Artist: Connie Sun

There is no doubt that to climb effectively we have to be able to keep in charge of our psychological state. Before we get onto our chosen route we have to put away the emotional baggage that holds us down. We can normally achieve this ourselves through approaches such as visualisation and routines that help us to clear our mind or focus it towards our goals. Sometimes however, our memories can return to haunt us.

A Case Study of John 
Note: John gave me written permission to create this case study and has read it and confirmed its use for publication. ‘John’ is not his real name

When I first met John I had worked with him to provide some climbing technique coaching. He was looking to push into the 7a grade, and so we worked on techniques and tactics for body positions and how to rest efficiently. John was fit and strong and a dedicated climber who had the physicality and the tenacity to reach 7a.

After our session John’s techniques and tactics improved, however he discovered that he would still hesitate and second-guess his movements during his climbs. The end result was that John would often be unable to complete his route. Instead of falling off whilst trying to reach the next hold he would sit on the rope or give a half-hearted attempt that would result in a small fall. John would finish his sessions with feelings of frustration and self-doubt because he believed he was performing below his physical and mental capabilities.

John decided to book in a session with me to work on his head game. After an initial chat it became clear that a particular climbing accident in John’s life created such an impact on him that it was still sabotaging most of his climbing experiences. Like many of us do John had tried his best to get over the problem by pushing it to the back of his mind and carrying on. In fact, thinking or talking about his accident was so painful for him that he tried his best never to bring it up. 

John’s accident was a Significant Emotional Event. He could recall only the painful and grotesque things about his day as if they were larger and louder than life and as if he were right back at that moment and experiencing it. What is worse is that these snippets of memory would often appear and hijack his attention just when John needed to focus on relaxing and performing. John labelled his accident that day as “The Event” and the mere mention of this word was enough to drain the blood from his face and begin to make him sweat. This is associating into a traumatic memory and it is common for many people who have had a major and overwhelming experience.

When John arrived for his session with me he was initially very nervous about working with a painful memory that he deliberately kept locked away. I taught John a technique so that he could quickly access a feeling of comfort and safety and told him that we would be using this technique throughout the session. I then explained the process that we were going to use, and how throughout the process John would not be required to experience his traumatic memory, and how he would be a safe distance from this memory at all times. I also explained that John would be in control and could speak to me throughout the process. This allowed John to explore his mind in a way that is safe and useful for him.

I guided John through an NLP technique that is used for mild trauma, painful memories and phobias, that allows people to safely wash away the negative emotion and all of the ‘larger than life’ elements from the old way of remembering a particular memory, and then re – membering that memory in a new way that is positive and empowering for them. It is in essence a form of guided meditation and has a mixture of metaphors and instructions that allows the client to create the change for themselves.  John was very determined to give the therapy a try, and he put all of his effort into creating a change for himself.

When we finished, John opened his eyes. He had just experienced some big shifts in how he stored his memory and was very dizzy. The room seemed like a different place to him, and it took him a little while to adjust. When I asked him to recall his old memory he paused for some time and rooted around in his memory.

“It’s weird, I can still remember it, but now I can see the sunshine and feel heat, it was a nice day. I’ve never experienced that before”. I then tested to make sure that John could no longer associate into his traumatic feelings and so I asked “Go ahead and really try to have that old problem back, because we can do more work if we need to”. John tried and tried to to find the old feelings. “It’s funny,” he said  “I can remember breaking my ankles and everything else clearly, as well as the pain I was in, but it doesn’t bother me now”.

For the first time since his accident, John was able to allow himself to think about it and talk about it without getting the sensation that he was experiencing it again. He was no longer associating into a traumatic memory. He had created for himself a more powerful way of remembering that day and the event.

6 Months Later

I am sitting in Redpoint cafe having a cup of tea with John for a catch up, and I ask him about his climbing experience since our session.

“I no longer climb like a thug” he says with a smile. “When I climb now, it’s as if my mind and my body can work together. I have space to think. A year ago I went on a climbing holiday and when I was on the routes it was like I was going through the motions and fear was definitely holding me back. This year I got back on the same routes, and I could slow myself down and think clearly and make the right decisions. I have space to think. It is as if my vision went from being locked in a cupboard to being in an opera house.”

I asked how John’s climbs went. “This year I have gone from climbing zero 7a’s to climbing two in the same holiday.”

“And do you think about the old memory” I ask

“I don’t think about it when I climb. If I’m above my gear I still find myself assessing the danger and making risk assessments, but that seems normal to me. I am now getting most of the way up 7a+’s and falling off near the top” he said “before that is something I would never be able to do.”

John can still get frustrated with himself, and he realises that he still needs to apply his new mindset to other areas of his climbing. “When I fall off, I can still get angry, and I want to get straight back on the route. I still need to learn to transfer my new skills over to this aspect of my climbing. I’ve slowed my mind down a lot now, and I need to learn how to do this once I’ve fallen off. But I’ll get there.”


John’s experience is not unusual, I have worked with many people who have fearful memories lingering in their system and NLP techniques have always proven useful for those who are 100% ready to give everything they have got to banish them. Whilst this case study is of a climbing memory I have also worked with a variety of phobias to great effect (see my testimonials for one about a fear of wrists). If you are still curious about this form of therapy here is an outside source that details something similar and they also include research and case studies.