Date: November 15th, 2016
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 in the process of writing a textbook on sports psychology.
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.
Dr. Chris Heilman Interview Details
I talked to Chris about how we can all become calmer and more focused as climbers (and in general), and about her experience living and working with the guys’ BD Bootcamp in 2015.
What We Talked About
- How she works with people
- How she came back from a devastating gymnastics injury
- Breathing exercises you can start doing right now
- How you can make yourself calm down using just one word
- Why you should start your day with goal setting
- Being in “flow zone”
Dr. Chris Heilman Links
- Chris Heilman’s website: www.mindset-coach.com
- Sam Elias’s article describing his experience working with Dr. Chris
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation Tutorial Video
Training Programs for You
- Check out our Route Climbing Training Program for route climbers of all abilities.
- Our other training programs: Training Programs Page.
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Neely Quinn: Welcome to the Training Beta Podcast, where I talk with climbers and trainers about how we can all get a little better at our favorite sport. I’m your host, Neely Quinn, and today I’m a little bit sad, honestly, to be podcast-ing, because I was in the Red River Gorge last week having one of the best climbing trips of my life. Super fun, really good weather, a good group of people. I climbed better than I have in a really long time, so it was sad to come home. Seth and I decided that he wants to go on a climbing trip now, so next week we are going to be going to Las Vegas, because he has some time off. I’m pretty psyched about that, but the Red River Gorge- I think it’s my favorite place in the world to climb. It was pretty awesome.
Part of why I bring that up is because one of the things I noticed while I was there- I think I’ve told you about my ambivalent mental attitude- my “AMA”- that I’ve been fostering this season. At some point I kind of gave up on climbing and I decided I didn’t really care that much. While I was climbing with that attitude, I started to climb a little bit better, noticed I was calmer, less nervous. The guest that I have on today is Dr. Chris Heilman, and she is a sports psychologist. A lot of what we talked about in this conversation is actually just that- how to foster a sense of calmness while you’re climbing, and in your life in general.
Dr. Chris Heilman is the same sports psychologist the you heard Sam Elias talk about in my interview with him. He credits her with a lot of his sending after the BD Bootcamp, because she helped him change his daily life, the amount of anxiety and stress he has, and that sort of transferred onto the rock.
I wanted to talk to her about her experience with training the guys at the BD Bootcamp, but also how she trains athletes in general-she works with everybody from golfers, to skiers, to runners, to climbers- and some of the the tools that she gives them, so that’s exactly what we did. Hopefully this will help you, because she gives some pretty practical breathing exercises and some other muscle contraction exercises that will hopefully help you be a better person and a better climber.
I’m just going to jump right into this interview. Here is Dr. Chris Heilman, I hope you enjoy it!
Welcome to the show Chris, thank you very much for being with me today.
Chris Heilman: Yes of course, I’m excited!
Neely Quinn: Me too, I think this is going to be really good. For anybody who doesn’t know who you are, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Chris Heilman: Yeah, I would love to. I am a country girl, so I grew up in South Dakota, just a few miles from where Laura Ingalls Wilder grew up [laughs]. So to kind of give you a visual of that- the rolling plains of South Dakota. I was a farmer’s daughter, and I’m very proud of that and the fact that we still own the farm that my ancestors had homesteaded way back in the day. It’s over 100 years old. I like that, because it really grounds me in where my family came from.
But there’s not a lot to do in South Dakota, so I really got interested in sports at a young age, and I was a long distance runner and a gymnast. A gymnastics injury left me pretty devastated at the age of 16- it was a lot of my identity. From that experience, my first career path was being an athletic trainer, and helping athletes who were injured to overcome the mental and physical challenges that that brings. And so, I did that, I got a masters in exercise physiology,- so I’m also a certified strength and conditioning specialist. That brought me to Wisconsin to teach and be an athletic trainer at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, and I stayed there for several years and through those experiences I really got interested in the mental aspect of sports. Athletes came to be basically broken, and physically broken, and they were very torn up. I really helped people through psychology and the mental aspect to get them confident to get back on the field. I really just got fascinated with that.
Also, these athletes, I noticed, they only built up this physical leg on their table, and for me, there are four legs to a table: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. So they built this physical leg really, really strong, and so when they were injured and that was broken, they didn’t have the strong legs to stand on. I always just wondered why they didn’t have the coping skills. Because of that experience- and I was not skiing nearly enough, and my 20s were slipping away- I quit my job and I moved out west to Joshua Tree to climb and be an outdoor educator. Then I moved to Driggs, ID, which is where I live now, to ski patrol at Grand Targee. Then I went back to school and go try PhD in sport and exercise psychology. I’d never even had a class in sports psychology before, so I just dove in and got a PhD in it [laughs]. It was actually really, really hard, because in my world, things were tangible. Did you break your leg, or didn’t you break your leg? And now I was going into this vast world of psychology and everybody thinks differently. If a mouse were to run into the room right now, you might be like “Oh, look at that cute mouse!” And I might jump up on a chair because I’m so scared of mice. But it’s still the same situation, we just perceive it differently.
Through that experience, I just dove in and finished that degree in four years, and then through a lot of hard work and perseverance I was awarded the dissertation award of the year through our international organization, so that’s another thing I’m pretty proud of. It’s like never climbing before, and in four years, climbing 5.15- or never skiing before and winning an Olympic gold medal. I really put my heart and soul in it.
After I finished that, I moved back up to Driggs because I met a boy, and now I’m here- we’re married and have a two year old son. And I have a business called Mindset where I help athletes with their mental game.
Neely Quinn: Wow. What a journey you’ve been on.
Chris Heilman: Yeah, it’s been fun, and scary [laughs].
Neely Quinn: I have a question- I want to go back a little bit. You said when you were sixteen years old, you had a devastating gymnastics injury. Can you tell me a little bit more about that and what happened with it?
Chris Heilman: Yeah. It was early in the season, I was transitioning from cross country to gymnastics- totally different. Going into practice, you train hard, your body’s really sore everyday, and you don’t really think about it. I was doing a dismount off the beam- like a front tuck. My ab was like “Whoa, what just happened”. Being a farmer’s daughter, you just suck it up, so I was just going to go to the lower beam and work on some jumps and turns. And I just couldn’t do it. I was like “Okay- I think something’s actually really wrong”. We went to the doctor, and the doctor said “You tore an abdominal muscle and you’ll probably never do gymnastics again”. I was like “Uhh, what? I love gymnastics”. I don’t think he realized the ramifications of telling someone who loves a sport that that’s taken away from them, and I was like “What? What just happened?”.
I remember being in my car crying, I didn’t want to go to practice- like what was I going to do. But I showed up to practice, and I went to rehab, and I kept rehabbing back, and I got back into gymnastics. So if someone tells you you can’t do something, you’re like “Okay, that’s your opinion. I’ll take that for what it’s worth, and see what I can do”. That was a pretty empowering place to be, but there was also a lot of turmoil- who am I, what am I doing, can I do this? A lot of doubt. And to overcome that as a sixteen year old was awesome [laughs].
Neely Quinn: So you feel like you did overcome it, and you probably learned a lot mentally and emotionally from it?
Chris Heilman: Yes, definitely. I mean that was years ago so it’s kind of hard to remember now, but yeah, it was empowering. It was very empowering to just listen to your body, listen to your mind, listen to your emotions, and go on the path that you, that your heart wants to go on, and listen. That’s a powerful tool to have.
Neely Quinn: Tell me about what you do now. What is your day to day- are you just working with athletes one on one? Are you working with teams? What do you do?
Chris Heilman: That’s a great question. Day to day is always different, which is great. What grounds me the most right now, is I’m writing a sports psychology text book. That is taking quite a bit of my time and it’s also kicking my ass, cognitively [laughs]. Making all those decisions, but it’s making me such a better practitioner. In the mornings, I typically write, because I need a lot of that mental energy. Then I take a break, and in the afternoon I see clients one on one, and a lot of my clients are mainly online- FaceTime and Skype. I have an athlete as young as an eleven year old climber right now, as well as elite athletes, elite climbers, as well as a forty year old mom with three kids who wants to get back in shape and wants to achieve her dreams, and she realizes the mental aspect is hindering her. I also have team sports, and that’s local- mainly skiers.
Neely Quinn: And that’s in person?
Chris Heilman: Yeah, that’s in person. So I meet with the skiers, in whatever situation. It could be in a formal room where I have a power point, or it’s in a locker room, where I bring a dry erase board and we do exercises.
Neely Quinn: This so cool- you work with so many different people. It must be so different all of the time.
Chris Heilman: Yeah it is, and as I grow and develop, the people that are attracted to me are obviously the people who are like me [laughs]. It’s really interesting to hear people self-describe themselves- like okay, what are your strengths? And it’s like, I’m smart, I’m caring, I’m a high achiever- it’s not a lack of motivation. It’s almost too much motivation and their ambition is burning them out. Even though they’re all really different, their personality types are very similar.
Neely Quinn: That’s so funny, I have the same thing with nutrition. I get clients who are just like me all the time, so it’s like this perfect mirror. Which is good, because you can help then.
Chris Heilman: Yeah you can really understand what they’re going through. I think having that empathy piece is so powerful.
Neely Quinn: Yeah. Okay, so tell me about- where do we begin? Maybe we will just skip ahead a little it and talk about the BD Bootcamp. You worked with the guys in the first BD Bootcamp, so that was Sam, Joe and Dan. Can you talk a little bit about that and some of the things you guys worked on?
Chris Heilman: The BD Bootcamp was probably about a year and a half ago. I flew in to Denver, and Sam picked me up and we went the Boulder. I actually lived with the guys three nights, so I was there for three days and three nights. I traveled with them to practice, to training, and then we met individually, as well as we had conversations over dinner as a group.
Neely Quinn: What kinds of things did you talk about?
Chris Heilman: I think one of the first things that we talked about over dinner was the idea of paralysis by analysis, and how we, as climbers, as athletes, as people as a whole, we tend to overthink a lot of minute details. We talked about how the brain works- I mean, if, for example, if you are a turtle and you feel threatened, what do you do?
Neely Quinn: You go in your shell.
Chris Heilman: Yes. If you’re a skunk and you feel threatened, what do you do?
Neely Quinn: You stink up the place?
Chris Heilman: Yeah [laughs], definitely. So we’re also animals, and as human beings, we have protective mechanisms, and that protective mechanism is that we worry. It’s natural to worry, and overthink things, but when is it helping you and when is it hurting you? A lot of what we do is we need to trust, we need to trust that we’ve put in a lot of hours of climbing, and so when we have this fear and feel threatened, it’s very normal for our mind to go “Bzzzzzzzz”. And so how do you calm that down? What do you do about it?
I like to use the analogy of paralysis by analysis- the analogy of kissing. If you have a partner or pet that you love, and you go in and you kiss them, which is pretty automatic. I have a two year old son who gives me kisses, so you’ve kissed for a long time, it’s an automatic skill. You lean in, and now you’re like “Okay, how fast should I lean it? Should I tilt my head? How much should I pucker my lips?” And then you kiss them, and you’re like “Oh my god, that felt so awkward!”. Because you just overthought it, and so how do each of us really calm down, and center ourselves so we can trust our skills. So we started with that, and I think a lot of what I do is bring self-awareness.
Neely Quinn: And this seems to be something that would relate to all sports, right?
Chris Heilman: Oh yes.
Neely Quinn: Not just climbing. So what else did you talk about with them?
Chris Heilman: Individually, I went with them on walks and just talked about “Okay, what’s your story? Where are you at?”. That story really gives me a lot of background in how they perceive a lot of things, so I can tie that back in. Each one of them, it’s like alright. You get to talk, I get to listen, where are you at? Great. What are some of your strengths that you bring as a climber? I think we easily forget all the positives attributes we have, and we really focus on all the “I’m not good enough, I weigh too much, why do I always do this”. Really start off with “Okay, what do you bring to the table? Because I know you bring a lot to the table, just at the level of an athlete you are”. And then we talk about “Now what’s hindering, what’s holding you back, give me an example”. They gave me an example and together we came up with a solution that they can work on.
I try not to give people more than just one, but in that situation I was only there for a couple of days, so I gave them three things to work on. Any more than that is just too overwhelming. That might be a little general.
That’s fine- I don’t want to divulge too much about your clients, because that’s private. So if you don’t want to talk about their specifics- could you tell me some common things that you find among climbers? Common issues that people have and then what you tell them to do to overcome those?
Chris Heilman: Common issues among climbers, I would think, the mixing between thinking and doing. Our society really likes to multitask, but that’s really not very effective. If you think of your attention like a bottle- you have a neck in the bottle and then you have the wide base- and so within that bottle you have all of your thoughts and they’re bouncing all around. When you get into your attention, you can only focus on one thing at a time, so that goes into that bottle neck. Only one thing can go through it at a time. Sure we can quickly change our attention to different things, but I think just understanding that you can only think about one thing at a time- so differentiating when are you thinking and when are you doing. You’re coming up with a plan at the base of your climb. Again, those three things- I like to divide a climb into a beginning, a middle, and an end. What do you have to do in the beginning, what are you going to do in the middle, what are you going to do at the end- just a general plan, and how much energy are you going to take with that. So, alright, you already have that plan for when you’re going to get on that wall, and now you’re doing. You’re clipping, you’re in a safe spot, that’s when you can look up to what you’re going to do next- make those decisions, and then turn it off and be climbing.
A lot of times I see athletes on the wall, and their head is on a swivel, and they’re looking every which way, because they’re mixing that thinking and that doing. Just really how to harness that focus.
Neely Quinn: So how do you harness it?
Chris Heilman: Well, there’s lots of strategies that you can use to harness it. I would ask clients “Have you felt this before in your daily life, and have you overcome it- what have you done?”. Really starting with a base of “you have skills”, now let’s add a different one. For example, I think meditation is awesome. It doesn’t have to be a formal meditation- it can just be sitting down and taking a minute to breathe. Turning on your phone, setting the timer for one minute, and just sit there. Just notice how many times your mind strays away, and just bringing that awareness to like “Wow, I just went down this path for however long- how can I just use my breathe and just focus there and just keep bringing it back”. That’s where I would start with someone who has zero skills. Just one minute, one minute a day.
Neely Quinn: Then what? Where would you take it from there, if they’ve done that for I don’t know how long, and they feel like they’re getting somewhere with it. What do you do next?
Neely Quinn: Well- can you give me another example? To be a little bit more specific?
Chris Heilman: Sure- so say you see that person with his head on a swivel like you said. Somebody who’s thinking about all these things at once, they’re not really breathing on the wall, they’re scared, they’re worried about their beta, their footwork is bad, because they’re just nervous and worrying. You tell them, “Okay, let’s have you start this on the ground. Let’s have you start this in your life. Just breathe for one minute a day”. What should they feel like they’re getting out of it, and when do they know when to go to the next step in trying to be more controlled on the wall, and what is that next step?
Chris Heilman: Well I think breathing for that one minute and then processing it. What did that mean, what did you feel like, what happened, what did you experience? And now what do you want to experience next? “I want to feel more calm” is a great example. Alright, well how about we start breathing while you’re driving. Now you’re not just sitting there, you’re doing an activity where information is coming in, but you still feel safe, so you’re not on the wall freaking out and feeling unsafe. You may not consciously think that- it might be something more subconscious- but move that into your daily life.
Now let’s start breathing before you get on the wall, and we can start that simultaneously while you’re driving in the car, and now before you get on the wall, take five good breaths. That can even start while you’re putting on your shoes. Just calm down, focus, put on your left shoe breathing, put on your right shoe, just to really focus on the present moment, versus “I’m putting on my shoes, oh my gosh, I’m gonna climb this hard climb, what am I gonna do, I’ll be okay, it’s gonna be great”. Just really be like “Oh yeah. I’m breathing, I’m putting on my shoes”. You can only be your best if you’re present enough, and use all your strength and skills if you’re present in that moment.
Taking it from there, some people think one minute is enough, and some people might need to do some more, just to see what comes up. Does that answer your question?
Neely Quinn: Yeah- it sounds like throughout the day, you should be coming back to your breath and finding that calmness throughout every day. Then maybe that could translate onto the wall?
Chris Heilman: It definitely translates to the wall, because how you do anything is how you do everything. If you’re constantly rushed through the day, then you’re probably going to be rushed on the wall. You are living your life every day more than you are on the wall climbing, and so anything that you can do throughout the day is going to transfer if you consciously recognize that you’re doing some of this stuff to also help your climbing. We’re all scrapped for time- I like to use things of our daily living to help you to be more present and mindful, so when you get on that wall, it’s a natural extension of what you just do.
Neely Quinn: How would you describe somebody who’s very enlightened in this manner on the wall? What are the thoughts that are going through somebody who’s really good at this while they’re climbing?
Chris Heilman: Hmm. They’re not having any thoughts [laughs]. They are fully experiencing and they’re fully aware- that state of whether you call it being, or flow, being in the zone, being fully awake, if you want to use terms of enlightenment. It is a place where you’re totally focused and at ease at the same time. You’re exerting effort, but it feels effortless.
Neely Quinn: Is that something- I’ve heard other climbers talk about “flow state” climbing- how do you practice that?
Chris Heilman: There’s different levels of “flow state”, and so some of the Csikszentmihalyi- which I can barely say- is really the researcher of flow. He has an interesting story of moving to the United States and not being able to speak english, and he got a pHd, and that’s pretty amazing. Through his experiences of the Nazi war, he was really interested in how people copes- how come some people saw the silver lining and we able to bring themselves to light and other people weren’t? He interviewed tons of musicians, athletes, and people who got into these flow-like states. He came up with criteria that helped you to get into flow states. One of them is setting goals, and helping you to set goals. Seeing if you’re getting a step closer to that goal, or a step further away from that goal. Another one is, you set these goals and get immediate feedback. That’s the great thing about climbing, you get immediate feedback of whether you got higher, or you were able to grab a hold a little bit better, and so that helps to get into those flow states. I can’t remember exact questions because I went into a bit of the research- can you tell me? [laughs]
Neely Quinn: It’s really interesting- I guess what would you say are good resources for people if they want to learn more about this?
Chris Heilman: Good resources are the Flow Book, that’s a great resource. As well as living, starting out your day with a goal in mind, and setting that intention is a good way to get started with flow. For example, I start my work day by sitting down and breathing for five good breaths, which is about a minute. Then I set an intention for my day- how do I want my day to flow? And then I give gratitude for the things that I’m doing. One thing that I say to myself, which is totally a Saturday Night Live skit, but it really helps with high achievers, is “I like myself today, and tomorrow, when I’m a little bit better, I’ll like myself too”. We are rushed to be better, instead of remembering what we’ve done to get to this point. To get into those flow states is really breathing, which helps calm your nervous system- it’s the fastest way to calm that nervous system. Instead of being in that “fight or flight”, that breath is on the teeter-totter. You have the accelerator, which is the fight or flight, you’re pedal to the metal. Then the opposite of that is your brake- the rest and digest. The breathing- the deep breathing- helps calm that nervous system down and get into that flow state. Setting your intentions of how you want your day to flow, and then be thankful and celebrate all the small victories that you’re doing. I think that’s a really powerful thing to do in your daily life to help you get into a flow state.
Neely Quinn: I think a lot of the times we focus on the negative things in our lives, which is not conducive to breathing well.
Chris Heilman: Not at all. That’s an interesting point. Our mind really doesn’t know the different between real or imaginary. So if you are saying negative things to yourself on a regular basis- which most people are doing- you’re putting yourself in that fight or flight, because it’s a fearful state to be in. Whether you’re talking to yourself, or whether a bear is running after me, I’m still releasing those hormones, which is pretty fascinating.
Neely Quinn: Which reminds me of being at the bottom of- I was just in the Red River Gorge last week- and I was on this project of mine. When you’re projecting something, you get to the base of the climb, and you can either be calm and say to yourself “This doesn’t matter if I fail, or if I do it.” And you’re breathing well. Or you can just go up to that climb and freak yourself out. I think one of the biggest things that we could all benefit from is knowing what to tell ourselves when we’re at the base of our projects, and what physical things to do in order to get our nervous systems to calm down. You’ve said that breath is super important. Can you describe what is a good breath?
Chris Heilman: Let me take you through one- how about that? So, you’re seated there. Go ahead and put your feet flat on the floor and scoot just a little bit further away from the back of your chair so you’re able to support yourself. Put your hands wherever they feel comfortable, whether that’s down by your side or on top of your lap. Gently close your eyes. We’re sitting, with nice tall posture, and I just want you to pay attention to your breath. Not trying to change anything, I just want you to notice where the inhale goes, as well as the exhale.
Now I want you to put one hand over your belly button, and I want you to put the other hand over your chest. Without telling me, I want you to notice where your breath goes. Does the hand over your belly or the hand over your chest move more? When we’re stressed, anxious, and fearful, we breathe fast and shallow- into our chest. When we’re relaxed, when we’re in that flow state, we have deep belly breaths, so that hand over your belly button. To help with that, we’re going to go through belly breathing exercises. We’re going to take your torso and divide it into three sections- your belly, your ribs, and your upper chest.
With the next inhale, I want you to breathe deeply, into that lower belly, and then exhale release. Inhale again into that deep belly- imagine a balloon expanding in all directions, front to back, side to side, and exhale release. One more deep inhale into that belly, gently exhale. Good.
Inhale into that belly, and now move that breath into your ribs. Exhale release. Inhale to the belly, your ribs expand out like an accordion, and exhale bring it back to center. Good.
Inhale into your belly, your ribs, and now fill up that upper chest. Exhale relax.
Inhale belly, ribs, the space even underneath your clavicles, exhale relax. Good. And keep breathing from your belly all the way up to your upper chest and let your hands relax down by your side. Just keep inhaling from that belly, and exhale relax. Good. When you’re ready, open your eyes and we can go from there.
Neely Quinn: That was super relaxing.
Chris Heilman: Yeah- and so we think breathing is so simple, because it’s so innate and we just do it automatically. But those who can breathe when they’re under stress is a skill to be learned. What I like about breathing, is we have our rituals. “Oh I need these socks, I need these shoes, I need this chalk bag, I need these sunglasses”- superstitions. But what if you forget your sunglasses? What if you forget your favorite chalk bag? The breath is always with you. You can’t ever forget it [laughs]. I really like teaching breathing exercises, one, because within the research, it’s the fastest way to calm that nervous system. Two, it’s a natural thing that you always have with you.
Neely Quinn: It is, it’s pretty simple.
Chris Heilman: To go back with that, it’s one thing that helps to anchor you in that calm state. Since you mentioned self talk, doing these breathing exercises and then think of a word that describes what you are experiencing.
Neely Quinn: You mean while you’re climbing, or before?
Chris Heilman: I mean while you are practicing your breath. You’re taking that minute to practice your breath- first you’re going to notice all the crazy thoughts that you have, and you’re going to keep refocusing. A lot of times I take people through progressive muscle relaxation, so tensing and relaxing muscles. Feeling the opposite- what does it feel like to be really tense, and what does it feel like to relax?
After you fully relax that whole body, now think of a word that describes this experience. For me, my word is “tranquility”. That’s what I’m feeling. So on every exhale, repeat that word to yourself, because on that exhale is when we turn on that rest, or digest. That’s how we calm that nervous system, during that exhale- a slightly longer exhale will help to even calm that nervous system a little bit more. Think of that word on that exhale, and if you do that enough- I’ve practiced that enough- if I’m in the grocery store and I’m pissed off [laughs], you know, I just want to get in and out- I’ll say that word, and instantly my shoulders drop a little bit away from my ears, my jaw is not tight. Because I’ve practice that enough that on cue, I can say the word and my body remembers that relaxed feeling.
That takes probably a few weeks of practice. First it starts with the minute breathing, then the ten minutes of breathing, then it’s the progressive muscle relaxation, and then we ramp back down to how we can do it in a few seconds.
Neely Quinn: Do you have downloads with your voice leading us through these [laughs].
Chris Heilman: That is on the list, after I’m done with my textbook. I don’t have those, but online, I know Dartmouth College has some downloads, as well as BYU. I just noticed doing some Google searches, that they have one for their student health and wellbeing. I’ve listed to a couple of those, and so that could get you started.
Neely Quinn: I want to get people- I think you just went through it actually. The one minute breath a day, and then you would move up to ten minutes a day, and then you would do the- and I know that there are a lot of recordings, actually, for the progressive- what did you call it?
Chris Heilman: Progressive muscle relaxation.
Neely Quinn: And then you just do this several times a day, all of those things? And then it start to become second nature?
Chris Heilman: Yeah. The breath you start with one minute once a day, because you can find one minute, once a day, to do this. If it’s important to you, you can find just one minute. So start at one minute, and then progressing to two minutes to three minutes, to sitting there for ten minutes. Then as you start to connect with how good it feels to be in that present moment, it’s east to stay motivated to do it
Sometimes it waxes and wanes- I don’t meditate every day, I don’t breathe every day. I have better things to do, my mind plays tricks on me. But I have a pretty regular practice. You start to progress with doing it while you’re driving, or I like to do it- as silly as this sounds- I like to do it while I’m going to the bathroom. So as I’m walking to the bathroom, it’s a great transition for me. Just like- okay, how can I breathe and walk and be present in that. Then the progressive muscle relaxation- if you do that every day for a week, just once a day, but maybe before you go to bed, which is a great time to do it and let go of all your worries. You do that for a week, maybe two weeks, that would be really really solid.
Then you start using that breath- you start by dividing your body into four parts. You’ll tense your lower body, relax it. Tense your upper body, relax. Tense your arms, relax. Tense your head, relax. Those are the four parts. You first do individual muscles so you know what it feels like, and then your body remembers. Then you do lower body, upper body, arms, and head. Then you start to connect with that word.
Neely Quinn: Like your tranquility word?
Chris Heilman: Yes. And that can be whatever word that you’re little heart desires.
Neely Quinn: That could be so powerful when you’re up climbing, because we get so tense, and we’re ovvrgripping and freaking out. Being able to say a word to make your body relax would probably get us to do a lot more moves.
Chris Heilman: Definitely. That’s super powerful, to know that you’re in that much control, to say a word, and be like “Phew”. You may not be as relaxed as you want to be, but at least you can lower that tension that you’re feeling.
Neely Quinn: Those are really good- that’s great. Really helpful tools. I have a few questions- I mean I have a lot of questions- but I want to go back to your dissertation award of the year. I saw that it was something about confidence, is that right? Can you tell me about it?
Chris Heilman: Yeah- so my research is in positive youth development through sport. I have more of a proactive versus reactive approach. I think starting this from a young age is awesome- to develop these healthy habits that you have for a lifetime through sport is incredible. I also feel like a lot of us live in adolescence still. We are very emotional beings- I also am an adolescent many times in my life [laughs]. Thats where my focus in my research was. I was really interested in motivational climates, and how your environment impacts you, and how that impacts your performance, how that impacts your wellbeing.
Neely Quinn: Cool. Can you tell me some of the key things that you found with it, and how that might relate with other athletes, like climbers?
Chris Heilman: Well to no surprise, the number one thing is, how do you keep it fun? I think, in my experience as a climber and a skier and a runner, you keep it fun because you’re learning every day, just like my little gratitude. “I like myself today, and tomorrow when I’m just a little bit better, I’ll like myself too”. I also have a niece who’s thirteen years old, and she loves softball. She’s like “It’s so fun!” and I asked “What’s so fun about it?”. She said “Because I get to learn new skills!”. And I was like, oh yeah! That’s one thing that came up, is “Oh yeah this is fun, because I get to learn, not just about myself, but also about this community”.
I also get to support. That’s another huge thing- the connection. Regardless if you get to go to another country and climb, the rules are still the same, right? It’s still belay on, on belay, climbing, climb on. Regardless of what’s going, there’s this understanding and you’re with a like minded community. For me, the bigger pictures is that a lot of peace can come thorough that. Learning about different people, and different cultures, regardless of your belief system, you have a common ground. Being able to support each other both on and off the wall is a huge thing. One is fun, two is connecting to a community- those are at least my huge take-aways.
Neely Quinn: It seems like trying to keep it in perspective is extremely important. Like, “Even though I’m not sending my project, I get to be outside and it’s beautiful out here and all these people are really cool”- things like that.
Chris Heilman: Yeah. That’s exactly it, as well as connecting to other people. I remember some of the youth saying “My coach goes and talks to different people- he has lunch with someone else every day”. There’s not favoritism, and that’s a huge thing. Just because I’m not the best skier, or climber, or the best athlete, I’m still valuable. I still have something to bring to the table- I’m a great belayer, people like me because I’m always supporting other people- and so remembering what you bring to the table is a huge aspect of it.
Neely Quinn: Yeah. So I think that one of the things that a lot of climbers struggle with, including myself, is the feeling of “Well I climb this hard, and the best climbers in the world climb this hard, and there’s a vast difference between me and them”. How do I stay super positive about my worth? I know you just said that you can just say that I do bring value to the table in these ways, but with climbing specifically, what would tell me, for instance, about that? How to cope with that?
Chris Heilman: So the struggle is, “I’m here, I’m climbing 5.13s, but the best in the world are climbing 5.15s”?
Neely Quinn: Yeah.
Chris Heilman: Okay [laughs].
Neely Quinn: Sometime’s I’m like, well this eleven year old just flashed my project, so why bother? Why even bother?
Chris Heilman: Well, that’s an ego. That’s your ego speaking. And so, I remember one quote from Kelly Clark, who’s a snowboarder. She’s been to a couple Olympics, and her first Olympics, she won a gold medal. Her second Olympics, she won a bronze. She said that her bronze was way more powerful than her gold, because of what she had to do to get there.
Neely Quinn: How hard she had to work?
Chris Heilman: Yeah, how hard she had to work, injuries she had to overcome, you know? Just life stuff that happens. And so we get really wrapped up in the end outcome, you know? Like, I have a PhD- I got my PhD and I defended it, I was nervous, it was great, and then I was like… that was it? That’s it? I went to school for a long time! So I think we have to remember the joys in the journey- a lot of people, you may get there. I really try to help people- I don’t want you to get to the top of the mountain and find that it’s a barren place. So its really connecting you back with why you climb. What’s the point?
My research in that motivational climate is that there is a task and there is an ego. The ego, your focusing on recognition, winning, outdoing others. Task, your focus is on improvement, mastery. This task person, it’s all self-referenced based. The ego, is all other referenced based. You can only focus on one thing at a time- remember the bottle neck. So where do you want your focus to go? Do you want it to go towards comparing yourself to other people, or do you want it to go towards your improvement, and where you’re at in the process in the things that you’ve done. Those who are high task oriented are usually those athletes that we love and admire. I remember another quote from Magic Johnson- he said “I had my fair share of deals, going to college, trying to play college basketball. People are trying to give me money, trying to give me cars. I didn’t take any of those offers, because it felt like someone was trying to buy me.”. He played basketball because he loved the sport and what it gave to him. If we can connect with that, you’re going to keep improving because you’re not going to waste so much physical and mental energy over worrying about what other people are doing, because you have no control over what they’re doing.
Neely Quinn: Right. So focusing on why you climb?
Chris Heilman: Yeah, that’s foundational. So… why do you climb?
Neely Quinn: Me?
Chris Heilman: Yeah- this is what I love. A lot of my research is in motivation, and I love this aspect. So if you wouldn’t mind sharing, I would really love it.
Neely Quinn: It just brings me so much joy, and so much exhilaration. I feel confident a lot of the time when I’m climbing, the satisfaction that I get from doing climbs is just immense. And also, obviously, being outside and being with my friends and my husband. All those things.
Chris Heilman: Exactly. So it’s remembering that- that bigger picture of “Oh yeah, I love the satisfaction of not thinking I could do this, and I did it!”, you know? The satisfaction of “Oh my gosh, I moved an eighth of an inch and the whole world opened up!” Right? It’s like “Whoa, why didn’t I do that before?”. Sometimes we just need to beat out head around on the rock until it’s like, oh yeah. Okay.
This ability to test your limits and see what you’re made of, that’s a beautiful thing. I’ve been pregnant and went through twenty hours of natural childbirth, and I have this beautiful boy, but the things that sport gives to me, that freedom and being in the moment- those are just so powerful for me. Especially when you’re stuck, and you’re having a bad day, or something tragic happened in your life- for me, sport has always been there. The friends, and the community, just connecting, being outside in nature, that’s a pretty powerful element of my life.
Neely Quinn: That’s a good reason to keep going.
Chris Heilman: But there’s also the performance aspect, you know? I think we have to balance in our life. If we feel heavy, we want to get light. If we’re cold, we try to warm up. It’s that balance of “why do we do climbing” with the performance aspect- trying to balance both of those and not just being performance oriented.
Neely Quinn: I think it’s probably a life long challenge for most climbers, to do that. To be okay with where you’re at and still try hard, and have peace while you’re doing your sport, while still having the motivation the have the “grr” to get up it. It’s a balancing act, like you just said.
I have a couple of other questions. I want you to tell me- and these things are fresh in my mind because I was just in the Red and trying hard. I remember this one specific time on this climb where- I think know what you’re going to say, which is breathe- but I was resting and I had a couple more hard moves to do before I sent this route. I had all these doubts. I was like “I don’t know if I can do it, what if I’m not rested enough, should I stay here a little bit longer, if I mess up I’m going to be so disappointed in myself”. And so in those moments, while you’re on the wall, it’s the word tranquility, that kind of thing, and just breathing? Is there anything else that you can tell yourself in that moment when you’re frantic?
Chris Heilman: I think fundamentally, from a very physiological perspective from the brain, it’s like “Am I safe, or am I not. Okay, I’m safe right, what’s really going to happen. Okay let’s do this! I’m safe, let’s try it!”. I think all those things going in your head, that’s a lot of decisions to make, right? Your mind is running, so how can you simplify those decisions I think. Basically, am I safe or am I not? Okay, I’m safe, so let’s try this, let’s see what happens. You’re giving yourself a little bit of permission, versus trying to tackle each one of those. What’s the raw material we need to work with?
Neely Quinn: So just being very basic about it?
Chris Heilman: Yeah, and it’s like, what is the worst that’s going to happen?
Neely Quinn: Not sending? I mean falling to your death, but also not sending [laughs].
Chris Heilman: What did you say, your death?
Neely Quinn: Yeah, I just mean the worst thing that can happen when you’re on a climb. Your belayer can mess up, you could fall, gear could come out- thats the worst- the very worst. The worst that could really happen would just be that I wouldn’t have done it, I wouldn’t have sent it.
Chris Heilman: So again we go back to our ego. Going back to, like I said before, it’s proactive versus reactive. Set yourself up so when you get into those situations- am I safe, am I not- you can recognize them and easily focus. I like telling stories, so I’ll tell another story. Michael Phelps, the swimmer, in 2008 when he was in Beijing, he was doing a 200 meter freestyle swim. He has routine where he bends over and slaps his back three times, right? Swimmers are notorious for their pre-performance routines. He does this route, gets on the blocks, squats down, the gun goes off, powerful jump into the water, he dives in and his goggles fill up with water. He’s at the Olympics- holy shit! That’s going through his head, probably some other words as well. So you have this reaction and your mind can really go down that path, like “I’m at the Olympics, what’s going on, what should I do!”. And what he starts doing is doing what he knows, and he counts his strokes. He counts one, two, three, flip, turn. Goes down one length, the other length, comes back for the home stretch. He goes in, he touches the wall, he looks up, and he has a world record.
Neely Quinn: Wow.
Chris Heilman: And so, a situation where you can let your mind get away from you, but I think a couple things happen. One, you have a pre-performance routine, which we haven’t talked about, but is really great for climbers. Putting on the left shoe, putting on the right shoe- just being in that moment, because what happens in your brain is that every little step along the way tells you that you’re successful. I’m putting on my shoes- oh that’s easy. I’m successful at this, I’m successful at that. You’re building up your confidence, so when something happens, you’re already on the positive side of things, versus before you get on the wall and the climbing, and you’re like “I’m not going to do this, what’s going on”- you’re already in the negative. Helping yourself to see each step as a victory, so when something happens, you’re already in that open mindset that you can problem solve quicker.
I think the other problem is, what happens when my goggles fill up? I already have a plan of attack. You can’t always have a “what if this happens” scenario, you can’t always do that. But you might have things in climbing where you fall, and you swear, and you have a pattern. You might have certain patterns where if this happens, how do I want to react?
Neely Quinn: That’s a whole other question, about visualization. A lot of times when I have routes that I want to do, I’ll visualize them in my head and do it over and over in my head. Is the something you’d recommend to people?
Chris Heilman: Yes, definitely. Visualization is not as powerful as getting on the wall and actually doing it, but it’s the next best thing. Your muscles get fatigued when you’re on the wall, but your mind muscle doesn’t get as fatigued as those physical muscles. So in your mind, you have these motor programs- you just hit send. What you’re doing with visualization, is your strengthening these motor programs of what you’re going to do. You’re actually sending messages to your muscles of what you want to do. It’s not the same strength and amplitude as if you were actually on the wall climbing, but you’re still sending those signals of what you want to do, so that visualization is a huge part of climbing if you’re trying to send a route and you can’t get on it every day that you want to. If it’s in the Red River Gorge and you’re in Colorado, and you’ve been on it, that’s a great way to help strengthen those neural pathways, your muscle memory, in order to help you send a climb.
Neely Quinn: So it is a good idea for people to do that?
Chris Heilman: It is a good idea. The two things to help you before you start visualization is knowing how to relax and knowing how to focus. That’s why I start people out with breathing exercises. That’s fundamentals, that’s learning your ABC’s, yet a lot of people don’t know how to do that. First, you start off with that breathing, then you can start getting into some visualization, for it to be really effective. You can do it, but if you really want to get the most bang out of your buck you need to learn how to relax and how to focus. Then you start your imagery. With imagery, you want to ignite all of your senses. Again, your brain doesn’t know the different between real and imaginary. The more senses you can bring into the climb, like what are you tasting? Are you tasting your sweat dripping into your mouth, and the salt of it. What are you smelling? Is it a little bit windy and you feel that on your skin? The more senses that you can incorporate and make it more real, the more effective that imagery will be.
Neely Quinn: I’ve been playing around with including more breathing. I’m not breathing super hard when I’m doing the visualizations, but I’m at least trying to keep my breathing going so that I can stay as calm as possible. Do you think that that helps?
Chris Heilman: Yes, definitely. As well as you may want to set a timer. How long has it been taking you to climb that route, and so set that timer and help yourself get through it in the appropriate amount of time. I’ve helped skiers to be like “Okay, you want to do this in a certain amount of time- you’re 5 seconds away from that, so let’s do it one second earlier, one second earlier, one second earlier”. They get to that time that they want to through visualization. I think also, maybe that’s not the first step you do. First you just visualize and just go through that. I personally am not a good visualizer, as far as I don’t see things in crystal clear pictures, but I feel it. There’s different ways that people visualize, and so if you can’t see things in crystal clear, like you’re watching a movie, don’t worry. That’s okay. You are more of a feeler than you are a visual person. Knowing that, using your senses to the most, is great.
Neely Quinn: Do you ever use heart rate monitors with people to monitor their emotional reactions to things?
Chris Heilman: I don’t use a heart rate monitor, but I have a bio feedback unit, which measures your heart rate and your heart rate variability.
Neely Quinn: What do you do with it?
Chris Heilman: Well first we start with breathing [laughs]. I know it sounds so redundant, but if you can’t control your breath, you can’t control your thoughts. It really starts with that. It’s really cool, I actually did this at the BD bootcamp. It’s a computer screen, so it gives you feedback of what’s actually going on in your body. The heart rate variability is your beat to beat heart rate. A good heart rate variability is where you actually have a lot of variability. The reason for that is if we are sitting here, we’re calm, we’re cool. But if something were to happen, I’m going to use the bear analogy. There’s a bear- you want your heart to have variability so you can get up and start sprinting on a dime. It’s good to have this variability. What we look for is this really smooth, fine wave. When you have this nice smooth fine wave, and your variability is good, that means your composed. We talked a lot about relaxation, but there’s also this element of not being too relaxed. You also need some of that stress to help you focus- that helps to prime your body. This heart rate variability starts with breathing. What does it feel like to be composed? Then we will start with imagery. Let’s take you through some of those climbs and I’ll time it to see where you’re at, and ask “What was going on here, because now this is not a smooth fine wave, it’s all jagged and all over the place. How can we get you into a more composed place”. So putting together an imagery script and going through that with the bio feedback, with your eyes closed so you can’t see any of it until you’re all done, because that’s just more information that you don’t need.
Neely Quinn: That brings up another point- maybe I should have you back on the show and we can talk about this- because a lot of people like me have an issue with keeping calm, but other people have an issue with getting psyched to do hard moves. Like getting the energy up to turn it on. I think that’s a whole other topic. Do you have any quick thoughts on that?
Chris Heilman: That’s all or nothing, right? That’s just your mind’s limiting tendencies. It’s like “Alright, I don’t want to do this so I’m just going to rush through this and get it over with because it’s uncomfortable”, or it’s like “I’m just not going to do this- whatever, I’ll see what happens”. That’s just one of your mind’s limiting tendencies, because we want to be comfortable. And when we are climbing just a little further that we can reach, that’s uncomfortable.
Neely Quinn: And probably learning to be with the discomfort and to be okay with it. I mean that’s what I notice, a big difference between me and my husband for instance, he’s really good at being uncomfortable and in pain, whereas I just want to sit in the hot tub, really [laughs]. I don’t know how you train that, but being uncomfortable probably makes a good climber, I’m assuming.
Chris Heilman: Okay so again, I’m just going to go back to sitting and breathing for one minute, because that will make you uncomfortable. As athletes, the majority of us as athletes have ADD and we like to move. Sitting at breathing for one minute is uncomfortable.
Neely Quinn: That’s true, yeah. This whole breathing thing is just a panacea- is that a word? Where it fixes everything? [laughs]
Chris Heilman: Like fish oil? Everyone takes fish oil because it does everything [laughs]! I mean, thanks to mother nature, that’s the foundation, right? We can’t read unless we know our ABC’s. We can’t write a book unless we know our ABC’s. It’s a foundational piece that you can do in the comfort of your own home right now, without contacting me or someone else to help you get to the next level, so that’s really cool to do.
Neely Quinn: Yeah, it’s so simple and yet so powerful. I really appreciate your time, we’ve gone a little bit over, but I think this was really valuable, so thank you.
Chris Heilman: You’re welcome, I love talking shop, so it was my pleasure.
Neely Quinn: Well let’s do it again sometime.
Chris Heilman: Sounds great, thanks!
Neely Quinn: I hope you enjoyed that interview with Dr. Chris Heilman. You can find her at mindset-coach.com. I talked to her a little bit about how she works with people one on one, and it’s pretty thorough and intense. You talk to her four times throughout the month if you work with her, and she also checks in with you via text and emails to make sure that you’re doing what you guys talked about doing. She seems to be really dedicated to her clients, and again you can find her at mindset-coach.com.
Coming up on the podcast, I don’t have anybody scheduled, which is kind of freaky for me. I’m going to talk to a couple of different people to see if they want to be on. I’d love to talk to Michaela Kiersch, I saw her crushing at the Red, and then she just did the Golden Ticket, which is super impressive- there’s a giant dyno on that thing, and she’s not a tall person I don’t think. And my friend Alex Stiger might come on the show. Again, I’m still looking for more people who are just kind of “normal” climbers, people who aren’t climbing super, super strong relatively, but have had some great success with training. If you think you are that person or know someone who is, please email me at email@example.com.
Other than that, if you want any more help with your training, we aways have training programs for you. If you’re a route climber, like me, you can do our route climbing program, which gives you three workouts every week. You go through six week cycles of power endurance, power, and finger strength, and everything you need to be a good climber. You can find those at trainingbeta.com, and at the top you’ll see a tab for training programs, and everything is in there. Whenever you purchase those programs, it supports me and helps me continue to do the podcast, and everything else that we do over here at TrainingBeta. So thanks very much for listening, I hope you guys have a really great Thanksgiving if you’re in the states, and I’ll talk to you when I get back from Las Vegas.