At some point in our climbing careers I imagine most of us have been aware of the importance of psychology. We might not have consciously considered it, but we have been aware of being nervous or anxious before a climb; we have all had those days where everything goes well and you climb well, confidently, and get things done, and also those days where nothing goes right and you leave the crag with your confidence and self-worth shot to pieces. We might even know someone who left climbing because the troughs were outnumbering the peaks. Yet it's a subject that most of us never gets to grips with. We are aware that climbing well breeds confidence, which makes us climb well, and climbing badly does the opposite, but we don't know how to break into that positive cycle other than by accident. We might have half an idea that we often climb better when relaxed and free from stress or anxiety but we don't always nail it. We have wasted sessions, bad days, and fail on things we should have succeeded on.
So it's refreshing that Jerry's book Mastermind tries to address that deficit in our collective knowledge base. Sports psychology in itself is a reasonably mature field, but in the same way that climbing training has lagged behind more established athletic disciplines, so too has our knowledge of how psychology impacts on our performance. The irony here is that of all "sports", (and I hesitate to call it a mere sport, since climbing is an exceptionally varied, complex and multi-faceted activity) climbing is one where mastery of your own mind can potentially make a huge difference. Trad climbing, soloing and alpinism, to pick a couple of examples, are known as head games as much as they are physical, but the same psychological principles can be applied to sport climbing and bouldering.
Sports psychology makes a strong case for itself and yet quite often we are reticent to really assess ourselves and see where our weaknesses are. Perhaps it's the fear of the unknown. Training for strength seems well established; you identify that, say, you're weak open handed, so you do a block of open handed deadhanging and bingo; you're now stronger openhanded. It doesn't seem the same with psychology somehow. We see the symptom of a weakness such as lack of confidence, but we may not know what the cause is or how to address it. We may be reticent to try and find the cause. I will be the first to admit I don't always feel comfortable directing a critical eye introspectively.
When diving into Mastermind I was not sure really what to expect. I think it is fair to say that Jerry is not known as an academic or much of a writer, but in this case this works in our favour. The book is written in a pretty straightforward and accessible tone. It's not a piece of academic literature, so you're going to be disappointed if you're looking for annotated references. Pedants might pick up the odd typo or misworded sentence but really none of these detract from the whole. The wisdom and experience Jerry has harvested on our behalf is backed up with his own stories, anecdotes, photos and quotes, along with those from other top performers both past and present. It's an interesting read and a visual feast even if you've got no intention of putting it into practice.
The layout has a great pop-art feel hiding within the low-key outer. Jerry's collaborators Hannes Huch and Marion Hett have done wonders with the production and graphic design, and there are a few very thoughtful touches. The overriding purpose of the book is hinted at by the notebook style cover elastic, pencil holder and note sleeve at the back. This book is not supposed to be a coffee table book or sat in a display cabinet, it is intended as a working notebook, something to be scribbled in, with passages underlined and ideas written on the back of envelopes stuffed into it. A handbook you can add to and dip back into over the coming months and years. There are often pages in the text where Jerry asks you to respond and write down your own reflections, plans, your own definition of success, positive declarations etc etc. Being asked to be introspective and really honest with ourselves might be difficult to some of us at first, but it seems that it's a pretty crucial step to progression.
One thing that strikes me when reading it is that many of the techniques and approaches discussed seem relatively intuitive and common sense. That is not to say that they are obvious or trivial, in fact quite the opposite—if that were the case we'd all already be masters of performance psychology. But still I think that many experienced climbers reading this will be able to identify instances in their own experience where they, either deliberately or accidentally, employed one or two of the techniques, such as visualization or banking positive performances. Indeed having read Jerry's book we may be kicking ourselves that we never joined the dots and saw the bigger picture, and worked it out for ourselves years ago. But that really is the genius of it, because we can then relate to the techniques and maybe take them forwards into our own practice with a degree of optimism.
Some readers may approach a book like this assuming that it's easy to claim a mastery of confidence and their psychological aspects of climbing, with no substance to back it up, when you are the best in the world. This is a mistake. Jerry very definitely was the best in the world so it would be easy to write this whole concept off, to assume that there's nothing in it. If you're strong you'll be confident and that's the end of it. In fact I have heard talk by top level climbers more or less to that effect: "just be confident". But it's not that easy. Jerry by his own admission didn't start out as a master of psychology, and had a fair few ups and downs on the way. But he became the best in part because of his growing understanding of the psychology of performance. Clearly that wasn't the only factor in his success, but consider that at Jerry's prime there were plenty of other climbers in Sheffield alone who on any given day could easily make a claim of being better or stronger than he was. But Jerry rose above his contemporaries, and I have no doubt that his execution must have played a huge part in that dominance. As Jerry himself points out, he did most of his hardest redpoints first or second go. How many other of his contemporaries, or indeed top performers today, can claim that?
Mastermind is published by Cafe Kraft.