John Burgman is a freelance writer who mainly reports on competition climbing for Climbing, Climbing Business Journal and Gym Climber. He is the author of three books, including the upcoming “High Drama” about the history of American competition climbing, coming out in March (2020). He is a former magazine editor, a Fulbright grant recipient, and a graduate of New York University’s MFA program. His work has appeared online and in print at Esquire, Trail Runner, Portland Review, Gym Climber, Boundary Waters Journal, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. He is a frequent guest on the popular climbing podcast, Plastic Weekly.
In this episode we chat about John’s path towards becoming a full-time writer and what it was like to move to South Korea at the age of 29 when, seemingly, all his friends were moving back to the city, getting married, and having kids.
Climbing Outside the Lines is an interview series with people doing things a little differently, and who just happen to climb.
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new sights, but in looking with new eyes.” -Marcel Proust*
The phone rang and went to voicemail. Our scheduled mindset consultation never got off the ground.
I wondered if something had come up, or she forgot. Maybe I’d gotten the date wrong. The thought flashed: Perhaps I’m just a low priority because of the nature of the call?
Dr. Christina “Chris” Heilman is a sports psychologist of the pros, having coached climbers such as Sam Elias, Joe Kinder, and Dan Mirsky. In nearly 20 years she’s worked with clients from olympic athletes to weekend warriors, and I was here for a free 20-minute consultation and angling to write a story, because… Well why not?
Chris had agreed to play along.
I dashed off an email and was surprised a few hours later with the reply, “I have us down for 11am MST…which is in 10-min. Are you available to chat?”
My grave mistake.Wyoming is two hours behind, my timezones had been twisted. The reaction I had says most of what you need to know. Maybe this call with a mindset coach would be helpful after all.
At 11am (MST), Chris and I saddled up on a call for what I was hoping would be part Gonzo journalism and part let’s-learn-about-me session.
“Hello! Good morning!,” a delighted effluence shot through the muffs of the headset.
“How are you? You’re based in Boston? Have you always lived there? Tell me about this call, you found something about this interesting, what was it that was interesting to you?,” she opened with a flurry.
I bandied back with a peppering of, “Are you originally from Kentucky? Your accent sounds like… How’s the climbing out there? Let’s talk about me.”
The plan was to act like a prospective client, to report on the experience, and find out what I could selfishly glean about how to improve my mindset in order to become a world-class climber—all within 30 minutes.
This quickly bowed to an infinitely more interesting subject, Chris.
So it goes.
Chris: The Mindset Coach
In high school, Chris’ world fell apart. She would have to rebuild, but how? She wasn’t sure she had the tools.
Chris was a competitive athlete when an injury derailed her strong body revealing a mind intrinsically linked to her self-definition of being physically fit. Without athletics what was she? Who was she?
As she recovered, she wanted to go beyond a return to a previous state, she wanted to be stronger. Through the process she realized a desire to help others become stronger as well. She would pursue athletic training as a career.
At South Dakota State University she found history rhymes when the athletes she was helping to rehabilitate became unraveled by injury. “They didn’t have the coping mechanisms,” Chris notes with a sorrowful tone.
It wasn’t a fundamentally physical issue.
“Everyone works on the physical,” she says. This arena of well-being is the most tangible and offers immediate feedback, “but we really need to look at your wellness as a whole, the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.”
The athletes weren’t getting the support they needed in these other arenas. She quickly learned that her gift wasn’t about physical recuperation, her talent lay in meeting the athletes where they were and helping them to return to the field of play mentally.
Chris would go on to receive a PhD in Sport and Exercise Psychology from the University of Utah then headed up to the Tetons with a husband, a gig in ski patrol, and the launch of a new psychology practice. Mindset was born.
What I Learned
1) Our brain doesn’t care about winning or doing exciting things, it cares about keeping you safe.
I can be a worrywart, which is not exactly revelatory, but it has been topical and principal of late. A friend had pointed out that I was spending a lot of time and energy on, let’s say non-life threatening decisions, exasperated by a ring-around-the-rosie repetition.
Chris pointed out that while fear and self-doubt are normal, we have to evaluate these responses against real world potential dangers. By considering the threats and pitfalls we can decide whether our responses is appropriately commensurate.
Worry is instinctual. If we don’t evaluate the worry we can be can be ruled by it.
2) Self-understanding is the real aim. Peak performance emanates from that. Outside appearances don’t often tell the full story. Chris talked about how the initial problem that clients come with ends up being but a trojan horse.
“I want to be able to focus better while climbing” may unwrap performance anxiety which might stem from unnamed expectations from another.
Identifying our fears, anxieties and challenges allows you to at least be aware of what you are experiencing, and possibly to work on them. Often we feel discomfort and fear when looking into “darker” recesses of ourselves, so having a trusted guide can help us even approach our deeper selves.
3) How do you get out of your own way?
The meat of the practice is self-awareness, which makes the potatoes the pathway towards improvement. Generally, the reaction towards change is inertia, or “I can’t do that,” which is a habituated train of thought.
Chris encourages taking action immediately by pursuing the simplest, easiest, and most concrete step you can do today. The purpose is to build momentum and train your mind to develop self-efficacy.
You are working to move to and beyond your edge, which implicitly means you are expanding your range of what’s possible. That is growth.
In the end I found Chris’ bubbly personality, constant swearing, and straight-shooter truthfulness refreshing. Of course, you cannot distill years of rapport, mutual understanding, and learnings into 30 minutes with someone you’ve never met before, but the call was helpful nonetheless (thanks for playing along, Chris!).
You can learn more about Chris by visiting her website, Mindset-Coach, or you can listen to her two interviews with Neely Quinn on The Training Beta podcast (episode 1, episode 2).
*Paraphrased from: “The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is.” – Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past