Book Review: The Vertical Mind

Climbing is, overall, a challenging experience. It comes to no surprise that many of us struggle to find our stride in this complex sport which requires great physical attributes and a strong mental game. The psychological side of climbing is especially taxing as there are many possible fears and schema that hinder upward progress. The new book, The Vertical Mind: Psychological Approaches for Optimal Rock Climbing, has made sense of the many issues that prevent climbers from breaking through their mental plateaus, be it for a 5.14 or a 5.10.

Jeff Elison and Don McGrath both are avid rock climbers with a combined 50 years of experience between them, both familiar with onsights in the 5.12 range. That alone should be a sign that their advice will not only be interesting – it will be insightful as well. They both are PhD recipients, Don in Electrical Engineering and Jeff in psychology, and are thus no strangers to logical thinking and thorough research. Their book is an inquisitive look into rock climbing psychology, a field with few resources available for those wishing to overcome their own mental blocks.

Rock warriors, through and through

The Rock Warrior’s Way is maybe the most quoted book on climbing psychology and rightfully the most praised and recommended. Arno Ilgner focuses his words to create a different method of teaching; a visceral exploration into the Zen and the Ego. This sort of mantra driven book can be good for those who can accept the simplicity of the Zen way, however, this method of teaching can cause the more logic driven personalities to question the premises. After a first reading of The Rock Warrior’s Way, it is all too common to feel driven but unsure how to proceed. The Vertical Mind is a completely different approach, and will certainly arm any climber with a battery of techniques to change behaviors and overcome the many facets of fear.

Unlike the old manuscript of yore about zen and the killing of the worldly ego, The Vertical Mind is a to-the-point and purely scientific approach to mental training. According to the authors, climbing is 90% mental game and their techniques, based on the most recent and credible research known today, aim to unlock this often puzzling side of climbing.

As the book begins, we are quickly led through a concise and straightforward theory of learning and behavior. Elison, a scholar on the topic of motivation and emotion, empowers the reader with methods of crushing such fears as the fear of failure and the fear of falling. Without a doubt, the authors convey the most recent scientific research that is available in the field of sports psychology and adapt it to rock climbing in an elegant way. Once finished, there is no excuse to run to the gym and start practicing new scripts that will unblock even the most solidly set behaviors. Even the most stubborn among us will surely question their habits after this read, as there is no denying that an unhealthy mental game is a performance plateau waiting to happen.

Relevant, modern, insightful

Moreover, references to modern rock climbing appear throughout the text. Pro-athletes, such as Adam Ondra and Chris Sharma, are quoted to motivate but also to bring insight into pushing climbing to the next level. These words are used as learning tools meant to convince us that the book is still true at the high level; that of which has been achieved by sponsored athletes and climbing gurus. For example, a discussion on Lynn Hill’s quotes about “flow” effortlessly bleeds into a chapter describing the feeling of pure control and ease during hard climbing. They even offer tips on how to become more like Lynn, being able to climb in the state of flow more often. The importance of flow is undeniable and is one of the reasons that most climbers continue to push their limits.

If you can, pick up this book as anyone can benefit from a little mental training.

Buy it straight from the Sharp End books

Link to amazon dot com for some purchasing action


keep thinkin’ and crushin’,



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