have people here, obviously, I live in Teton Valley, so there are many people who are active. I just got done working with the youth ski teams doing group sessions with them. It’s both in person and virtual.
Neely Quinn: Cool. One of the things that is new for you is that you just wrote a book that will help people as well. Do you want to talk about that?
Chris Heilman: Yeah, I just wrote a book called Elevate Your Excellence: The Mindset and Methods That Make Champions. It took me a year and a half to write, and most of that time I wanted to poke out my eyeballs [laughs]. I’m an athlete, I like to go and be active, so sitting behind a computer and devoting a year and a half to that with minimal exercise was quite challenging. But also, when you dedicate yourself to something, it’s also super, super rewarding. I teach all this stuff, but sitting down and writing it, I really had to think about what the central tenets of champion thinking? What are really the foundational legs of sports psychology? An introductory way to introduce this to coaches, and athletes, or maybe the sports medicine doc who wants to know more about sports psychology. So what I did is I blended the science and the theories, so there is that in the book. But then there is also real world, straight forward strategies that you can practice. I tried to make it in linear way, like here is step one, go out and practice it, reflect on it. Here is the next phase to build on what you just learned.
Neely Quinn: I want to talk about a few parts of the book. The first one is imagery, because I know that I’ve used imagery a lot in my climbing. I know that, for instance, Adam Ondra uses imagery in a very unique way for practicing climbs in his mind. I would love to talk to you about that, what you wrote about that in your book, and why you think it’s important.
Chris Heilman: A lot of athletes like to use imagery, and it’s actually the last chapter in my book. It’s the last chapter in my book, because before you use imagery, some skills that are really important are learning how to manage your arousal or your excitement, or a level of buzz in your body. I talk about those in the chapter beforehand, because when you are doing imagery, you want to evoke that. There are places in your climbs where you are like “I need to be loose and calm”, but there are also places in your climbs where you need to get psyched up, get your heart rate going, and breathe harder. When you are doing that imagery, that’s also part of that imagery.
I think imagery is important because our skin when we climb, it gets torn up [laughs]. So this is a supplement, just like it’s great to eat fruits and vegetables, but sometimes we just need a supplement. We take a vitamin for that. Imagery, how it works, we have a motor program in climbing. We have a motor program in our brain that hits “send”, and it tells our muscles what to do. When we are climbing those certain climbs, so Silence for Adam Ondra- he’s gone over that and over that, he’s climbed it, he knows it, he has it broken down. Imagery is a way to evoke that motor program. That motor program sends a message to your nerves, and to your muscles. Not with the same amplitude and intensity as if you were actually doing it, but it still sends that message. You are strengthening your neural pathway to help you climb.
Neely Quinn: Right. Yes. And can you describe the actual process of doing this? When would you do it? What kinds of things do you actually imagine? What is the process?
Chris Heilman: Well, sometimes I just like to have the process- if you’ve never done imagery before, I’ll be honest with you. Personally, imagery is difficult for me. I’d rather feel it than actually kind of see it. I think just having an experience of imagery is the first step. In my book, I have an example of that called “The Orange Slice”. We can try that if you’d like?
Neely Quinn: Okay.
Chris Heilman: So just close your eyes for a moment and imagine yourself relaxed in the kitchen. In your mind’s eye, begin to notice the color of the counter top. Imagine the time of day, and how the light hits the counter tops. Hear the hum of the refrigerator, and begin to notice the plump, juicy orange laying on a cutting board. Pick it up and feel its weight. Feel the texture of the dimpled, glossy skin. With a sharp knife, carefully cut a large slice. Notice the fragrant juices as they trickle onto the counter top. Lift the orange slice to your mouth, and smell it’s sweet, fresh scent. Place the orange slice into your mouth and bite down. What did you notice?
Neely Quinn: Uh, I could taste it, and my mouth started watering.
Chris Heilman: Yeah, exactly. So that’s why imagery is effective. Our mind doesn’t know the difference between real and imaginary. So you’ve had an experience of an orange before, so in imagery you want to make sure that you have all of those senses come alive. You want to see it, you want to feel it, you want to taste it, you want to smell it. You want that whole experience. When you are doing imagery for climbing, first you are doing it in a very relaxed environment. In your bedroom, in your house, where you can really just focus on the imagery and making sure that all the senses come alive. You want to smell, like is it a crisp Fall day? Does the rock have a certain smell, does the chalk have a certain smell, do you maybe have some body odor, right? [laughs] You want to have those things come alive because it takes you there. When it takes you there, then you are really developing that neural program, that motor program, that neural pathway for yourself.
Neely Quinn: That’s interesting. I used to do this before bed. When I would be- well, in a lot of places, but I specifically remember it when we were living in Rifle camping. I would do it before trying to go to sleep, and I couldn’t go to sleep [laughs]. I’d be like “Oh I’ll just practice the route in my head a couple of times”, and then it would keep me up forever. It totally makes sense, because everything was stimulated, I probably had adrenaline going. But it’s always been super helpful for me, and it helps me memorize beta better. I think that has helped me over the years, to be able to give people beta on climbs years later, because I have it etched in my memory.
Chris Heilman: Yeah, definitely. I mean, you’ve gone over and over and over that route many, many times. It starts to become subconscious, when you can pull up on that just like riding a bike. It’s like “Okay, yeah, I can just hop on a bike because I have this motor program and it’s just ingrained in me and I can teach someone else”. I mean, climbing is different than riding a bike, but I think of it as a trickle on the side of a hill. Eventually that trickle, it carves a pathway out of it, right? If you keep thinking of that trickle, and you see getting on that route, and you keep doing imagery, then that trickle on that hillside eventually becomes a creek. Then it eventually becomes a river, then it eventually becomes the Grand Canyon. You’re doing that, you’re doing the imagery, and that’s that neural pathway, is that creek to the Grand Canyon.
Neely Quinn: I did it when I was trying to redpoint things. That’s the time when I can think that this would be really important, especially when I was having- like I’d be falling at the same place, and it kind of just got ingrained in my mind that that is where I fall. So I would try to help get out of that place by imaging smoothly going through that part. I’m wondering if there are other times when you wold recommend this.
Chris Heilman: There are lots of times where I’d recommend this. It depends on the person. This is a silly example, but years ago, my friend and I were practicing some yoga, and we were trying to kick into the handstand with both feet, which takes a lot of core. We were like “Agh, we can’t do this!”. So I just paused, I imagined it, and I just did it. She was like “How did you just do that?”. So I told her to close her eyes and imagine it, and then she did it!
Neely Quinn: That’s amazing!
Chris Heilman: You can do it for a lot of different things. Imagery even in solving problems- there was a research study done where people had a puzzle, and half of the group had a certain amount of time where they physically got to figure out this really complicated puzzle. The other half of the group solved the puzzle pieces and imagined putting them together, and then they timed them. The people who imagined putting the puzzle pieces together actually did it faster.
Neely Quinn: Oh, so they had time to think about it before they actually did it, is that what you mean?
Chris Heilman: Yeah exactly. So they each had the equal amount of time to physically do it, or imagine it. Because your brain works so much faster than physically doing something, people could figure out the pieces and how to put it together the different ways faster than physically trying to put it together. Imagery can be used for a lot of different things. We don’t even know the capacity for imagery. In my book, I talk about John Kabat-Zinn, who is known as the father of mindfulness. In the 90s, he did this study with people who have psoriasis. Psoriasis is a skin disorder, and how they treat it is they sit in a light therapy room. They sit in there for like fifteen minutes, I don’t know the exact time, but its something like fifteen minutes. Half of the group just sat there and did their light therapy. The other half of the group had a speaker in there, and they had imagery of how they can help heal themselves. The people who got imagery healed four times faster.
Neely Quinn: Whoa.
Chris Heilman: And they repeated the study. Our brain is super powerful. We don’t even know the possibilities of what imagery is. I have a friend who just got diagnosed with breast cancer last week and she has my book, and I’m like “Turn to page so and so, and if you want more information I’ll try to help you”. Even with cancer patients and pain, they are finding new research on how to use imagery for that. This is about climbing, but just to show you the potential and the possibility.
Neely Quinn: How are some other ways that we could use it in climbing?
Chris Heilman: We talk about the actual climbing, but I have my athletes imagine their approach. What happens when you get up in the morning? How are you feeling if you are going to try and redpoint today? How do you drive your car, how do you walk to the crag? It sounds maybe a little mundane, but it’s like, you are still excited. You might even start being over aroused. Think about how you want that to go. How do you want to day to go? It’s that puzzle piece again. Even just thinking about how you want the day to go, you’ve already come up with a Plan B if it doesn’t go the way you want it to go. So it just flows a little bit better.
Neely Quinn: When you imagine getting up in the morning and doing your routine and making sure that you are doing everything the right way. Then you get up to the crag and you are faced with your climb, you have the best chance of doing it. But sometimes we’re like “Okay I’m going to do all these things right and then I’m going to send it”, and if I don’t, I’m going to be really disappointed. So let’s talk about realistic goals.
Chris Heilman: Mhm. Well I’m just gonna back up a second, and talk about the right way [laughs]. Even having a realistic goal around that, like I have this routine and it should just go, why isn’t it going? Routines are really key. Routines help you get into a rhythm. Your brain likes a routine, because it knows that to expect. I just want people to be aware of that, because even those little things, you can build success before you even get to the crag. So it’s like “Woohoo, I ate breakfast, it went as planned”. Small little win, pat yourself on the back. All those little things that you do, it’s not necessarily the right way or the wrong way. But that you did them, and you did them the way however it was, you did them and you need to recognize that small win.
What happens is when we are trying our hardest, things don’t go as planned. We want to try to put money in the bank, that’s what I say. You want to put money in the bank, so that routine is like “Sweet, I brushed my teeth! Yeah! I put money in the bank”. You want to fill up that bank, fill up that cup or bowl or whatever it is, so when something doesn’t go right, you don’t get so fucking mad at yourself at the crag. You can take a little bit out of that bucket or that bank, and be like “Oh it’s okay, I’m still really confident”. So those routines, you’re trying to help yourself build success along the way.
Neely Quinn: So what about when we actually get to the crag? What kinds of things should we be thinking about for setting realistic goals?
Chris Heilman: With goals, most people tend to set outcome oriented goals. What I mean by outcome oriented goals, is basically “Did I win or not? Did I send or not?”. Those are real easy to see- did I make progress on my route, yes or no? And that determines whether you have a good climbing day or not a good climbing day. But there are different layers of goals. In my world, more technical, there are what’s called process- performance and process oriented goals. Performance goals are goals that you just have, that you can compare from the last training session. [unclear] This is not how I talk about this to my athletes, and the next is process goals, so the littles steps that you do. What are you doing, what is within your control?
When you set a goal, yeah I want you to shoot for the stars. How I describe it to my athletes is that you have a wish bone goal, a back bone goal, and a funny bone goal. Your wish bone goal is honor that you want to send it, that you want to get outside of your comfort zone, try your hardest, whatever. Give voice to that, and that is your wishbone goal. Unfortunately, most people just stop there.
Neely Quinn: Mhm, yeah.
Chris Heilman: If you don’t get that, then you’re pissed off. Like “Aagh I suck, blah blah blah”, and you lose motivation because you aren’t getting what you set out to achieve, and that’s not realistic. The back bone goal is like, okay, what are the things that you know that you can do to help get to that wish bone goal? Some of that is my routine. I have a solid routine- okay that’s your back bone goal. What else? I try to help people figure out what are those steps that are within your control that you can do. It’s like, oh my routine, I put on my left shoe, I put on my right shoe, or whatever that is. I can positively talk to myself, I’m really good about that, or I can breathe and be calm under pressure, I’m really good at that. Whatever that is, what are those back bone goals that you have for yourself? What’s within your control?
Neely Quinn: Okay.
Chris Heilman: Then the funny bone goal is like “Why do you do this? It’s supposed to be fun! What makes it fun? What makes climbing fun for you?”. So now we’ve just widened that balance beam. The balance beam before was like “I need to send, I need to redpoint today and I don’t do it so ra-ra-ra-ra”, versus breaking that down with the back bone goals. Maybe you can give me an example for you specially sometime- it’s hard to talk about this more broadly. The funny bone goal is like, how do we make it lighthearted and fun, because we know we can unleash our power when we are playing and we aren’t taking ourselves too seriously.
Neely Quinn: Honestly, I think that would be the most important goal for me to have, personally, and for a lot of my friends to have. Actually having a goal when I go outside, or even to the gym, of having fun. What does that even look like? Does that mean laughing with my friends? Does that mean not taking it so seriously if I fall off of something? Can you give me some examples of that?
Chris Heilman: Yeah. Can a goal be having fun, like if I fell and I was trying really hard, can I laugh at myself? It doesn’t have to be out loud, but I laugh at myself all the time in the gym. I’m like “Oh, I got scared right there, I totally could have done that! I was just scared because I didn’t want to fall!”, and so I bailed off, and I laughed at myself, because that was just silly- that was just my head. That’s fun for me.
I think a big thing is learning. Like, I learned something today and that’s really fun. Even if you didn’t progress the way you wanted to, if you learned something about the mental aspect, or anything. Every time you go out you learn something if you pause and think about it. I think that’s really fun. Before I talked to you today, I talked to Sam Elias and Palmer Larsen. I was like “Is there anything you want me to talk about in this podcast that I have coming up?”. They talked about how climbing is becoming competitive, and talked about that competitive nature. The word “competition”, the Latin word route means “striving together”. It doesn’t mean “I win because you lost”, or “I win because I sent and you didn’t”. It means we are there to see what we are made of in front of others. The other day climbing, I was like “Oh gosh, they’re watching me”- first time on this little thing, but it gave me a little boost of like “Oh gosh!”. I went back yesterday and I couldn’t do it. Sometimes you need that extra little support, and a little adrenaline to help you get through it. I think that is fun.
Supporting others, I think that’s really fun. Sharing beta, influencing someone, positively impacting- not necessarily “Good job” when they fall off, but- “Good job”, I freaking hate that. Like, I didn’t do good! Don’t tell me good job! Tell me something else. Tell me “Hey I saw you did this and that”- tell me something really specific. I think that’s fun- remembering a little bit of a bigger picture. We’re all there trying to do our best, and trying to help other people do that as well.
Neely Quinn: Speaking of all of that, I’ve always tried to strayed away from being competitive. I think that Sam and- I can’t remember the other guy you were talking to- saying that it’s becoming competitive. I think it’s always been competitive. Whether we like it or not, we compare ourselves to others. It can be sometimes really painful and frustrating, and we can feel envy and all of these things that aren’t- I don’t know. Super positive. However, I was just talking to a friend the other day. She’s a woman, and she has this friendly competition going with a man. He kind of checks in on what she has been sending at the gym, and if she hasn’t sent something he will race to do it before her, and vice versa. Like I said, I’ve always strayed away from that, because, I don’t know. I don’t want to involve myself in competition, especially with my female friends. But then I was like, that would actually be fun. To have a little competitive side with somebody with whom you don’t take it super seriously, but it does motivate you. I’m trying to find that person who I can do that with [laughs]. What do you think about that?
Chris Heilman: Oh yeah, if that is fun and lighthearted for you, for sure, that’s great. Like [unclear]. Just as long as it’s not like I went because I was sick and wanted to beat you- that’s the ego. That’s your ego versus- and I have those friends too- you just kind of need that extra little motivation. That’s external motivation, and that’s completely fine, just as long as you’re aware of it, and it’s fun and lighthearted. Do it.
Neely Quinn: I just never put that part into my climbing. I mean, that’s why we play games with people- to have fun and win. That’s why we play team sports, to win. I don’t know, it’s just kind of inherent in us I think, to want to win, and having some playful competition might be good.
Chris Heilman: I think that’s perfectly fine and healthy. My big this is how do we balance winning with well being? If that helps wth your well being, and it make you laugh and giggle and the other person too, then great. Then you are winning and you are improving.
Neely Quinn: That’s good- how we balance winning with well being. Cool, so realistic goals. I just wanted to touch on that with if you have a project. Whether you are a boulderer, sport climber, alpine climber, whatever. What can you say about realistic goals? We’ve talked about it a little bit, but how do you know when the goal should be? The realistic goal is sending.
Chris Heilman: Yeah. That’s a really interesting thing, because the way I see it- and this is hard to do- you are training, you’re projecting, and you see that goal. You see the wishbone goal, and there is a lot of weight on there because it’s very externally motivating. I need to go to the crag. I need to be in the gym. I have to get on the hangboard. If it’s on a teeter totter, that’s high up there. But as soon as you start projecting and getting close to redpointing, that wishbone goal, that now needs to be on the low end of the teeter totter, and then sending needs to be on the top. For me personally, it’s letting go of that goal. That’s why I teach those breathing exercises, because now it’s about being very present, and dancing on the wall. That’s that fun part.
With some of my athletes, it’s like, can I dare you to have fun? That’s your goal- I dare you to have fun while you are redpointing. Because you know what? You may never have the chance to do it again. The conditions might get crappy, you might not be as strong. I’m a skier, so ski season- it might not dump enough snow. Once you start that, dare to have fun. You’ve put in a lot of hard work, you should expect success, you should expect being very present, and just see how it goes. Instead of having a little constricted mind of being focused on this goal and redpointing, now you have to have a mind that is more curious. Like, let’s see what happens. I still have to show up and be present and go, but it’s like, here we go! Does that make sense, or does that not resonate with you at all?
Neely Quinn: No, it does, it does. I think it probably resonates with other people too. It can be hard to have fun, and this leads into the next thing that I want to talk about- performing under pressure. When I’m standing underneath a project that I know I’m ready to redpoint, it’s really hard to be like “This is super fun!” [laughs].
Chris Heilman: Yeah.
Neely Quinn: Then to be on the wall and be saying that to myself is a whole other thing, where you’re like “I’m having fun”. Sometimes that happens, where you have those moments where everything feels easy, or not easy, but it just flows, and it is fun. But it’s hard to conjure that I feel like. Do you have any tips for that?
Chris Heilman: Well I guess you have to define “fun”, because sometimes suffering is fun [laughs]. Maybe not while you’re going through it, but nothing worthwhile ever came easy. Sometimes the suffering and it being hard, like the book and me poking my eyeballs out- that was not fun. But now, it’s like, this is cool, this is a cool book. You get to the top and you’re like “Whoa, I did that”. So you also have to define what fun is for you, you know? That’s not necessarily a tip, but there is different levels of fun. I think also fun is just stepping outside of your comfort zone. Just asking if you stepped outside of your comfort zone and do at least one thing that’s like “I don’t know…”. That’s fun.
Neely Quinn: Yeah.
Chris Heilman: Discovering new strengths you didn’t know you had, even though it was a quarter inch of a move. That was fun.
Neely Quinn: Yeah. For sure.
Chris Heilman: Going back to those goals, reflecting as well. I like to say after training, or after trying to send, what went well? What did I learn? Those things, those little things, because it’s really easy to get stuck on the negative and the weaknesses. Training yourself to be like “What went well? What did I learn?”. Then when you are in those moments and you are trying to redpoint, you have those things and you’ve trained your brain, you’ve trained yourself to be like “Here’s what’s going well- I’m playing to my strengths”.
For me, I think the biggest struggle I have is when I’m on redpoint, I get these adrenaline surges where I’m like “I have to do this, this is my chance”, or “If I don’t do this I’m a failure”, or “I don’t know how long to rest right now- is it time to go yet? Should I stay here for longer?”. I get really anxious. I think a lot of people have those same questions and adrenaline surges. What do we do to keep those adrenaline surges and anxieties at bay when we are on redpoint or on a boulder that we are trying to send?
Mhm. Um, first of all, backing up [laughs], again. I think that goes into the imagery of imagining that and imagining those surges and what you are going to do about it- to already having a game plan for when that happens. What I call your arousal level on a scale of one to ten. One is a sleepy cat, and ten is fireworks going off, like is the earth shaking or is it just me? So your anxiety, your nerves, your adrenaline that you are talking about. Even just thinking about where I’m going to be calm, and it’s going to be at a three, and where am I at a ten? And what do I do there? And then coming up with a plan. For me, I’m like breathe, move, breathe, move. I don’t give myself to think about it. Breathe, move, breathe, move. You have to trust, and that’s what I say to myself. Just breathe, and move, because I fully trust that I have this. I don’t always have it- I fall [laughs]. But I have to have that trust. Then there is the “I have to do this, I’m going to be a failure if I don’t do it”. There’s that aspect too, right? Like “Oh gosh”. And that chatter. The biggest noise that we have is our self talk.
Neely Quinn: Yeah, for sure.
Chris Heilman: Practicing how to refrain that just in your daily life, so then when you are in a stressful situation you can do it. You can’t do it automatically. There’s no tip I have that’s the magic pill. That’s not how it works- when you are in a stressful situation you are going to go to your old habits. Every time you push yourself out of your comfort zone, Neely, you’re like “I have to do this or I’m going to be a failure!”. That’s what’s going to pop in. I call that BOB- Big Old Bully [laughs]. We have these habits whenever we are stepping out and testing our limits. We have these old habits that just keep coming back. You’re like “You’re here again? I thought I got rid of you” [laughs]. Thinking of things to re-frame that, or I say “Hey BOB!” and I just keep going. I recognize it for a second, like “Hey BOB, I don’t have time for you right now! I have to focus on this”. I know that sounds silly, but that’s how I make it fun and lighthearted.
Neely Quinn: I think we talked about this in the last interview, about how when you practice in your every day life, not letting BOB get in the way, and tempering BOB. Having more positive thoughts, breathing. That translates onto the wall.
Chris Heilman: Yeah, because our life has stressors in it, right? And our life has a lot of flow in it. These things are moment to moment to moment decisions. We have a choice. We have a choice, like “Oh gosh, here we go. I have to do this, or I’m going to be a failure”. The quicker you can recognize it and decide what you want to do with it, then the quicker you can let it go. In your day, being aware and noticing just those little things. If you are able to do that during your day, then you’ve practiced that. That’s mental training. You’ve practiced that, so those stressful situations, now you have that tool.
Neely Quinn: I’ve definitely seen that in my own life, for sure. The more anxiety skills I got, the more mindfulness skills I have retained, and the better I was at climbing, back when I could climb harder [laughs]. Before my shoulder. Which, that is something that we should talk about too. In your book, you talk about dealing with injuries.
Chris Heilman: Mhm, I touch a little bit on it. Do you want to talk just a little bit about that?
Neely Quinn: Sure.
Chris Heilman: Well what would your like to talk about Neely? Your shoulder injury?
Neely Quinn: I mean, I don’t know how much I want to get into mine, but you know, it’s been a really long time since I could train, really, and climb at my max, because of my shoulder. I had shoulder surgery about five or six months ago now. It’s difficult for me to go in the gym- I don’t even go outside at this point- and just climb pretty far below my max level. That to me is not super fun. That’s because a lot of the reason I climb is so I can push myself. That’s difficult comparing myself to my old self, comparing myself to my friends, that is difficult.
Chris Heilman: Yeah, it fucking sucks, I’m sorry [laughs].
Neely Quinn: It does.
Chris Heilman: I mean, it’s hard for a variety of reasons. One, you climb to push yourself, and so you are setting goals. Something we didn’t talk about with goal setting, is when we set goals and we work towards that goal, it releases dopamine in your brain, and dopamine is a feel good hormone. Like, “Woohoo!”, even if you didn’t achieve your goal, maybe you learn something about it, so you can get back on that path. Now, from a physiological perspective, you aren’t getting that dopamine release. It’s just hard- you’re kind of blah a little bit, and it’s hard to get motivated to climb. That’s why we have post-race blues, or post-sending blues, right? Like “Oh I did this! What’s next? Doo doo doo… oh man”. You kind of go into a dark place a little bit, because you aren’t getting that dopamine release. That’s also with an injury.
There is also something called implicit learning and explicit learning. Explicit learning is pushing yourself and you are learning, and you’re moving your foot that quarter inch, that’s an external thing that you are learning. The other thing that you are doing, even though you aren’t climbing as hard as you like, there is also something called implicit learning, and that’s the subconscious brain. Even if it’s redpointing, or if you are injured, although you are just covering the same terrain and you don’t feel like you are progressing at all, your subconscious mind is picking up all the subtle cues. It’s creating a program. Although you aren’t climbing as hard as you want, you’re climbing, and your body is still picking up those subtle cues and that balance.
During an injury it’s really hard, because you don’t get to see that progress, but you have to trust that progress. Even though you are climbing at lower grades, what are you thinking about? Where is your mind going? Can you stay very present? That would be a great challenge, a great goal during an injury. What’s happening is you are going over this terrain, and that motor program, that trickle on the hillside, you are still moving your body. Your subconscious is still picking up on new cues and how to better do it in a more efficient way, even though it’s like “Oh I’m just climbing, this is easy for me”.
Neely Quinn: Okay. And so do you think that I should try to bring that- I, and every other person who is dealing with some sort of injury- should try to bring that more into my consciousness, where I’m like “Maybe I’m not climbing as hard as I want to climb, but I can work on my footwork, or my balance”, or other little subtle things like that.
Chris Heilman: Yes, exactly. You’re giving yourself a realistic goal. Then you can pat yourself on the back and get really good at footwork, or really good at balancing. Get on some slab [laughs], and not use your arms, you know? Just work on different things. How can you see this as an opportunity to grow in a different way?
Neely Quinn: Yeah, that’s a good reminder. People say it all the time, but it is a good reminder, and it helps to keep the goals realistic, and keep me motivated. That is another thing that you talk about in your book. You call it “Motivation: How to Light the Fire and Keep it Burning”. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?
Chris Heilman: Yeah, so I studied a great deal about motivation. My mentor getting my PhD came from a big background of motivation. I had actually one semester just to talk about motivation- one semester class on this topic- so I Have a lot of say about motivation. The title of that chapter was “How to Light Your Fire, and How to Keep it Lit”. The how to light your fire is really thinking back to what’s important, what’s the bigger picture in climbing. Why did you start, what was so fun about it, what got you so psyched to go out? That’s the fire, that’s the passion of- like Sam saying yesterday “I reached out to you, not so I could climb harder grades, but this is a lifestyle for me”. You said that too, once you started doing some mindfulness in your daily life, it also helped your climbing life.
Climbing is an avenue to get you better as a person, not just as a climber. It teaches you a ton, and so remembering the internal reasons of why you got started. The inner satisfaction of mastering a skill, pushing yourself, the enjoyment of it. That’s what I talk a lot about in the book. As well as rewards. How can you reward yourself? Rewards can also undermine your motivation. How do you use rewards properly so they demonstrate learning, and how to learn? For example, this friendly competition that you might want to have. That’s a reward, that’s an external motivator. As long as you are doing it in a friendly, fun manner, great. That helps with your motivation. Like “Hey, how about we climb with no hands today because my shoulder hurts [laughs]. I did this route, I went on this slab”. Talking about just different rewards and what that means, as well as in motivation.
People have two different orientations. Well, not two different, but there are two different orientations and you can be a little bit of both. One is task oriented and the other is ego oriented. You can be high in both of these, or high in one of these. A task oriented person, this is all self-reference. You value learning, mastering and improving. An ego oriented person values sending, what grade you are at, comparing yourself to others, getting a reward or getting recognize on Instagram or something. Some athletes that I work with are high in both of those, and that’s fine. But the research shows that if you are more task oriented, those are things that are within your control. You can navigate and control how much effort you put forth, and how much you are learning. You can’t control what other people are doing and how hard they’re training, or what grades they are doing. With the motivation, if it’s self-referenced and it’s within your control, that builds competence and confidence in your belief of your ability, and you keep spiraling up. That is what helps you to be the best.
Neely Quinn: So I get that, I really do. And I think I have both in me, personally.
Chris Heilman: I think so do I.
Neely Quinn: I think we probably all do. I can’t imagine there is any climber who doesn’t see other great climbers and want to be more like them. It seems like we all probably have both in us. I’m wondering how we can cultivate the task oriented kind more. How do I get more of that? How does that become more rewarding for me?
Chris Heilman: That’s a great question. In general, it goes back to what did you learn today? That’s task oriented. What did you do today, and then reward yourself for that. Another thing I talk about is three ups, three downs, three hows. Thinking three ups- what went really well today, what did I learn? The three downs are what didn’t go so well. What are some weaknesses or areas of improvement? The three hows are how do I improve those areas? Then that is your next goal for tomorrow- how can I improve those areas that didn’t go so well, but first recognize what did go well. That is task oriented. That is learning, improving, and putting forth effort. That might be one way, one tip.
Neely Quinn: I was also going to ask you, how do I take out the ego part a little bit? How do you stop comparing yourself? How do you stop feeling bad about yourself because you didn’t send this thing that this person did?
Chris Heilman: And like right now, because you want it right now! [laughs] That is a really good question, and there is many layers to that. Can I tell you a joke to answer that question?
Neely Quinn: Sure, yeah.
Chris Heilman: So there is this guy. He’s sitting in the waiting room to see his therapist. He sees this other gentleman walk in, he’s all grumpy and his head is down, he’s moving slowly. He walks into his therapist’s office. Three minutes go by, and this grimy guy comes out, and he’s all happy and has a bounce in his step. He’s all “Thanks Doc, rule number six, I’ll remember rule number six”. He’s all “Wow, he was only in there for like three minutes, what the hell?”. So this girl comes in, she’s all frazzled, she has anxiety, she’s really stressed out, she walks really fast and doesn’t even knock on the door, and she walks into the therapist’s room. She’s in there for maybe five or ten minutes, and she comes out with a big smile on her face and says “Thanks Doc, I’ll remember rule number six”. And this guy sitting in this chair waiting for his therapist, he’s been there for like years. He says “Excuse me Doc, I notice all these people that aren’t doing well, and they come out of your office, and they’re vibrant and happy. You tell them rule number six- what’s rule number six?”. And he’s like “Oh, yeah, rule number six is don’t take yourself so damn seriously”.
Neely Quinn: So, yeah. It’s easier said than done-
Chris Heilman: Right, right exactly [laughs]. I get that, it’s totally true, and I think that I’m definitely a person who takes myself seriously- takes everything seriously. But, it is. It’s hard to stop doing that. You have to remind yourself that it doesn’t matter what those other people do, it doesn’t matter what you do. One of the biggest things that has helped me in that regard- and I think I’ve said this on the podcast before- before I get on a route that I’m trying to send, or even not trying to send, I’ll say to myself “It’s just climbing, it doesn’t fucking matter. Who cares!”. Once I started saying that, I could calm down. It immediately would stop the adrenaline, and I would laugh, and be like “Who cares, it’s a rock”.
It’s a rock, and thank god that we have little holds on that rock that we get to climb up on. So that’s another thing, of just being thankful that there’s holds on there that, even though they hurt my fingers and I don’t trust that foot, there are holds that allow me to challenge myself and have fun, and have a good time. It’s just climbing, come on, get your head out of your ass [laughs]. Maybe another part of that ego is having gratitude that it’s there for you.
Neely Quinn: Right, yeah. Having gratitude, that’s huge. That’s like the opposite of- what is that the opposite of? Anxiety or something? But remembering, even when you’re on the wall, that this is an amazing thing we do, and that all our body parts are well enough to do it. It’s a really good reminder.
Chris Heilman: Yeah, I think so too. With that ego, again, it’s just having those moments, and the more moments you have, then you can string them together and remember the big picture. Another thing that I like to tell my athletes is WIN, and that stands for “What’s Important Now”. What’s important now? Is it important that I put the focus and attention on that someone else sent this and I didn’t? Is that important right now? No, that’s not important. The important things are the things that you can manage and navigate. Sir Edmund Hillary, the first westerner to climb Mt. Everest said “It’s not the mountain we conquer, it’s ourselves”.
Neely Quinn: Yeah, yeah. It’s true. One last question about that is when I said those words- “It’s just climbing, it doesn’t matter, what’s important now, is it important that that other person did it”- we can say no to all those things when it’s you and me, where it’s not our job. But what about for professional climbers, who are World Cup climbers, at a competition, and it really does matter how they do. What about them?
Chris Heilman: Does it matter?
I think that’s a good question. One, the only pressure you have is the pressure that you put on yourself, not that I’m great at it [laughs]. That’s what I have to remind myself. Two, going back to motivation. I have this great quote in my book- for the younger listeners, they probably don’t know who Magic Johnson is- he was an NBA player. He was being recruited by college coaches, and they were trying to give him all this money, the cars, things like that. He said “I didn’t go to any of those colleges because it felt like someone was trying to buy me. I don’t play basketball because someone is trying to buy me, I play basketball because I love basketball”. They may do this for a living, but even more so for them, it’s like, okay, what’s important now? Bigger picture- I love this because I love this. People are here to watch me, and that can be very pressure-evoking, but they just want to see how beautiful it is. It’s really awesome to see people in flow. To see people trying their hardest. That’s really inspiring. Steven Coulter wrote a book called- oh what’s it called. The Rise of Superman. That’s what he writes about. There is a billion dollar business of sports where people watch people to be in flow.
Neely Quinn: Yeah.
Chris Heilman: Because we have mirror neurons, and when they do that, it’s like “Oh, I feel that”. So those professional athletes that are trying to do that, not to put more pressure on themselves, but that’s really cool to see. If they can center on “It’s fun for me, I love this, I want to push myself, I just want to see what I’m made of, let’s just give it my best”, then everyone gets to experience that too.
Neely Quinn: That’s true. I never really understood why I love watching competitions so much, but it is because of that. You get to experience it too.
Chris Heilman: Mhm. You tear up and you’re like “Oh my god, that was awesome!”.
Neely Quinn: Yeah.
Chris Heilman: And you hear the crowd too, it’s like “Aaaah you almost had it!”. You’re emotionally invested. Athletes and sport culture doesn’t like to talk about emotions, but that’s all it is. We love that rollercoaster [laughs].
Neely Quinn: Yeah, it’s true.
Chris Heilman: We like the highs and the lows, and being frustrated, and then the highs of being in flow and getting it.
Neely Quinn: That’s why we do this thing that we do.
Chris Heilman: Yeah, yup.
Neely Quinn: Well I think that we covered all of the things I wanted to cover. Are there any last words that you want to say?
Chris Heilman: Remember rule number six [laughs].
Neely Quinn: Don’t take yourself so damn seriously!
Chris Heilman: Exactly.
Neely Quinn: That’s good advice. Also I want to say that I think a mark of a good practitioner and a good teacher is a person who has a lot of acronyms, jokes, and things like BOB- oh no, that’s an acronym too! You’re doing a great job.
Chris Heilman: Thanks, that’s how I personally learned, so it just gets expressed through. That’s just how I express myself, so I’m glad it resonated with you.
Neely Quinn: It does, it makes things very clear. I appreciate all your knowledge in this second interview. Again, your book is called Elevate Your Excellence. You can get it on Amazon- is there anywhere else people can get it?
Chris Heilman: You can get it from the publisher, Momentum Press, and you can read the entire first chapter on their website as well. You can get it online those two places. Unless you are in Teton Valley, and you can come by my office. Contact me, and I will happily sign the book for you.
Neely Quinn: Cool- and how do they find you online?
Chris Heilman: My website is www.mindset-coach.com.
Neely Quinn: Okay, and that’s how they can contact you to start working with you?
Chris Heilman: Yes, yes.
Neely Quinn: Cool. Well alright, thanks again and happy holidays!
Chris Heilman: Thanks, same to you.
Neely Quinn: Alright I hope you enjoyed that interview with Dr. Chris Heilman. I couldn’t edit out the part where I said happy holidays- this was recorded about a month ago, so sorry for the confusion there. She told you where to find her- www.mindset-coach.com. On Instagram she is @mindsetdr, and yeah. I hope that you learned something from this episode. I’m actually continuing this trend about talking about mental stuff with my next guest, Roanne van Voorst. She wrote a book all about fear, about how professional athletes, especially adventure athletes like climbers, deal with their own fears. That should be fun, and maybe we can all start to be a little calmer up there.
If you want to train the physical aspect of climbing, remember that we have training programs for boulderers, for route climbers. If you want to train just finger strength, or just power endurance, we have a bunch of training programs at trainingbeta.com, by all different trainers and coaches. There is something for everybody on there, and you can find that on trainingbeta.com, and there is a tab at the top called “Training Programs”, and you can find everything right there. Thanks so much for listening all the way to the end. Definitely follow us on Instagram and Facebook at @trainingbeta, and I’ll talk to you soon.