A Climber’s Mentality: EEG Analysis of Climbers in Action


  • Andrew Bailey The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
  • Allison Hughes University of TN, Chattanooga
  • Kennedy Bullock University of TN, Chattanooga.
  • Gabriel Hill University of TN, Chattanooga




EEG, rock climbing, psychology, performance anxiety


Outdoor activities induce positive mental and physical outcomes despite, or because of, the inherent risk. The psychological mechanisms driving this growth have not yet been adequately explained. This study employed portable EEG devices to track the mental states of competitive rock climbers during activity. Thirty-five participants (25% female) attempted a climb while wearing an EEG headset and being video-recorded for post hoc analyses. Results indicate that climbing induces a variety of discrete mental states that are consistent across measures of diversity. Climbers who completed their route, and those climbing more difficult routes, demonstrated higher relaxation (i.e., alpha activity) and inward attention (i.e., theta activity) during the most anxiety-inducing stages (i.e., the crux). Based on performance efficiency theory and attentional control theory, frontal alpha and theta are identified as inhibitory mechanisms that filter irrelevant cognitive processes during stressful moments, thus improving performance and potentially long-term developmental outcomes.

Subscribe to JOREL

Author Biographies

Andrew Bailey, The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Andrew Bailey is Associate Professor of Health and Human Performance at the University of TN, Chattanooga.

Allison Hughes, University of TN, Chattanooga

Allison Hughes, M.S. is the coordinator for UTC Outdoors in the recreation arm of the University of TN, Chattanooga.

Kennedy Bullock, University of TN, Chattanooga.

Kennedy Bullock is an undergraduate research assistant in the department of Health and Human Performance.

Gabriel Hill, University of TN, Chattanooga

Gabriel Hill is an undergraduate research assistant in the department of Health and Human Performance.


Aspinall, P., Mavros, P., Coyne, R., & Roe, J. (2015). The urban brain: analysing outdoor physical activity with mobile EEG. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 49(4), 272–276. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2012-091877

Badcock, N. A., Preece, K. A., de Wit, B., Glenn, K., Fieder, N., Thie, J., & McArthur, G. (2015). Validation of the Emotiv EPOC EEG system for research quality auditory event-related potentials in children. PeerJ, 3, e907. https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.907

Bailey, A. W., Allen, G., Herndon, J., & Demastus, C. (2018). Cognitive benefits of walking in natural versus built environments. World Leisure Journal, 0(0), 1–13. https://doi.org/10.1080/16078055.2018.1445025

Bailey, A. W., Johann, J., & Kang, H.-K. (2017). Cognitive and physiological impacts of adventure activities: Beyond self-report data. Journal of Experiential Education, 40(2), 153–169. https://doi.org/10.1177/1053825917701250

Bailey, S. P., Hall, E. E., Folger, S. E., & Miller, P. C. (2008). Changes in EEG during graded exercise on a recumbent cycle ergometer. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, 7(4), 505–511.

Baláš, J., Giles, D., Chrastinová, L., Kárníková, K., Kodejška, J., Hlaváčková, A., Vomacko, L., Draper, N. (2017). The effect of potential fall distance on hormonal response in rock climbing. Journal of Sports Sciences, 35(10), 989–994. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2016.1206667

Birrer, D., & Morgan, G. (2010). Psychological skills training as a way to enhance an athlete’s performance in high-intensity sports. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 20(s2), 78–87. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1600-0838.2010.01188.x

Boettcher, M. L., & Gansemer-Topf, A. M. (2015). Examining leadership development through student leader outdoor recreation training. Recreational Sports Journal, 39(1), 49–58. https://doi.org/10.1123/rsj.2014-0034

Cañal-Bruland, R., Pijpers, J. R. (Rob), & Oudejans, R. R. D. (2010). The influence of anxiety on action-specific perception. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, 23(3), 353–361. https://doi.org/10.1080/10615800903447588

Cavanagh, J. F., & Frank, M. J. (2014). Frontal theta as a mechanism for cognitive control. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 18(8), 414–421. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2014.04.012

Cheron, G. (2016). How to measure the psychological “Flow”? A neuroscience perspective. Frontiers in Psychology, 7(1823). https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01823

Chuang, L.-Y., Huang, C.-J., & Hung, T.-M. (2013). The differences in frontal midline theta power between successful and unsuccessful basketball free throws of elite basketball players. International Journal of Psychophysiology: Official Journal of the International Organization of Psychophysiology, 90(3), 321–328. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2013.10.002

Coelli, S., Sclocco, R., Barbieri, R., Reni, G., Zucca, C., & Bianchi, A. M. (2015). EEG-based index for engagement level monitoring during sustained attention (pp. 1512–1515). Presented at the 2015 37th Annual International Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society (EMBC), Milan, Italy: IEEE. https://doi.org/10.1109/EMBC.2015.7318658

Cona, G., Cavazzana, A., Paoli, A., Marcolin, G., Grainer, A., & Bisiacchi, P. S. (2015). It’s a matter of mind! cognitive functioning predicts the athletic performance in ultra-marathon runners. PLOS ONE, 10(7), e0132943. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0132943

Corbetta, M., & Shulman, G. L. (2002). Control of goal-directed and stimulus-driven attention in the brain. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 3(3), 201–215. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn755

Cotterill, S. (2015). Preparing for performance: strategies adopted across performance domains. The Sport Psychologist, 29(2), 158–170. https://doi.org/10.1123/tsp.2014-0035

Crabbe, J., & Dishman, R. K. (2004). Brain electrocortical activity during and after exercise: A quanitative synthesis. Psychophysiology, 41, 563–574. https://doi.org/10.1111/j. 1469-8986, 2001.00176.x

Csikszentmihalyi, M., Abuhamdeh, S., & Nakamura, J. (2014). Flow. In M. Csikszentmihalyi (Ed.), Flow and the Foundations of Positive Psychology: The Collected Works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pp. 227–238). Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-017-9088-8_15

Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Csikszentmihalyi, I. (1999). Adventure and the flow experience. In J. C. Miles & S. Priest (Eds.), Adventure Programming (pp. 153–157). State College, PA: Venture Publishing.

Curtis, W. J., & Cicchetti, D. (2007). Emotion and resilience: a multilevel investigation of hemispheric electroencephalogram asymmetry and emotion regulation in maltreated and nonmaltreated children. Development and Psychopathology, 19(3), 811–840. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0954579407000405

de Lange, D., Jensen, O., Bauer, M., & Toni, I. (2008). Interactions between posterior gamma and frontal alpha/beta oscillations during imagined actions. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2. https://doi.org/10.3389/neuro.09.007.2008

Derakshan, N., & Eysenck, M. W. (2009). Anxiety, processing efficiency, and cognitive performance. European Psychologist, 14(2), 168–176. https://doi.org/10.1027/1016-9040.14.2.168

Doppelmayr, M., Finkenzeller, T., & Sauseng, P. (2008). Frontal midline theta in the pre-shot phase of rifle shooting: Differences between experts and novices. Neuropsychologia, 46(5), 1463–1467. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2007.12.026

Elliot, A. J., & Covington, M. V. (2001). Approach and avoidance motivation. Educational Psychology Review, 13(2), 73–92. https://doi.org/1040-726X/01/0600-0073

Enders, H., Cortese, F., Maurer, C., Baltich, J., Protzner, A. B., & Nigg, B. M. (2016). Changes in cortical activity measured with EEG during a high-intensity cycling exercise. Journal of Neurophysiology, 115(1), 379–388. https://doi.org/10.1152/jn.00497.2015

Ewert, A. (2015). The Use of Biomarkers in Outdoor Education Research: Promises, Challenges, and the Development of Evidence. Research in Outdoor Education, 13(1), 1–15. https://doi.org/10.1353/roe.2015.0001

Ewert, A., & Aras, D. (2016). The effects of eight weeks sport rock climbing training on anxiety. Acta Medica Mediterranea, 32(223), 223–230. https://doi.org/10.19193/.393-6384_2016_1_35

Ewert, A., & Sibthorp, J. (2009). Creating outcomes through experiential education: The challenge of confounding variables. Journal of Experiential Education, 31(3), 376–389. https://doi.org/10.1177/105382590803100305

Eysenck, M. W., Derakshan, N., Santos, R., & Calvo, M. G. (2007). Anxiety and cognitive performance: Attentional control theory. Emotion, 7(2), 336–353. https://doi.org/10.1037/1528-3542.7.2.336

Flashman, J. (2017, November 25). How Adam Ondra used next-gen visualization to send silence (5.15d). Retrieved from https://www.climbing.com/skills/interview-how-adam-ondra-used-next-gen-visualization-to-send-silence-5-15d/

Furlonger, B., Oey, A., Moore, D., Busacca, M., & Scott, D. (2017). Improving Amateur Indoor Rock Climbing Performance Using a Changing Criterion Design Within a Self-Management Program. The Sport Journal, 19, 1–16.

Gallotta, M. C., Emerenziani, G. P., Monteiro, M. D., Iasevoli, L., Iazzoni, S., Baldari, C., & Guidetti, L. (2015). Psychophysical benefits of rock-climbing Aativity. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 121(3), 675–689. https://doi.org/10.2466/30.PMS.121c26x9

Hardy, L., & Hutchinson, A. (2007). Effects of performance anxiety on effort and performance in rock climbing: A test of processing efficiency theory. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, 20(2), 147–161. https://doi.org/10.1080/10615800701217035

Holland, W. H., Powell, R. B., Thomsen, J. M., & Monz, C. A. (2018). A systematic review of the psychological, social, and educational outcomes associated with participation in wildland recreational activities. Journal of Outdoor Recreation, Education, and Leadership, 10(3), 197–225. https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.18666/JOREL-2018-V10-I3-8382

Ijjada, M. S., Thapliyal, H., Caban-Holt, A., & Arabnia, H. R. (2015). Evaluation of wearable head set devices in older adult populations for research. In 2015 International Conference on Computational Science and Computational Intelligence (CSCI) (pp. 810–811). https://doi.org/10.1109/CSCI.2015.158

Ilgner, A. (2003). The Rock Warrior’s Way: Mental Training for Climbers. La Vergne, TN: Desiderata Institute.

Jones, G., & Sanchez, X. (2017). Psychological processes in the sport of climbing. In L. Seifert, P. Wolf, & A. Schweizer (Eds.), The Science of Climbing and Mountaineering (pp. 244–256). New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Kamiński, J., Brzezicka, A., Gola, M., & Wróbel, A. (2012). Beta band oscillations engagement in human alertness process. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 85(1), 125–128. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2011.11.006

Katahira, K., Yamazaki, Y., Yamaoka, C., Ozaki, H., Nakagawa, S., & Nagata, N. (2018). EEG correlates of the Flow state: A combination of increased frontal theta and moderate frontocentral alpha rhythm in the mental arithmetic Task. Frontiers in Psychology, 9. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00300

Kaur, C., & Singh, P. (2015). EEG derived neuronal dynamics during meditation: progress and challenges. Advances in Preventive Medicine, 2015. https://doi.org/10.1155/2015/614723

Kleinstäuber, M., Reuter, M., Doll, N., & Fallgatter, A. J. (2017). Rock climbing and acute emotion regulation in patients with major depressive disorder in the context of a psychological inpatient treatment: a controlled pilot trial. Psychology Research and Behavior Management, Psychology Research and Behavior Management, 10, 10, 277, 277–281. https://doi.org/10.2147/PRBM.S143830, 10.2147/PRBM.S143830

Korpela, K., Borodulin, K., Neuvonen, M., Paronen, O., & Tyrväinen, L. (2014). Analyzing the mediators between nature-based outdoor recreation and emotional well-being. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 37, 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2013.11.003

Krein, K., & Ilundáin-Agurruza, J. (2017). High-level enactive and

embodied cognition in expert sport performance. Sport, Ethics and Philosophy, 11(3), 370–384. https://doi.org/10.1080/17511321.2017.1334004

Lagopoulos, J., Xu, J., Rasmussen, I., Vik, A., Malhi, G. S., Eliassen, C. F., Arnsten, I. E., Saether, J. G., Hollup, S., Holen, A., Davanger, S., Ellingsen, Ø. (2009). Increased theta and alpha EEG activity during nondirective meditation. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (New York, N.Y.), 15(11), 1187–1192. https://doi.org/10.1089/acm.2009.0113

Llewellyn, D. J., Sanchez, X., Asghar, A., & Jones, G. (2008). Self-efficacy, risk taking and performance in rock climbing. Personality and Individual Differences, 45(1), 75–81. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2008.03.001

Lohse, K. R., Jones, M., Healy, A. F., & Sherwood, D. E. (2014). The role of attention in motor control. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(2), 930–948. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0032817

Ludyga, S., Gronwald, T., & Hottenrott, K. (2016). The athlete’s brain: Cross-sectional evidence for neural efficiency during cycling exercise. Neural Plasticity, 2016. https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/4583674

Luttenberger, K., Stelzer, E.-M., Först, S., Schopper, M., Kornhuber, J., & Book, S. (2015). Indoor rock climbing (bouldering) as a new treatment for depression: study design of a waitlist-controlled randomized group pilot study and the first results. BMC Psychiatry, 15, 201. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-015-0585-8

Masaki, H., Maruo, Y., Meyer, A., & Hajcak, G. (2017). Neural correlates of choking under pressure: athletes high in sports anxiety monitor errors more when performance is being evaluated. Developmental Neuropsychology, 42(2), 104–112. https://doi.org/10.1080/87565641.2016.1274314

McGonigal, K. (2015). The upside of stress. New York, NY: Avery Press.

McGrath, D., & Elison, J. (2014). Vertical mind: Psychological approaches for optimal rock climbing. Boulder, CO: Sharp End Publishing, LLC.

Oathes, D. J., Ray, W. J., Yamasaki, A. S., Borkovec, T. D., Castonguay, L. G., Newman, M. G., & Nitschke, J. (2008). Worry, generalized anxiety disorder, and emotion: Evidence from the EEG gamma band. Bilogical Psychology, 79, 165–170.

Pezzulo, G., Barca, L., Bocconi, A. L., & Borghi, A. M. (2010). When affordances climb into your mind: Advantages of motor simulation in a memory task performed by novice and expert rock climbers. Brain and Cognition, 73(1), 68–73. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bandc.2010.03.002

Pijpers, J. R. (Rob), Oudejans, R. R. D., Holsheimer, F., & Bakker, F. C. (2003). Anxiety–performance relationships in climbing: a process-oriented approach. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 4(3), 283–304. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1469-0292(02)00010-9

Purves, D. (2012). Neuroscience. Sinauer Associates. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=B5YXRAAACAAJ

Putman, P., Verkuil, B., Arias-Garcia, E., Pantazi, I., & Schie, C. van. (2014). EEG theta/beta ratio as a potential biomarker for attentional control and resilience against deleterious effects of stress on attention. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 14(2), 782–791. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13415-013-0238-7

Russell, K. C., Gillis, H. L. (Lee), & Kivlighan Jr., D. M. (2017). Process factors explaining psycho-social outcomes in adventure therapy. Psychotherapy, 54(3), 273–280. https://doi.org/10.1037/pst0000131

Sauseng, P., Hoppe, J., Klimesch, W., Gerloff, C., & Hummel, F. C. (2007). Dissociation of sustained attention from central executive functions: local activity and interregional connectivity in the theta range. European Journal of Neuroscience, 25(2), 587–593. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1460-9568.2006.05286.x

Schattke, K., Brandstätter, V., & Taylor, G. (2014). Flow on the rocks : motive-incentive congruence enhances flow in rock climbing. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 6. Retrieved from http://www.ijsp-online.com/abstract/view/45/603

Schwab, K., & Dustin, D. (2014). Engaging youth in lifelong outdoor adventure activities through a nontraditional public school physical education program. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 85(8), 27–31. https://doi.org/10.1080/07303084.2014.946189

Seifert, L., Cordier, R., Orth, D., Courtine, Y., & Croft, J. L. (2017). Role of route previewing strategies on climbing fluency and exploratory movements. PLoS ONE, 12(4). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0176306

Seifert, L., Orth, D., Boulanger, J., Dovgalecs, V., Hérault, R., & Davids, K. (2014). Climbing skill and complexity of climbing wall design: assessment of jerk as a novel indicator of performance fluency. Journal of Applied Biomechanics, 30(5), 619–625. https://doi.org/10.1123/jab.2014-0052

Sur, S., & Sinha, V. K. (2009). Event-related potential: An overview. Industrial Psychiatry Journal, 18(1), 70–73. https://doi.org/10.4103/0972-6748.57865

Vacha-Haase, T., & Thompson, B. (2004). How to estimate and interpret various effect sizes. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 51(4), 473–481. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0167.51.4.473

Vasquez, N. A., & Buehler, R. (2007). Seeing future success: does imagery perspective influence achievement motivation? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33(10), 1392–1405. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167207304541

Wagstaff, C. R. D. (2014). Emotion regulation and sport performance. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 36(4), 401–412. https://doi.org/10.1123/jsep.2013-0257

Widmer, M. A., Duerden, M. D., & Taniguchi, S. T. (2014). Increasing and generalizing self-efficacy. Journal of Leisure Research, 46(2), 165–183. https://doi.org/10.1080/00222216.2014.11950318

Wing, E. K., Bélanger, M., & Brunet, J. (2016). Linking parental influences and youth participation in physical activity in- and out-of-school: The mediating role of self-efficacy and enjoyment. American Journal of Health Behavior, 40(1), 31–37. https://doi.org/10.5993/AJHB.40.1.4

Wong, I., Mahar, D. P., Titchener, K., & Freeman, J. E. (2013). The impact of anxiety on processing efficiency : implications for the attentional control theory. The Open Behavioral Science Journal, 7, 7–15.

Yeager, D. S., & Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindsets that promote resilience: when students believe that personal characteristics can be developed. Educational Psychologist, 47(4), 302–314. https://doi.org/10.1080/00461520.2012.722805


Additional Files





Regular Papers