Moving Through Fear #3: Cognitive Interventions and Physical Preperation

After clarifying what fear is and building an indication framework for when to use what intervention I will turn to the intervention we have at our disposal in more detail.

„I’ve done a lot of thinking about fear. For me, the crucial question is not how to climb without fear— that’s impossible—but how to deal with it when it creeps into your nerve endings.“

Alex Honnold

If even the worlds best free solo rock climber Alex Honnold expresses this emotion we may very well say that having no fear is impossible. The goal of the coming interventions is not to get rid of fear but to not be controlled by it and use it as information rather than be overwhelmed by it.

We don’t want to kill the butterflies in our stomach but have them fly in formation. As with physical training these tools need practice. Pick one or two and implement them in your training like you would push ups or technical drills.

The tools and interventions to come to terms with fear can be grouped into four broad categories:

  1. Physical Preparedness and general skill
  2. Cognitive interventions
  3. Embodied interventions
  4. Mindfulness interventions

The effectiveness of each intervention varies according to the level of fear and the individual and unique personality. In this first article I will focus on the first two groups, which are especially helpful in a calm and relaxed mental state.

Students practicing balancing at height.

1. Physical Preparedness and General Skill

Mental Training is no shortcut or hack. Bad technique will not magically improve from this kind of work. Let’s look at balancing at height: Before I do any movement in a potentially dangerous situation I need to be sure I’m able to physically do the movement. If I can’t balance on a rail close to the ground I won’t take this to heights.

Competence will directly affect your experience of fear. Psychologically fear arises when we are faced with a danger that we don’t know how to deal with, otherwise it would just be a challenge.

If you want to balance at height it makes sense to practice this skill on the ground until you are comfortable with it. In close preparation its helpful to chose something more challenging close to the ground like a narrower surface so that there is no doubt that the less challenging movement at height can be executed. A classic approach of incrementally increasing difficulty is applicable both for mental and physical training.

When you hear a practitioner talk about a moment of breaking a mentally challenging jump you often hear them describe their state of mind as calm and relaxed. I find the most sustainable approach to training exactly this. Find a way to reduce fear to a low to non-existent level and then execute your movement. To simply push through the adrenaline will work on some occasions but is not sustainable.

When we perform we are ideally in a relaxed state not bothered by fear or other dysfunctional emotions.

2. Cognitive Interventions

Just like we perform at our best, when we are in a calm state of mind cognitive interventions are most useful with no or a very low level of fear present. They make it less likely to become scared and facilitate seeing a movement as a challenge rather than a potentially dangerous situation. They won’t work well in regulating a high level of fear (see why in article 2).

Cognitive interventions include work on visualisation/ imagery, risk analysis, motivation and mindset.

2.1 Visualization and Imagery

This is one of the most used mental training tools. You basically imagine to execute the movement and use this imagery to prepare for a jump or any kind of challenge. The brain is not good at differentiating imagination from things that happen in the real world. This goes so far that if you imagine a jump the necessary muscles will be activated on a micro level. It also strengthens the necessary connections in the brain. Preparing the jump in your mind can therefore be extremely helpful.

This technique gains power when we don’t only focus in visualizing but feel the movement with all our senses. Imagine how it will feel to jump, the impact of the landing, the wind on your skin, the sound that will be present during the jump, etc.

As you are imagining the movement you can turn it to slow motion to focus on specific details. You can also play with first person experience or disassociating from the jump and seeing yourself from another position. As a final step you can imagine the positive emotion you will feel when you complete the challenge (see also 2.3).

The more detailed and richly textured this imagery is the more competent you will feel and therefore reduce the likelihood of fear creeping in.

Factors to change while practicing imagery are:

  • Position of the observer (1st person [association] or 3rd person [dissociation])
  • Activating all the senses (sight, smell, touch, taste, sounds)
  • Tempo/slow motion
  • The positive feeling of completing the challenge

If you are unable to see yourself do the movement is usually a sign that you are not ready for it.

2.2 Risk analysis

Alex Honnold talks a lot about the distinction between risk and consequence. His climbs have high consequence but a low risk, because he prepared them endlessly and in minute detail. The chance of the consequences actually occurring are low making it low risk.

If you are in calm state you can try to ‘objectively’ assess the risk and consequences of your challenge. Is the surface wet or dry, is the obstacle stable, do I know how to bail, etc.? Many of these factors are part of being generally, physically well prepared.

2.3 Motivation – Know your why

To gain clarity about your own motivation can help in dealing with fear in a number of ways.

Lets take the example of a monkey eyeing some bananas on a branch. Beneath the branch is a lion at rest. The monkey will fear as a response to this situation and this emotion will tell him that it’s better to avoid the lion. If however his motivation to get the bananas is big enough, if he is starving for example, the fear will recede because it is less relevant if the lion poses a risk.

Fear is a motivator for us to avoid dangerous situations. With strong motivations however fear will play less of a role. The first step is to answer questions like why do you do this? What is important to you about this activity or jump?

Hazel Findlay, one of the most mentally strong climbers, writes (htps:// „The problem that many people face from the outset is that their motivations are very end-oriented. Instead of choosing a project to learn something new they choose a project because they want to “have done” a particular route, or “have climbed” a particular grade.“

We find the classic distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsically motivated athletes will be less prone to fear than externally motivated ones. External motivation is already based on fear: Fear of failure, fear not to be a part of a community, fear of not being good enough.

It helps to seek internal motivators like enjoying the process of working on a challenge, the desire to learn about yourself or to be better than you were yesterday. A challenge should be approached with a focus on the process and less on the end result. Results can be a guiding helper but enjoying the process and having fun is the most potent antidote to fear or as Findlay says: „A happy climber is a productive climber and isn’t weighed down by fearful thoughts.“

2.4 Mindset

Closely related to motivation is our mindset. Dr. Carol Dweck identified two types of mindset that she calls the fixed-mindset and the growth-mindset. With a fixed mindset which implies that we believe our attributes and abilities are inherently fixed and unchanging. A growth-mindset suggests, we believe our talents and abilities can be improved and developed. Under a growth mindset fear is a great guide to lead us to places of growth and challenge. Fear is a chance to develop ourselves and push our boundaries. It loses its negative character and becomes a resource.

This approach can be practiced well when we are faced with failure or mistakes. Instead of being ashamed for them or trying to hide them we should embrace them as necessary on a path of learning and developing. Once we have developed a growth mindset it will help us to take fear as a tool for information and a chance to learn instead of an dysfunctional obstacle.

3. Summary

To be physically well prepared and posses the necessary skill to complete a challenge is a must when facing fear and potentially dangerous situations. A sense of competence is one the mayor protectors against crippling fear. Cognitive interventions encompass all the tools and strategies you can used in a calm state to prepare for a scary challenge or situation. The goal is to prevent fear from holding you back in the first place by not allowing it to rise or by changing your view on it through a different mindset.

In the next part we will look at ways to regulate fear effectively through embodied interventions.


Until then train safe,


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