Training Your Mind with Dan Mirsky: Breathing

Training Your Mind with Dan Mirsky: Breathing

  • Posted by Kaleigh
  • On May 18, 2020
  • Comments

The mental side of climbing plays a significant role in our success or failure. Yet, it remains an area of the sport overlooked by many. This is understandable: Digging into your own psyche can be intimidating, scary and downright frustrating… It is less quantifiable than adding five more pounds to your next hangboard workout. However, the power of mental training is that a little goes a long way. Plus, a strong mind can help you deal with anxiety-ridden situations in daily life or in your relationships, not just while climbing.

While there are many ways to train your brain, I have personally found a daily meditation practice lasting from 10-30 minutes to be very effective. It is now one of the most important parts of my day. Like yoga, it’s a great way to get centered and connected to your inner self. I would encourage anyone to start exploring a daily practice. In my experience, the reward is real!


This past Fall I herniated a disc in my lower back. The herniation started to compress the nerves running down my legs, creating intense and constant pain. After trying every other option, I made the tough decision to have back surgery. It wasn’t sweet. The surgery was “successful,” but the nerve pain persisted and during the months that followed I was really limited with what I could do, physically.

Climbing was totally out of the question. In fact, I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to climb again, at least like I had in the past. As someone who has organized their life around climbing for the better part of two decades, I knew this was going to be a hard time for me physically, mentally and spiritually. With encouragement from friends and from books I was reading, I decided to start a daily meditation practice.

I hoped this would help me accept my situation, embrace the present moment, let the past be the past and see the opportunities I had in the now. Beginning to understand the power of my mind by cultivating this practice has been a major factor in my recovery process and in my return to climbing. Ultimately, it allowed me to turn limitation into opportunity and growth.


Mental preparation and practice can definitely help you make the most of all those hangboard sets once you’re back in the gym or back on your project. When it comes to connecting your mind, start with breathing.

Our breath is our one true constant and it is our connection to our consciousness. Breath work is the best way to calm your mind while connecting your mind and body to the present moment. It can also be used to increase arousal levels as needed for times of intense effort.

To begin any mental exercise, I always start by finding a quiet place where I can sit comfortably. Then I close my eyes and begin to check in with my breath and body. A good way to start is by simply focusing on even and deep inhales and exhales while allowing your mind to become quiet.

Following the breath in this way will help you let go of your other thoughts, obligations, stressors and simply be present. You can count seconds on your inhales and exhales, you can repeat the words “inhale” and “exhale,” or you can create your own mantra that helps you find that place of calmness and presence.


Box breathing resonates with me because it helps create a calm and focused mind. For this exercise:

« Close your eyes and imagine a box in your field of vision.
« Start at the upper left corner of the box and breathe in as you travel down to the lower left corner.
« Pause here. Exhale as you travel across the bottom of the box.
« Pause again at the lower right corner.
« Continue breathing in this way as you travel around the box.
« Focus on even inhales, a short pause and longer slow exhale.
« You can also place something inside the box, like an intention.
« After 30 seconds to three minutes, check in. Do you feel calm? If so, great – that in itself is a terrific accomplishment.

If box breathing doesn’t help you connect to the present, don’t worry. An important part of mental training is to remember that you are unique and what works for you is also going to be unique. I encourage you to experiment on your own to find the exercises that resonate with your own personality and goals.


As with most topics these days, there is an abundance of information on the internet about mindfulness, breath work and visualization. I personally have worked with Sports Psychologist Dr. Christina Heilman. She introduced me to this breathing exercise, which has personally been very helpful. Since I met Dr. Heilman, she has published a book called Elevate Your Excellence, which is a fantastic resource that I highly recommend.


Many of us are literally stuck in our homes during the COVID-19 pandemic. As climbers, this is particularly difficult because we love to move, be outside, try hard and share experiences with friends. All these things we once took for granted might now feel like they’ve been taken away, and it’s easy to focus on the things we cannot do. However, in every struggle, challenge or obstacle there is opportunity. I can personally attest. With some consistency, you may be able to come out of a tough situation with a stronger body and mind.

After learning how to connect with your internal being through box breathing or another form of meditation, you are now in a great place to begin visualization exercises. Visualization is a commonly practiced method to believe goals into being.

But this concept is a bit complex, so I’ll dive deeper into this idea in Part Two of this blog series. Stay tuned for the second half to be released shortly and practice mastering box breathing and any other breathing exercises you find in the meantime.

If you want to discuss these ideas further, shoot me an email and we can set something up. I think you’ll find this practice to be extremely beneficial and I’m excited to walk you through the next phase!