Interview with Alex Megos about mental strength

During our trip to Céüse, one of the most impressive and challenging sport-climbing crags in the world, Ben and I bumped into Alex Megos. At the crag, we were often impressed at how Alex seemingly had no problems letting go five meters above the bolt, was full of motivation every day, and always had a joke on his lips. Along with the fun days at the crag, we were very happy when one evening Alex paid us a visit and, over a steaming brew of his favourite Yorkshire tea, shared a few secrets with us about his mental strength, how he stays so motivated, and how he manages the life of being a professional climber.


Melanie: What was, for you, the most mentally challenging route that you have climbed, up to now?
Alex: Umhh … my most mentally challenging route was actually a boulder – Lucid Dreaming, that is. It took me forever to do it. Presumably because, the longer it takes, the more challenging it is mentally, I think.
Melanie: How long did it take you?
Alex: 11 days – I also think that, the fewer moves there are, and the smaller the progress that one sees, the harder it becomes mentally. There only are 3 moves, and I could do all of them individually within 2 days, but still needed 11 days to link them. That was mentally really demanding.
Melanie: How did you manage it, to be able to stay motivated?
Alex: I knew that sooner or later it would come together. On top of that, I had 3 weeks in which to do it and I thought to myself: “just keep at it, until it happens.”

Melanie: Do you have a specific strategy? Do you have a mantra, for example? Or, if not, what do you do in order to be able to attack things so positively and be so motivated?
Alex: Well, what helped me were the regular conversations with my trainers Patrick Matros and Dicki Korb and really getting into a groove with my daily routine: I got up at the same time, ate the same breakfast and arrived at the crag at the same time, every single day. It all helped me to know where I was at. What’s funny is that the day when I actually climbed the boulder was the one in which all the rituals went out of the window!
Melanie: Wow, that’s interesting! So will you carry on sticking to your routines?
Alex: Yes, definitely. For sure they helped me at the beginning to keep my focus targeted and to motivate myself.

(“Lucid Dreaming”, 8C, Bishop/Kalifornien, Film dazu bei RED BULL (Video)


Melanie: How do you cope with the fact that you often attract lots of attention and get people watching you whilst you’re climbing?
Alex: I think to myself: “I don’t care, they can look if they want to.” I just let go of it and when I try something seriously, I don’t even think about who might be looking at me.
Melanie: Are you aware of your surroundings at all, when you’re in that situation?
Alex: When I climb, then I concentrate only on climbing and not on what’s around me. During redpoint goes, I don’t notice anything.
Melanie: Do you also have mental rituals or routines when route climbing?
Alex: Before I pull on, I go through the moves mentally one more time and make sure that everything is in order. So I check, for example, that the knot is nicely tied, that my shoes are nicely done up, and that my fingers are nicely chalked.
Melanie: Why is it important that everything is nicely done?!
Alex: So that I am able to concentrate completely on climbing and not get disturbed from that.


Melanie: And is it important to you that you visualize, before you set off, clipping the belay?
Alex: Yes, of course! Fresh and with a smile on my face!
Melanie: And do you visualize it again, when you’re resting on the route?
Alex: I try to avoid that, because I think it’s a mistake to think about the belay when you’re right before the crux. Then I try to think only about the crux.
Melanie: Ah ok! And so you go through the crux again in your head instead?
Alex: Yes, exactly.


Melanie: You already told me briefly the day before yesterday that you know the feeling of not finding it easy to take a fall.
Alex: Yes, I know it.
Melanie: How do you deal with it and how do you get yourself out of that mindset?
Alex: I would say that, these days, I don’t have big problems with falling. For example, I have no problem being a long way above the bolt and I have no problem falling a long way on to the rope. I think the best thing is to confront the fear, so that you can reduce it.
Melanie: But how?! How do you confront it?
Alex: I climb a long way above the bolt, check that I’m far enough above the ground that nothing will happen, call down to my belayer “You know how to give a soft belay, don’t you?”, and then let go! It actually works really well! [Laughs]
Melanie: Yes, we’ve seen that it seems to be really easy for you! But how did you get that far? Can you still remember?
Alex: You mean how did I get to be so far above the bolt?
Melanie: Yes.
Alex: Well, I just climbed up there! [Laughs]
Melanie: So are you completely in your comfort zone in that situation?
Alex: No, of course not. But I’ve learnt that when one does something unpleasant, it mostly gets better afterwards. One just has to overcome it. Then every time it gets easier and one doesn’t have to stretch oneself so much.
Melanie: Is that what you would advise climbers with a fear of falling to do? To confront it?
Alex: Yes, absolutely. I would advise them not to climb so far that they have the fear of death upon them, but just far enough that it doesn’t feel so good. Then they should check again with their belayer that everything is safe and then just jump off.


Melanie: Given that you are travelling so often, you must end up with lots of different belayers. How do you choose them?
Alex: It’s important to me that the belayer can belay safely, without risk of danger. But they don’t have to be such a good climber. As long as they trust themselves to belay, then that’s ok with me. Often I have a look beforehand how someone belays, while they are belaying someone else. If I get the feeling that they know what they’re doing, then it’s fine for me.


Melanie: You had a finger injury this year. How did you deal with that?
Alex: I found something else to do with my time. I said to myself, “Ok, I want to be able to do a one-armed handstand”. That occupied my time for quite a while and, by the time I’d got to grips with it, I was already able to climb again.
Melanie: How was it for you mentally, not being able to climb at all?
Alex: Not easy, but I got used to it and came to terms with it. The sooner you accept it, the better it is for the healing process.
Melanie: That’s really hard for me to imagine. How did you manage to stay motivated?
Alex: Well, I think it was really important that I found another goal for myself, so that I wasn’t constantly thinking about climbing and about my injury.


Melanie: You already told me that you are away from home for 9 months of the year, on average. It’s tough for me to imagine motivating myself every day to climb, to stick with it, to try, to train. Do you have mornings in which you’d rather stay in bed? Days when you are less motivated?
Alex: For sure I there are times when I’m less motivated. There was a time in the past when I had a real lack of motivation, I guess around six years ago. That was not easy and I had to accept that I needed to take a break.
But even now I’m less motivated on some days than others. They’re mostly the days when I get up feeling like a 40 year-old …
Melanie: …Welcome to our world! [All laugh]
Alex: …Then I feel rather less motivated. [Laughs]
Melanie: And what do you do then?
Alex: Well, mostly I start with some stretching and rolling around on a foam roller. After that I have a think about what to do, try to keep a lid on my expectations, and to accept that I can’t feel good every day. I weigh up whether it makes sense to train anyway, because I’ve got a specific goal in mind, or whether I’m really not up for it, so much so that any training would be counter-productive.
Melanie: But that requires you to be brutally honest with yourself.
 It’s a real challenge for me to figure out in such situations whether I’m really knackered, or whether I just think I’m really knackered.
Alex: Exactly, that’s why you need to be honest with yourself. In that respect, I’m a pretty honest guy. [Laughs].


Melanie: Which mental exercise would you say is the one that has helped you the most?
Alex: I think that the thing that has helped me the most up until now is to talk about the things that are occupying my mind at the time. That’s actually a good mental exercise, even though many people wouldn’t label it as such. And both my trainers make for experienced and trustworthy people to talk to. We’ve been working together for over 10 years and know each other very well. What with them, my sister, and my buddy Felix, there’s always someone I can talk to. I think that having people like that is really important.

Melanie: That’s always a good mental exercise! That way you can leave your mental baggage on the ground and not have to drag it up the route with you.
Alex: Exactly. I don’t have to let it gnaw at me from the inside, but rather can talk about it with somebody, who hopefully can give me a different perspective on things. That already helps a lot.


Melanie: What would you say you have learnt about yourself through climbing?
Alex: At times I think that I’ve acquired a lot of self-confidence through climbing, that I perhaps wouldn’t otherwise have done. There are things I’m good at, like climbing, for example, which give me self-confidence, and there are things I’m not so good at, which pull me in the other direction. But nevertheless, I’ve learnt through climbing that that’s just the way it is and that, overall, I can approach things in general with more self-confidence than I perhaps otherwise would have.

Melanie: What would you do, if you weren’t able to climb?
Alex: I’d hang from a fingerboard, one-armed, with weight added [laughs] – like the Brits in their dark cellars.
Ben [who is a Brit]: …but that IS climbing!

[All laugh]

Alex: Jokes aside, I think I would still travel a lot and take photographs.
Melanie: And my last question: what, according to you, has climbing got to do with real life?
Alex: A lot … everything in fact! Climbing is my life. I couldn’t imagine a life without climbing, because everything in my life is directed towards it and moreover I earn my living by it.


Ben: I’ve got one last question still: what do you do when you’re climbing and you make a mistake, like stand on the wrong foothold, or something?
Alex: That upsets me momentarily and then actually spurs me on all the more to get to the top. It’s even more motivating for me to be able to climb the route in spite of mistakes.
Ben: Thank you!
Melanie: Thanks Alex for the really interesting conversation and for being so open.
Alex: It was a pleasure