Recently I have become a little obsessed with Alex Honnold and his climbing adventures.
One of the intriguing things for me about watching his ascent of the Freerider route on El Capitan filmed so sensitively in the movie “Free Solo”, wasn’t the epic and thrillingly filmed climb, thousands of metres above the valley floor, it wasn’t the deep insight that Jimmy Chin captured in his subject, or the dedication and thought that Honnold poured into his preparation for the climb, for me the question that I was left with after I had picked my trembling body of the floor having been emotionally battered by watching the whole climb, was.. What is it about Honnold that made him the right person , at this time to achieve this?
Was it his innate talent? Was it his upbringing? Was it his intense physical preparation?
Was he the right person in the right place in history?
Was he more motivated and ambitious that others?
Or was he just built differently?
Sometimes you see an athlete, and they are just the exact fit for both their sport and their era, they achieve things that seem unbelievable for anyone else; Tiger Woods in his early years, just dominating his sport, Eddie Hall in 2017, the perfect physical specimen to be World’s Strongest Man, Michael Jordan through his utter focus on being the best. If any of these had decided on trying a different sport would they have been as good?
Usain Bolt for example is naturally fast, he has a larger amount of fast twitch muscle fibres (the ones used to make muscles bigger and faster) than the average person. If he had taken up long distance running he would have struggled to develop the slower muscle fibres required, and I’m sure that he would have been lapped by Mo Farah pretty quickly!!
Other athletes without the accidental genetics who don’t just happen to find the perfect sport for their attributes, just need to develop the attributes that they have. This has led to thousands of great athletes, but it is the ones with the extras that really stand out.
So what made Honnold the perfect person to be able to climb the way he does? Is it his genetic makeup, his power to weight ratio or his dedication to training the attributes he has? Is it because he happened to find climbing at a young age? Or encouraged and supported by his parents? Or because he just happened to be born where he was, and spend his holidays in the Yosemite Valley? All these contribute in athletic development, and have all played a part in developing Honnold as an athlete in the sport he has chosen to excel at.
Can athletes be predispositioned for elite performance? It is recognised that social background and the environment a child grows up in can massively influence the future performance of them as an athlete, it can even effect the sports that they go into. The fact that a parent has a car and can take a child to training and competitions plays a role. It has also been recognised that body and physical composition is a marker of future athletic performance, a high amount of fast twitch muscle fibres would account for Usain Bolts discovery that sprinting would probably be better than marathon distance races! Eddie Hall has the perfect genetic make up for building large, strong muscles, but also the capacity to use those muscles to carry big weights over distance!
Scientists have discovered that there are over 200 genetic markers that have been associated with performance, 20 of these have been linked to elite athlete status, so if the right person, with the right genes and DNA, finds the right sport and gets the right training, and has the right social conditions then we are looking at these once in a life time athletes; Federer, Ali, Bolt and even Alex Honnold.
But there are lots of great climbers, possibly even ones that outperform Honnold; Tommy Caldwell, Leo Holding and Chris Sharma have consistently set the bar for extreme levels of climbing, advancing routes and styles in the footsteps of legendary climbers such as Jonny Dawes and Joe Brown, but none of them have done it in the way the Alex has. So what is it that makes him do these climbs in the way that he does?
It must be Mental, and I’m not just talking about the type of climbing he does, no one in their right mind would climb 3000ft rock faces without ropes!!
Is there something in his brain that means that he can do these feats and is perfectly predisposed to not feel fear in the same way that any other climber would?
In the film Alex comes across as a very calm, almost ultra-laid back in his approach to most things, he is singularly self-absorbed, not in an arrogant way but a calm, self-confident and single minded way. Focused on his climbing and preparation, feeling only for the things that seem important to him, and maybe not about extraneous things like food or even relationships. Is this all a thought through approach that he has perfected over the years to ensure peak performance, or is it physiological or even psychological part of his make up?
Climbing steep, exposed routes, without ropes, the risks are extremely high, one small mistake has massive consequence, even imagining it makes my palms sweat. I have had enough personal experiences, and a few near misses while climbing to really feel every small foot placement and finger hold, every move and realistic consequence as I watch him climb, to realise that somewhere in Alex’s make up he needs a much higher level of stimulus to make him worried, his approach to risk is much more refined and he has a clear link between his physiology and the risks he is prepared to take.
During the movie Alex undergoes an MRI scan, which finds that he needs much more stimulus than the average thrill seeker. So to get dopamine flowing through his brain he needs a level of stimulus that exceeds that of most people, he needs to be in risky situations, and in some ways he needs to be able to control his brain in these situations.
During his MRI the medics looked at his Amygdala, 2 small almond shaped lobes in the brain, their main role is to help control a person’s emotions and behaviour, and are also well known for their role in the brains ability to process fear.
The Amygdala is the reptilian part of the brain, a small gland that takes information from fearful stimulus and sends signals to other areas of the brain to trigger the infamous flight, fight or freeze responses. This leads to physiological changes, increases heart rate and respiration, almost unconsciously for the recipient, and therefore effects their behaviour and anxiety levels.
Honnolds Amygdala showed, Nothing!
Comparing a “normal” amygdala’s reaction to stimulus, the doctor showed that Alex’s barely registered. Confirming that he requires a much higher level of stimulus to really get his amygdala firing. This also means that he could possibly have better control over his reactions to highly risky situations.
This genetic individualism allows Alex to hone his ability to manage his emotions in situations that most of us would find to overwhelming. He can regulate his thoughts and emotions due to his neurological talent, and ensure that he can undertake seemingly overwhelming situations to increase his performance.
Most of us do not know how and why our individual bodies perform in particular ways, especially at a genetic level, this granular knowledge is out of our reach. But if we think about it we do recognise what we are good at and what training our bodies respond to, can we use this to try and increase our own performance in the mental arena?
We don’t have information about the state of our amygdalae but we do know when we are scared by things, or what elicits our anxiety, this pre planning gives us insight into how our own brains function. Every athlete or performer experiences doubt, fear, under confidence and performance anxiety, but the first step to controlling this is to recognise both prior to, and during performance, drawing on our own biofeedback to inform us as to what our own amygdala is doing.
Creating this mental connection is a crucial part of any athlete or high performers arsenal, it allows them to train with focus, set goals to overcome or control the emotions, create stories or scenarios that they can tell themselves when these fearful situations occur and be able to imaginatively walk through situations and create the self-talk to hone the brain and the body to react the way they want, controlling and optimising their performance.
These skills and this level of focus on the mental preparation and links is just as crucial as the development of the performers physical attributes, and allows those of us who were not born with specific genetic markers and physical and neurological attributes to perform almost naturally in the sport or domain we chose to go into, and therefore working on our mental performance is just as important as our physical performance!
Alex Honnold now has greater insight into his physiological make up, he has achieved amazing feats of performance, so it is with great anticipation that we look to his development and where he goes as a high performer and as climber. But even the “average”, “normal” performer can achieve great things when they tap into their neurological reactions and train their brain and their behaviour when dealing with anxiety and stress, without the need to scale sheer cliffs without ropes!