S1, E11: The Mental Game of Climbing Injuries – Arno Ilgner

Arno Ilgner is a distinguished rock climber and first ascensionist, perhaps most well known as the author of The Rock Warrior’s Way. Through his best selling work, Arno outlines his methodologies emphasizing mental training to help his students and readers improve their awareness, focus attention, and understand their athletic (and life) challenges within a coherent, learning-based philosophy of intelligent risk-taking. In this interview with The Climbing Doctor, Arno discusses his history, mental aspects of climbing, and injury management.

  • 0:00 Intro
  • 1:43 A history of The Rock Warrior’s Way — how it started and developed to what it is today
  • 11:38 Mental aspects of injury management with climbing
  • 22:35 Body awareness and mental flexibility
  • 26:58 Arno’s personal routine for sharpening his mind
  • 31:45 Coping with stressors in rehab and leveraging senses to live in the moment
  • 37:44 Arno’s general advice and closing thoughts

If you would like to listen to the entire interview with Arno, check out the podcast. If you want to watch the interview, click the YouTube link or any of the timestamps above. If you would like to read quick sample of the interview, check out the excerpt from the interview below.

Arno, can you introduce yourself to to people that who may not know?

My name is Arno Igner and I’m the founder of the warriors way, mental training method. I’ve been climbing since the mid 1970s and started developing this material in the mid 1990s and got a couple of books published and a network of trainers. So psyched to be here with you Jared to discuss Climbing as it relate to mental training.

First, let’s get a little into your background of developing the rock warrior’s way method. How did it start?

Yeah, great question. I was around 40 years old working in a job that I didn’t particularly care about. But I was researching about how to be a better employee in the place I was working, and it was so interestingly enough, that kept coming across these authors in either audio programs or books, they kept saying things like, “oh, it’s your responsibility to find a career that you’re passionate about because that’s the best way you can enjoy life and also serve others”. You know? So when I reflected on that, or I guess when I heard it many times, it finally got into my head and I said, “well, the only thing I’ve really been passionate about is climbing”. And so I started looking in the direction of what I was particularly skilled at in climbing and what I was interested in. It happens to be the mental dimension. I was known for being able to put up some routes that created well required mental discipline and management affair. That was pretty much the starting process. This was from 1990 to 1995 and in 1995, I made a decision to really start teaching this. I had my first students then.

Oh, wow. And how did that look? Was it an in-person class with a few students with whom you want to experiment your ideas? Was it friends? How, how was that first introduction to what’s I assume now become the Rock Warriors way like?

It was not called “The Rock Warriors” way back then. Also, there were just a few climbing gems in the mid-nineties. I was in Tennessee, there weren’t any here. Right at the same time that I was developing this material, I had a climber approached me. Her name was Michelle, and she had some issues with fear, I met her at the local cliffs. She asked if I could help her with her fears. And so, we just went out, maybe seven, eight times during the year.

We went climbing together and I had distilled the material into like seven core processes that are in “The Rock Warriors Wy”.

About the same time the editor of climbing magazine was tasked with coming to North Carolina to do an article for a climbing magazine on the history. Since I’ve done some first ascents, I joined him and we climbed for a few days and talked about the history. He was really intrigued when I was sharing about the mental training method. And, and he actually was the first one to write about it, you know, before I was even writing articles about it in climbing magazine.

Yeah. He wrote that short little piece. I don’t know if they had tech tips or what it was called at the time, but it was added toward the back of the magazine. My landline phone number was associated with the articles, for those who want more information and I got about 80 people calling me.

The thing is, I knew from the beginning that this material was valuable and helpful, beyond just climbers. I’d intended to, in some time in the future to write a book for the general public on it, which, you know, I’m actually in the process of doing right now. And I also knew that I needed to test the material and refine it in the medium of climbing, which is a vehicle that I understood. So it took a long time. But it’s really like one of those important mental training skills which is the willingness to have a goal that you’re are inspired to achieve that gives you vision and direction, but also being willing to take the small steps and really do that work for its own sake, like get enjoyment out of these steps that you’re taking toward that goal.

Then what happened, what was the progression of the “Rock Warriors Way?”

So I got progressively more students, you know, from the mid-nineties to 2003, just a few, mostly locally here in the Southeast when “The Rock Warriors Way” came out, then the awareness of the training was obviously broadcast nationally and even internationally. Quickly there were more climbing gyms. I contacted the gyms and taught more outdoors. I taught more in other areas outside of the Southeast. I taught in climbing gyms. So I was teaching a lot, between 2003 and 2009, when “espresso lessons” came out even internationally, like in Canada, Australia, and a few other places.

Espresso lessons was your second book?

Yeah. That was the second book. And it was about that time in 2009 that some climbers that were into climbing industry, as guides or instructors, teaching, other things, and guiding their clients on climbs. They started contacting me and wanting to see if they could also teach the material. They had read the books and they saw that it was helping them in their climbing and maybe even in their instruction. I went on and started training trainers and this expanded into Mexico, into Brazil into Europe until we had like 15 networks of trainers, which is really exciting in a lot of ways. And because the material could be taught in more locations, you know it approach is effective. But I couldn’t really do it until I had work with the material for a lot of years, like from the mid-nineties to the point where the syllabus was refined into what we call the falling in commitment clinic, because it should be able to be replicated with certain standards. So, we have consistency across trainers for how we’re delivering the material.

Let’s transition a little bit towards injuries because that’s kind of what I’m interested in picking your brain on, the mental component you use to avoid injuries, or manage them. Because I know I’ve had my own injuries. I know anyone who’s climbing at some level has had injuries and they are tough to manage.

You know, Jared I’ve really been fortunate not to have like catastrophic injuries or breaking ankles or worse. I’m really fortunate especially in the context of some of the inappropriate risks that I’ve gotten myself into. You know, I’ve had minor finger and elbow injuries through the years. And most of those were actually before I started working on developing this material, but one that I’ve had that was rather serious was around 2011. I took a fall while lead climbing.

It was a straight down fall, but I guess the wall was about vertical, but yeah, there was outward movement and then some pendulum into the wall and the left side of the wall was a little bit on an angle. It wasn’t flat. And so when my left ankle came in, it kind of twisted like that. It actually caused some nerve damage from the nerve that goes from my lower back down to my ankle. I could not rotate my left ankle very much.

I’ve had it checked out in the medical industry, got an appointment but basically, they don’t seem like they can help me with it. So, I’ve had to kind of learn to adapt my climbing to include, that limitation. I guess mental training wise, it’s like I could get frustrated that I can’t get help, to fix this. I could have been impatient with myself or I could even continue to try to use my left ankle in the way I’ve always used it. But I’ve done my best by just accepting the situation as it is. And then working with it, finding and having a mental flexibility, which is an important kind of grounding way that we approach mental training. Like we need to be flexible in how we adapt to situations. So for me I’ve learned that I can’t step on my inside edge on a hold with my left foot. I have to like most of the time step on my outside edge. So, my foot is like this against the wall instead of like that,

Because that’s a more stable position for your foot.

Yeah. Like the muscles are able to like, hold it in that position. Whereas when it’s, when I’m stepping on my inside edge, it just collapses and wants to roll off of the hold, which is not what you want.

I think with any injury, there’s a denial component at some stage. And if you’ve tried every type of option, it’s at some level, it sounds like mentally, you need to be able to accept the circumstances and adapt as you’re climbing, even if this is hard thing to do.

You are pretty much right; I mean what comes to mind is there are stages to this process. There is the denial part, then you move on to bargaining and finally get to acceptance phase. All of these are also a really important part of our mental training program, but one definitely helpful and important medicine for injuries is until you can accept the situation as it is. You’re not going to be able to take effective action because part of your attention’s going to be distracted toward what you wish would happen. Instead of focusing what you’re doing to rehab the injury or adapt to a limitation like I experienced.

Are there any other components that stands out, if you kind of think about all the different concepts that you teach. Obviously acceptance is one component and maybe it takes time to get to that acceptance stage. Either preventing injuries from occurring, reducing the risk or helping someone through the process?

Yes. I mean obviously if we can do preventative mental training, that would be, the best. Just as you know, mental training has a lot to do with motivation. Like how we’re is going to determine where our attention gets focused. So for an example, in defining a commitment clinic, we teach you tangible skills around how to fall properly to diminish chances of injury. We have drills around how to improve commitment, but foundationally, we want the students to experience a shift in their motivation. They tend to like come into instruction with an achievement in mind and get it over with motivation.

Yeah, absolutely. Like go through it, check the box, get the certificate. All right. We’re good.

Yeah. We ask them such questions as, “okay, what do you want to gain from this clinic?” What’s your takeaway from this clinic?

A lot of times get answers like, “well, I just want to get over my fear of falling.” They just want to leap over toward a future time when they’re over this stressor, the same thing applies to how they approach injury. So when we do the incremental falling practice, for example, we’re doing it in small steps and we tell them exactly what to focus their attention on. And afterwards we don’t have to convince them that it takes a long time to learn something. They know from their own experience that if they progress too quickly, they start tensing up. Now they have evidence from their own experience that it takes a long time and they need to have small incremental steps. So in other words, their motivation needs to be more learning based instead of achievement based when they’re engaged in that activity.

You know, if you’re doing hang board workouts or anything like that, if you’re just not focused on the quality of the engagement, then it’s, you’re going to use your body suboptimally and cause an injury. So can’t the question then be like, can you do different training or climbing with a mindset of doing it for its own sake? Not because it’s good for you or because it’ll help you achieve some goal in the future, but when you’re in the moment of doing it, can you be focused on just enjoying it for its own sake? And this is to say that it’s not that you can’t have goals to work towards with what you are doing now. That’s important too, but when you’re engaged in it, are you doing it for its own sake?

That’s fascinating. I’m thinking right now of rehab exercises. Let’s say someone gets hurt and they’re doing their physical therapy routine. I bet you that the majority of patients I see are not doing that exercise for its own sake with the mindset of, oh, this feels great. Their focus is on the end goal, I want to get over this injury. Let me go through, check this box, finish this program. So it’s interesting you bring that up because it’s the attention you give to what you are doing in the moment that really matter.

I mean, that’s the core or mental training goal that guides how we do mental training is we need to look at where attention is and if it’s not in the moment, if it’s being distracted by how we’re thinking or how we’re making decisions or whatever, then we need to become aware of that and bring it back.

I am also a big advocate of body awareness. So injuries happen in the body, right? Like tweak in an elbow or a finger or something. And so we need to be able to heighten our awareness of what is actually going on in the body when we’re doing climbing or training or any activity. So a big part of the mental training that we do helps give us tools for heightening our awareness of what’s going on in our body and also how we’re connecting with the world around us.

So the, the body awareness practices we have are designed to shift attention out of thinking and into the body. And it’s really simple. You know we want to develop internal situational awareness. In a way this is structured around breathing, relaxing and maintaining proper body posture. And then external situational awareness where their attention is engaged in what they can feel the sensory on their skin like that boundary between themselves and the world around them, what they can hear and see. It really helps to know what’s going on in case you might be using your body incorrectly. But also, how you’re engaging in the world around you, like on a rock climb you need to be attentive as to how you’re grabbing holes or you maintaining your breath, while you’re climbing your momentum.

Do you have any routine you do consistently to connect yourself with your body? For example, for me, I’m a physical therapist. My routine is, I do a set of exercises, each night before I go to bed. It’s right after I brush my teeth and that sharpens my body. But I am not doing that much to sharpen my mind. What do you do?

Yes, I do engage in a seven-to-10-minute TA Chi routine. So every morning I will do TA Chi and then I’ll do maybe 10 minutes of meditation. Okay. So with Tai Chi Tai, Chi’s really interesting because it helped me understand the responsibilities for the different parts of the body. Like what did feet do? What they’re responsible for; the legs, the hips, the upper torso, the arms, the head and eyes. Like we have these different parts of our body that have different responsibilities. Like the feet are grounding, the legs, power to movement. We move from our center or hips.

Our upper body expresses to movement our head and eyes direct attention. By doing the TA Chi, I can actually over time get better and better at using my body the way it’s intended, the way it’s constructed. So I can utilize the all of their respective responsibilities better. Yeah. Meditation of course is there with a lot of different ways we can approach it. The typical one is you focusing on something like the breath and object of focus, notice when it gets distracted, bring it back. So that it’s really helpful.

With mental training, we have this strong tendency to just cling to comfort, to grasp for what’s comfortable and reject what’s stressful. And a big part of what we would say is, training a warrior to be more courageous in how we’re approaching life includes being able to deal with stressors, better being present for the comforts and the stressors whatever’s going on in the present moment, kind of trusting in how it’s unfolding, like seeing value in it, even if you aren’t necessarily doing a particular exercise.

Well, where can people find you?

The best place would be our website, our email or social media.

Website: https://warriorsway.com/

IG: @rockwarriorsway

  • Disclaimer – The content here is designed for information & education purposes only and the content is not intended for medical advice.

Learn More About Rock Climbing Injuries

Looking for more information on preventing and rehabilitating climbing injuries? Check out the book “Climb Injury-Free” and the “Rock Rehab Videos”

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