A competition is like skydiving.
You can psych yourself up for it as much as you want, but eventually, whether you’re ready for it or not, you’re going to have to jump off that plane or you’ll miss your chance. In a climbing competition, there is no second chance. When the judges call your name, you either get yourself onstage or you don’t. There’s no postponing it, no procrastinating, no last-minute warm up. They have a competition to run; get out on that wall or pack up and go home.
There are different athletes for different sports who prepare differently than I do; however, I do believe there are several things that every good athlete—no, every good performer—does before he or she gets onstage.
Every athlete says competition preparation starts at different times. Some say it starts the morning of the competition. Others say it starts two or three weeks beforehand, in the last push for training. I know people who say it starts when they begin warming up to compete. I say it starts the second the season starts. There are two seasons in rock climbing—ropes and bouldering. As soon as I fell off the wall at my last bouldering competition, as soon as I knew my bouldering season was over, I started thinking about ropes. I started preparing for competitions by training endurance and doing lead; I started running to lower my speed times; and I turned my focus away from the gray bouldering walls in my gym and toward the taller, burnt-sienna rope section.
I like to divide my competition preparation into four stages, beginning with preseason and ending with post-season analysis. They go like this:
When a competition season ends, there’s always a period of a few months before the first competition of the next season begins. This is the phase during which I switch my focus from one discipline to the other. There’s very little training; mostly, I’m just readjusting to this new section of my sport.
About a month before the first competition of the season, my training picks up. During preseason, I make a lot of notes on what I need to improve on specifically before I begin to compete (for example, arm strength or endurance). Pre-Comp Season is all about taking those weaknesses and working until they no longer inhibit me.
The first competition of each season begins the morning of the competition, the subset being having a balanced breakfast and being mentally prepared, and ends on the drive home, after analyzing what went wrong and what I can do to improve. It’s also a good judge of progress; how far have I come since preseason? The competitions themselves serve as checkpoints to me concerning my physical progress and my mental setup.
End Of Season
Most competition seasons are structured so that you have a few small competitions, then a break for a few weeks, and then the major competitions, or the culmination of all the work you’ve done that season. This is by far the hardest period in any competition season—I like to spend that time putting together lists of all my weaknesses, compiled from competitions and preseason, and focusing on them with everything I’ve got. I focus on putting myself in the best mental place that I can. I start writing down my workouts, I write down how I feel about my performance and my training, I stop eating sugar, and I do lots of thinking about how this competition aligns with my long-term goals in the sport and in life. Before every major competition, I do my usual hour-and-fifteen-minute-long warm-up routine, sing a harmony to an A Cappella song while I’m sitting in the chair, waiting to start, always stretching and bending my shoes before putting them on, and opening my chalk bag when the transition time before I climb begins. When I turn to face the wall, I scan the holds, choose my sequence, and begin to move. I’m not nervous when I’m up there: only when I’m waiting for it. I think every athlete has a ritual of some sort like this. This is the end of the season, what I’ve been working toward; I’m prepared and excited to compete.
This phase only lasts about a week. I assess the season and myself, take a little bit of time off, and psych myself up for the coming preseason.
Every athlete has his own ways to prepare, his own rituals, his own ways of dividing up his seasons and sports. There are very few universal ways to prepare; in my opinion, they include working on your weaknesses and mental preparation. As long as these things are present, I think you’ll always be prepared to finally jump out of that plane.