aika yoshida climbing movnat

By Aika Yoshida

Imagine you travel across the ocean and are competing at the world’s biggest stage with the goal to stand at the top of the podium; something you have been dreaming about for the last two years, and a challenge where one slip of your foot or hand at the start can end your competition as a climber.  For me, as an athlete, training is more than just physical conditioning and preparation. I incorporated MovNat concepts to give me a mental edge throughout my training while preparing for the Paraclimbing World Championships in Innsbruck, Austria.

I created my own flow of warm up routine incorporating MovNat’s concept of mindfulness groundwork. I used this before I got on the wall at every single training session in preparation for the competition. Having a thoughtful consistent warm up made me feel comfortable and more grounded. This allowed me to start paying attention to the present moment by connecting my body (especially my breath), mind, and surrounding environment. I believe this helps with adaptability, so when the environment changes, I still know how to be in the present moment and don’t allow the craziness of competition to hijack my mind or body.

The ground warm up included: supine breathing, various rolling, crawling, transitional movements, squats while moving with my breath and warming up my individual fingers and arms specifically for climbing.

For this competition, I also trained 3 times a week off the wall.  My off the wall training included: lifting weights, hand/finger strengthening, assisted jumping, core strengthening, and static and dynamic stability. So, you may wonder how is this so special to MovNat? None of the exercises alone is special to MovNat, but how I incorporated the exercises were unique to MovNat. For example, I walked across a narrow 3.5 inch wide by 8-foot long pine board practicing my dynamic stability while pinching thick heavy books training for my hand and finger strength.

This is exactly what climbing involves; being able to pay attention to your balance while standing on tiny holds and holding onto unique shaped holds on the wall. While doing this, it is important to breathe and be able to scan your surroundings, so you know where you’re going next in the most efficient way.

Climbing is a very unique sport because every climbing route is different. It’s like solving a puzzle that is 60 feet long. During the competition, there is only 6 minutes of observation time to “read” or study the route, and you have only a single chance to climb the route.  I’m 5 feet 2 inches tall and the right side of my body is weaker than the left side because of an incomplete spinal cord injury that I sustained over 5 years ago. Therefore, I need to adapt to my own challenges by becoming an even more efficient climber.

When we get nervous or our arms get fatigued or “pumped” (pain in arms due to accumulation of lactic acid), we become narrow minded and get tunnel vision. This can be very detrimental in climbing. It leads you to miss critical holds necessary for making the next move to score higher points. This is exactly where MovNat training provides benefits: by teaching us to better scan our environment, so we can produce the most efficient and safe movement.

Since my injury, I’ve had difficulty jumping, which affects my ability to make dynamic moves on the wall. To be more precise, I have difficulty pushing off and landing on my right leg which has led me to avoid jumping altogether. Because I’m a shorter climber, there are times that it’s more efficient if I can use momentum and jump to the next hold instead of pulling myself up. However, this has been a challenging concept for me to perform on the wall since my injury.

After attending a MovNat level 1 workshop, I have re-learned the technique of jumping, especially using my stronger leg, and this has reduced my fear of jumping. I developed various ways to practice dynamic movement when I’m not climbing. Initially, I stood right under the pull up bar, and practiced jumping and hanging from the bar. As I felt more comfortable with timing and sequence, I start stepping away from the bar, so I have to jump and target a further bar, which required precise hand eye coordination. This is exactly what I need for climbing too. This practice helped me build the strength of my arms and trunk to withstand sudden body weight and improved my timing and confidence of dynamic movement on the wall.

I’m very thrilled to say that this repetitive target jumping practice became very valuable during the qualification. There was a big challenging move earlier in the route, which required a huge dynamic move.  I was the only climber in my category to pass this section of the climb. This qualified me for the finals with the highest points total, and this section ended up being the critical division for all climbers, whether or not they were in my category.

The other unique MovNat training I performed was to practice getting my heart rate up by going up and down the stairs as fast as I can. Or, I hopped using my stronger leg, which I then immediately followed by trying to be still on a narrow pine board. I focused on slowing down my breath while allowing my heart to beat strong and fast. Since my injury, I can’t run and really don’t have a lot of opportunities to get my heart rate up. Therefore, I wanted to practice controlling my mind and body by influencing my breath under stress.

The finals were at the Innsbruck Olympia World Stadium where the Winter Olympics were held in 1976. Even though the environment was different, this did not affect my ability to perform my typical warm up routine. I have done this countless times before to connect my mind, body and environment. I was surprised how calm and grounded I felt during and after my warm up. This benefit likely came from the repetitive training I have completed every training session prior to getting on the wall and the benefit of focusing on my breath with each movement to stay present. Therefore, it didn’t matter where I was or what languages I was surrounded by.

Each finalist was introduced to the stage one by one; “Aika Yoshida from JAPAN!!!” This is when my heart started beating faster. Then the observation time started. During the 6-minute observation period for finals, I studied the route as best I could.  In this process I use binoculars to help me see minute details in the holds.  The observation period is where we work on solving the long “puzzle” and visualize the climbing moves without touching the holds. While standing on the ground, I move my arms and legs as if I’m on the wall to feel the movement in my body.

After the warm up and observation period, all climbers at the finals are placed in a location called “isolation” which means that we don’t get to see other competitors climb or receive any information about how other climbers did. We climb in the reverse order of qualification placement; I climbed last since I had the top score going into the final. This was nerve wracking. I’m sitting in a cold metal chair in the backstage behind metal doors while one competitor at a time goes out to climb on a huge stage. I hear the announcer and audience cheering during difficult moves and sighing when climbers fall, but I have no idea how far up each competitor made it. All I worked on during this waiting period was to focus on my breath. My mind would wander around every second anxiously with my heart beating fast. I kept bringing my attention back to my breath to stay present. This was the same practice I have done while standing still on the narrow pine board with my heart pounding strong. I knew I trained myself enough not to let the anxiety take over my body or the whole situation. I knew I had to focus on myself, especially my breath to stay present, and I believed this was the only way I can perform at my very best.

It felt like a long time waiting for my turn in isolation, but my time finally came. I was nervous and also excited to climb at this amazing world stage. I took a final glance of the route to remember what I visualized earlier during observation. And I closed my eyes and took one last deep breath before I touched the wall. From there on, I focused on my feet; mindfully and carefully placed my foot on every hold just like how I practiced. When there was a good spot to rest, I closed my eyes and focused on and listened to my breath. I heard people cheering and noticed their volume changed. However, I didn’t want to assume that I got to the highest point, so I continued to focus on every move and myself.

We have a total of six minutes to climb the route, and I had no reason to rush since the performance is determined by the highest hold reached. I looked down at the clock one time and realized that I still had plenty of time. I was already passed the halfway point. I took my time and felt like I was climbing very efficiently. My arms were feeling fresh. There were many hidden small holds on the top or sides of large holds that were not visible from the ground even with binoculars that I use during the observation period. However, I was able to carefully scan while resting on the wall. I focused on one move at a time, and the next thing I knew, I was only 2-3 hold away from the final hold. I must have been in the state of flow. No matter how the other climbers did, I knew I would win if I got to the top because of my placement going into the finals. I enjoyed the last couple moves and controlled the very last hold. That was it! I became a Paraclimbing World Champion in women RP3 category (Limited Range of motion, Power and Stability).

Note: Watch Aika’s winning performance in the video below (starting at the 20:25 mark)

About the Author

Aika Yoshida PT, DPT, COMT, Cert MDT, RYT is a physical therapist based out of Indiana who specializes in orthopedics.

Aika is also a MovNat alumna, a spinal cord injury survivor, and a world champion adaptive climber who competes at national and international levels representing the Japanese National ParaClimbing Team. She won the gold medal at the 2018 IFSC World Paraclimbing Championships in Innsbruck, Austria.

Photo Credit: photos from the Paraclimbing World Championship in Innsbruck, Austria provided courtesy of Sytse van Slooten.

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