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Psychological profile of rock climbers: state and trait attributes.

From the earliest recorded history, humans have climbed mountains. Greeks and Romans in the B.C. era climbed mountains primarily because they lay on important trade routes (Sweet, 1987). According to written accounts, the Incas were building altars and conducting burials on 20,000 foot summits in the Andes six hundred years ago, and stories were told of kings battling dragons on high peaks (Cleare, 1980). As a sport, however, mountaineering has been in existence since the 1700's (Cleare, 1980; Haas & Meyers, 1995; Long, 1993). Early climbing expeditions, initially dominated by European adventurers, typically occurred on snowy and icy alpine altitudes (Cleare, 1980; Long, 1993).

The sport of rock climbing evolved from this ancient tradition of climbing mountains. Climbing skills and techniques were developed by mountaineers attempting to climb the lower, steeper mountains and cliffs (Haas & Meyers, 1995; Long, 1993). Safety equipment was finally introduced in the early 1900's, and the development of lightweight shoes, improvements in equipment design, and artificial climbing aids during the 1960's enabled climbers to focus more on style and technique. These advances in technology have facilitated a new level of competitive rock climbing resulting in enormous popularity within the last decade (Haas & Meyers, 1995; Long, 1993; Watts, Martin, & Durtschi, 1993). To meet the demands of this growing sport, an annual international World Cup circuit has been in existence since 1988 (Watts et al., 1993). As of 1989, it was estimated that over 100,000 individuals were rock climbing in the United States (Addis & Baker, 1989).

Although prior studies have indicated that elite climbers display dedication to training and skill advancement similar to other professional athletes (Haas & Meyers, 1995), a limited variety of research has been conducted on rock climbers. Studies have focused on the physiological and anthropometric profiles of climbers (Mace, 1979; Watts et al., 1993), energy expenditure (Billat, Paileja, Charlaix, Rizzardo & Janel, 1995; Hardy & Martindale, 1982), muscular strength and capacity (Martin, Martin, Cometti & Pousson 1992; Muro, Vila, Vives & Gutierrez, 1994; Rougier & Blanchi, 1992), kinematics (Nougier, Orliaguet & Martin, 1993), and injuries (Haas & Meyers, 1995; Maitland, 1992; Shea, Shea & Meals, 1992). Research addressing the psychological attributes of climbers, however, has been limited. Studies have addressed topics such as risk taking and personality (Levenson, 1990), stress seeking (Robinson, 1985; Rossi & Cereatti, 1993), self esteem (Ewert, 1985, 1994; Freischlag & Freischlag, 1993; Goma I. Freixanet, 1991; Iso-Ahola, LaVerde & Graefe, 1988; Magni, Rupolo, Simini, De Leo & Rampazzo, 1985), and psychophysiological relationships (Delignieres, Famose, Thepaut-Mathieu & Fleurance, 1993; Edwards, 1967; Hardy & Whitehead, 1984; Missoum, Rosnet & Richalet, 1992; Ryn, 1971).

Because a rock climber is directly affected by inclement weather and situations beyond his/her control while in a potentially dangerous situation, it may be appropriate to examine psychological attributes from a state as well as a trait perspective. Prior research on state attributes of rock climbers has suggested that self esteem is enhanced as a result of the quality of the rock climbing experience (Iso-Ahola, LaVerde & Graefe, 1988), and that self appraisal and competence were increased towards the end of a rock climbing session (Lefebvre, 1980).

Studies have also suggested a positive relationship between various trait attributes and rock climbing ability. These attributes include increased self esteem, competitiveness, perfectionism, life satisfaction, and sensation seeking (Freischlag & Freischlag, 1993; Zuckerman, 1983). In addition, individuals exhibiting a high level of sensation seeking have shown a marked tendency to underestimate risk (Rossi & Cereatti, 1993; Zuckerman, 1983). Elite rock climbers have also been categorized as being low in anxiety in both daily life and during competition (Robinson, 1985). Irrespective of skill level, research indicates that rock climbers are more social and antistructural than the norm (Levenson, 1990), and respond higher than controls in boredom susceptibility, disinhibition, experience seeking, thrill, and adventure (Rossi & Cereatti, 1993).

A number of psychological profile studies have been conducted on athletes in other sports. These include studies on mood states (Meyers, Bourgeois, Murray & LeUnes, 1993; Meyers, Sterling, Bourgeois, Treadwell & LeUnes, 1994; Morgan, 1980, 1984; Morgan, O'Connor, Ellickson & Bradley, 1988; Morgan & Pollock, 1977), competitive anxiety (Martens, 1977; Starkes & Allard, 1983; Weinberg & Genuchi, 1980), motivation (Willis, 1982; Willis & Layne, 1988), locus of control (Daiss, LeUnes & Nation, 1986; Levenson, 1981; Meyers et al., 1993; Nation & LeUnes, 1983; Rotter, 1966), and personality characteristics (McGill, Hall, Ratliff & Moss, 1986; Meyers, Sterling & LeUnes, 1988; Morgan et al., 1988; Nation & LeUnes, 1983; Silva, 1984). While several of these studies have attempted to define the psychological profile necessary for optimal performance, no studies have taken a comprehensive look at this unique sport population. With the growing interest and rise in extreme sports such as rock climbing, it may become increasingly important to have a greater understanding of these nontraditional athletes. Therefore, this study attempted to quantify both state and trait attributes of rock climbers by skill level and gender.


Subjects and Procedures

Psychological attributes of 57 rock climbers (mean age 28.5 [+ or -] 7 years; 35 males, 22 females) were assessed during the winter of 1996. Subjects consisted of members of a climbing club in Bozeman, MT, as well as individuals from Seattle, WA, New Haven, CT, and San Diego, CA. Subjects were contacted in person or over the phone and agreed to participate in the study. Following written informed consent, a battery of psychometric inventories with a biodata forth was administered or mailed to each subject. Each battery consisted of the Profile of Mood States (POMS; McNair, Lorr, & Droppleman, 1971), the Sport Competition Anxiety Test (SCAT; Martens, 1977), the Sports Attitude Inventory (SAI; Willis, 1982), Levenson's Locus of Control (IPC; Levenson, 1981), and the Eysenck Personality Inventory (EPI; Eysenck & Eysenck, 1982).

Climbers were also asked to rank their overall climbing ability according to the level at which they consistently and comfortably climb. Ratings were in accordance with the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS; Peters, 1982). In this system, the easiest climbs requiring ropes and safety procedures are rated 5.0, while the most difficult climbs are rated 5.14. Within the 5.10-5.14 categories, the subgrades of a, b, c, and d are used to denote finer distinctions of climbing difficulty and skill (Graydon, 1992; Vogel, 1992). The climbers randomly pursued for this study were moderate (5.6-5.9) and advanced (5.10a-5.14d) competitors (Freischlag & Freischlag, 1993; Graydon, 1992).


State attributes were assessed utilizing the Profile of Mood States and the Sport Competition Anxiety Test:

Profile of Mood States. The POMS is a 65-item inventory which assesses six dimensions of mood state: tension-anxiety (TEN), depression-dejection (DEP), anger-hostility (ANG), vigor-activity (VIG), fatigue-inertia (FAT), confusion-bewilderment (CON), and a composite score, i.e., total mood disturbance [TMD = (TEN+DEP+ANG+FAT+CON)-VIG] (Morgan & Pollock, 1977). Answers range from strongly agree to strongly disagree. All POMS inventory questions were standardized using procedures of Albrecht and Ewing (1989). Later research by Morgan (1984) coined the term "iceberg profile" to reflect a model of mental health deemed necessary for optimal performance.

Sport Competition Anxiety Test. The SCAT was developed to determine the level of anxiety typically felt prior to competition (Martens, 1977). Also referred to as the Illinois Competition Questionnaire to minimize response bias, the scale is comprised of 15 statements with a 3-point Likert-type scoring format ranging from hardly ever to often. Scores range from 10 to 30, demonstrating low to high competitive anxiety, respectively. Test-retest reliability and validity have been confirmed (Martens, 1977). Stress, anxiety, and tension have been determined to both negatively and positively affect competitive response dependent on the type of sport and level of ability (Gerson & Deshales, 1978; Starkes & Allard, 1983; Weinberg & Genuchi, 1980).

Trait attributes were assessed utilizing the Sports Attitude Inventory, Levenson's Locus of Control Scale, and the Eysenck Personality Inventory:

Sports Attitude Inventory. The SAI was developed to evaluate three forms of competition-specific motivation: motivated by power, motivated to achieve success, and motivated to avoid failure (Willis, 1982). The inventory consists of 40 statements with a 5-point Likert-type format, ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree. Construct and concurrent validity has been established and normatives developed across numerous sport populations and gender (Willis & Layne, 1988).

Levenson's Locus of Control Scale. Originally conceived by Rotter (1966) as a way to quantify the influence of reinforcement on behavior, the IPC scale evaluates three dimensions of control over one's life: internal, powerful other, and chance oriented (Levenson, 1981). Subjects respond to 24 statements via a 6-point Likert format, with scores ranging from 0 to 48 on each dimension. An extensive amount of research has been conducted in this area (Rotter, 1975; Throup & MacDonald, 1971), substantiating both validity and reliability across numerous competitive populations (Blau, 1984; Daiss et al., 1986; Levenson, 1981).

Eysenck Personality Inventory. Consisting of 57 yes/no questions, the EPI reveals enduring psychological traits such as extroversion-introversion and neuroticism-stability (Eysenck & Eysenck, 1982). Earlier work by Morgan (1980) asserted that some prediction of sport performance might be gathered from the EPI. Prior research with highly successful athletes indicates higher extroversion scores and low neuroticism response when compared to appropriate norms (Eysenck & Eysenck, 1982; Morgan, 1980).

Statistical Analyses

Climbers were grouped by skill level (moderate, advanced) and by gender. Of the 57 participants, 28 possessed moderate ability and 29 were classified as advanced climbers. Two by two factorial multivariate analyses (MANOVA) were applied utilizing General Linear Model procedures of [SAS.sup.R] Proprietary Software version 6.08 running on a VAX/VMS platform (SAS Institute, Carey, NC). Significance was determined at the .05 level of confidence.


Psychological responses of rock climbers by skill are shown in Table 1. Although Wilks's lambda indicated no significant skill effects across state, F(8,46) = .2926, p = .9650, or trait, F(8,46) = .3437, p = .9440, attributes, advanced climbers tended to exhibit higher tension, depression, anger, confusion, and total mood disturbance than moderately skilled climbers.


A comparison of psychological attributes by gender are shown in Table 2. Wilks's lambda indicated no significant gender effect across either state F(8,46) = .3585, p = .9364, or trait, F(8,46) = 1.9740, p = .0713, attributes. There was a tendency, however, for males to be more power oriented and to be more motivated to achieve success as compared to females. In addition, male climbers exhibited less mood disturbance than the female competitors.


This study was undertaken to quantify state and trait attributes among rock climbers by skill level and gender. Although no significant differences with regard to skill or gender were observed, perceptual differences in this sport sample between moderate and advanced climbers were evident. The more advanced climbers scored higher (6-14%), on average, in most state attributes as well as total mood disturbance (35%) than moderately skilled competitors. Female climbers reflected a 64% increase in total mood disturbance, as compared to their male counterparts.

The nonsignificant differences in response between groups may be attributed to small sample size, subject selection, or greater psychologic variability among climbers. While this study was limited to only two groups, the possibility of adding an elite group ([greater than or equal to] 5.12) and a novice group ([less than] 5.6) may have elucidated more distinct differences in psychological profiles. Similarly, the wide range of ages (15-49 years) used in this study may have influenced the observed response. While the results of this study possibly indicate that rock climbers may be a heterogeneous population, further inquiry with a larger sample size, a wider range of skill level, and attention to possible influence of age is warranted.

Results do indicate, however, that rock climbers as a group exhibit attributes similar to athletes in other sports. When compared to team athletes involved in rugby (Maynard & Howe, 1987), football (Daiss et al., 1986; McGowan & Shultz, 1989; Simpson & Newby, 1994) and college rodeo (Meyers et al., 1988), rock climbers revealed a more pronounced "iceberg profile" as defined by Morgan (1980). Climbers were higher in vigor (26%), and were lower in tension (38%), depression (44%), anger (51%), confusion (68%), and total mood disturbance (86%). Climbers appear to be less motivated to achieve success (13%), less reliant on others to control their destiny (25%) than football players (Daiss et al., 1986; Willis, 1982), and less extroverted (16%) than either rugby or soccer players (Reid & Hay, 1979). Other state and trait attributes in this sport sample reflect similarities to traditional team athletes.

State attributes of rock climbers, when compared to individual athletes involved in running (Markoff, Ryan & Young, 1982; Morgan & Pollock, 1977; Morgan et al., 1988), [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 2 OMITTED] speed skating (Gutmann, Pollock, Foster & Schmidt, 1984), tennis (Meyers et al., 1994), triathalons (Bell & Howe, 1988), weight training (Tucker, 1982; 1983a; 1983b) and equestrian sports (Meyers et al., 1993), also elucidated a pronounced iceberg profile. When compared to other individual events, climbers were higher in vigor (30%), lower in tension (24%), depression (56%), confusion (59%), and total mood disturbance (86%). Interestingly, fatigue response was substantially higher (78%) among climbers. Trait attributes of rock climbers paralleled those of individual athletes, with the exception of being less motivated to achieve success.

In summary, rock climbers appear to parallel the psychological profile of both team and individual athletes. It is interesting to note, however, that the difference in responses between rock climbers and more traditional athletes discussed in this paper vary radically (from 586%). This difference may be due, in part, to the unique nature of this high-risk sport where an individual faces challenging new courses and environment changes on a daily basis, prompting a more extreme psychological mindset.

While further research is warranted, for the present it appears that rock climbers may be able to still utilize cognitive intervention strategies gathered from other sports in order to optimize psychological preparation and performance outcome. Further studies should be directed toward psychological preparation of rock climbing as it relates to performance outcome and physiological response, as well as investigate possible psychological differences between various types of climbing. Additional information would be of value should existing psychological strategies require sport-specific modification to effectively assist this unique sport population.


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Author:Feher, Paola; Meyers, Michael C.; Skelly, William A.
Publication:Journal of Sport Behavior
Date:Jun 1, 1998
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