So, this photo popped up on my newsfeed while I was still in Colorado for ABS Youth Nationals a month ago.
This is Sidney Trinidad from Vertical World in Seattle, WA stunning even the route setters (those dudes hanging out in the background of this photo) during the semi-finals round of the weekend-long competition. She took third place at finals with an invitation to compete for the US Team. This photo is also a fine display of where competition route setting is heading, and my impression is that it’s not in a direction that more closely mirrors what we experience in the outdoor arena. Instead, the indoor climbing industry seems to be drawing its name in the sand as something entirely unique. This isn’t to say that outdoor climbing is rendered obsolete as an amazing training tool for the competition circuit– it’s to say that teams like ours in places far away from outdoor climbing access can breed competition climbers that hold their own against some of the strongest in the country and that outdoor exposure isn’t necessarily a limiting factor for success. During my last meal out in Colorado with my coaching partner Jason, Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou (head coach for Boulder’s Team ABC– the top-ranking youth team in the nation) and her colleagues were sitting at the table beside us when we overheard her mention that climbing competitions at this level are starting to involve movements that look and are executed more like parkour than actual rock climbing. More on that later.
My experience at ABS Youth Nationals this year was really eye opening. In the qualifiers round of the competition, managing a frantic 10-year-old on our team in iso proved to be one of the biggest challenges. Iso is a closed room in which only registered competitors and USAC-certified coaches are allowed during a competition. The purpose of iso is to isolate competitors from any potential exposure to the routes they’ll be climbing that day so phones and devices with internet access are prohibited for the sake of limiting communication with the world outside. In this situation, it’s not managing the physical preparedness of a kid that proves difficult (there are always training walls and/or climbing walls in iso for warming up) but rather keeping his sense of focus intact when he’s stuck in a room for a really long time with his competitors and a million other kids who are waiting for a small window of opportunity to compete. I’m pretty sure the answer is games for zoning out and then climbing drills for warming up, and then meditation for zoning in. Also, no stretching until after a kid’s competed. At least that’s the approach I want to take next year.
For me, iso is always brimming with restless nervous energy and I have to take a few minutes to calm myself before I can assume the task of instilling a sense of calm in my competitors. One of the benefits of iso for me has always been the opportunity to watch other coaches manage and interact with their athletes. This is where I first learned to start tuning in to how other coaches engage and what other teams are doing, and it’s because we have some really well-ranked teams in our region (Stone Summit) and division (Team Texas) worth paying close attention to. When Jason and I first started coaching our team, it wasn’t a competitive team. We didn’t require our climbers to compete at all and it was an entirely recreational experience for everyone. Where we are now is night and day from where we were three years ago. And I’m looking at teams and coaches and athletes who are still three years ahead of where we are now, always. Since I can’t travel the country visiting these gyms and shadowing their youth climbing teams at practice (although maybe that’s an option I should consider more seriously), what I’ve witnessed in iso and on the floor at competitions is the only source of exposure I really have aside from the internet to what other coaches and teams are doing. Luckily Jason loves talking to strangers and has had conversations about gyms and youth climbing with coaches anywhere he can find them. During our layover in the Denver airport that weekend, Jason managed to meet the coach for the top male youth competitor at finals and engaged in more than an hour of dialogue about youth climbing and the condition of gyms and where it’s all heading.
We’re lucky enough to be a two hour drive from Aiguille in Melbourne, FL where Mark Mercer is employed as head setter. Mercer holds a USAC Level 3 route setting certification and was a setter for ABS Nationals this year (pro, not youth). That gym is the closest resource our team has for gaining a semblance of exposure to the style of routes they’ll be faced with at Divisional and National level competitions and our team always competes in a local competition at Aiguille before regionals. So resources for solid indoor competition training are more available to us in Gainesville than you’d probably expect. What’s exciting for next season, though, is that we haven’t really reached out and made the most of those resources in years past. We’ve never taken weekend day trips to Aiguille or Stone Summit as a team and this is a pursuit I’m really interested in moving forward with next year.
But Nationals gave me the chance to check out team structures out west that I’ve never seen before. Jason’s been to Nationals in past years so he spent a lot of time showing me around the who’s-who of the climbing teams out there, including the coaches and their youth athletes. The two teams that I was most inspired by were Team ABC out of Boulder, CO and Vertical World out of Seattle, WA (Sidney Trinidad’s gym). During the finals round of the competition, most competitors who made it to the podium seemed to be sporting Team ABC or Vertical World shirts (side note: the only climbers who competed in finals from Florida were from Aiguille– Mercer’s home gym). Team Texas was also at Nationals in force, but they’re in our division so I’ve been at competitions with Kyle and his climbers before. I spent the better part of my flight back to Florida on my iPad reading about the coaches and the climbers and the structures of these other teams.
I’ve learned that the common thread between most of the teams that do well at the national level is the size of their youth programs. These are huge programs (Team Texas, Team ABC, Vertical World, etc.) oftentimes spread out across several gyms and are headed by coaches who come from long, successful professional climbing careers and then transitioned into professional coaching careers. That’s not the surprising part though. The surprising part is that these coaches have a wide variety of views about training and how to prepare youth athletes for competing. There are no coaching certification programs in climbing or a streamlined team structure within the industry (though there’s official talk about a USAC-sanctioned coaching certification program which is wonderful because right now, all it takes to be a USAC certified coach is some money and a CPR certification that doesn’t even have to be AHA-approved).
Everyone does it differently. Some of the most successful coaches in the industry don’t do any cross training or focused injury prevention at all and strictly focus on getting the kids on the wall and learning the moves and building climbing-specific strength and technique for competitions. I think those things are really important and we pretty much know for certain now that the best way to train involves movements that mimic those of the sport you’re training for, but there’s almost zero literature about climbing coaches incorporating a working knowledge of biomechanics or kinesiology in their approach. There’s plenty of advice for how to train and get stronger, but there isn’t much in the way of strengthening muscles that aren’t climbing prime movers and I think keeping this balance healthy is really important for a long, successful career as an athlete. Based on the lack of availability of that kind of information, it seems that many coaches are very short-sighted and aren’t considering what these kids will look or feel like ten or twenty years from now or we just aren’t talking about it in a cover story kind of way. Like I said, I haven’t visited these gyms and I don’t know what practice looks like and maybe it’s not the case that our training as youth climbing team coaches is lacking across the board. But there are decent interviews and articles to be found on the internet providing insight from the coaches of these big teams and world-famous youth climbers that makes me question the training approach thing. The only thing that looks really promising is that Team ABC stands for “Agility, Balance, & Coordination”– some of the less powerful principles of climbing. Robyn mentions in at least one interview how important training these aspects of our sport is and she frequently mentions the future of youth climbing and she had a facility built for her team that embodies that kind of forward thinking. I’ve seen videos of really creative drills her team does to enhance these skills on and off the wall. I think off-the-wall drills that encourage balancing out what happens on the wall is really important especially for kids. The sooner kids learn the importance of training the body as a whole and consider it not only an option or an advantage but a requirement for success, the more quickly good habits will take root.
The head coach of Vertical World said in an interview that his approach to injury prevention is merely a suggestion that kids get started climbing as early as possible while their growth plates are super active because he consistently notices that the few injuries on his team have occurred in climbers who started a bit older. But does age also explain the hyper-kyphotic thoracic region and internally rotated shoulders that have made “climber posture” common? Obe Carrion fully admitted in an interview to focusing strictly on climbing and not incorporating cross-training not because he doesn’t think it’s useful but because he doesn’t know how, because he never cross-trained as an athlete. And by the way, watch this video about Obe, he’s a really remarkable human being and coach. Which brings me to a really important point: I’m not suggesting that coaching climbing, or any sport, should be all about injury prevention and posture maintenance– there’s a really special brand of passion and psyche and “go-hard” mentality present in the climbing community that coaches need to uphold and promote and be endowed with and it absolutely comes first. If you can’t be excited every time your youth climbers send a project or get stronger the same way you’ve been excited about your own sends and personal progress as a climber, then build a solid coaching relationship with your kids first. They’re awesome. That’s why we care about minimizing injury potential and saving them from tragic posture dysfunctions in the first place. And today’s coaches are grooming strong kids in the climbing community right now. It’s mind blowing.
But speaking of posture dysfunctions, I’m wondering if these coaches are looking at the posture their climbers are walking around with. During the finals round of nationals, I was performing posture assessments from afar on every kid who stepped foot on the floor. I’m in the middle of a pilates instructor training program so I’m really, really obsessed with posture right now and I think maybe it’s fair to suggest that more coaches should be, too. I think we can only get better at our jobs and have coaching taken more seriously if we look at how we can do better. The conflict I have with all of it is this: are parents paying us to get their kids placing well at competitions or are they paying us to keep them healthy and injury-free? Climbing is really hard on the body and I think that good coaches should accept the challenge of both responsibilities. Dr. Natasha Barnes is a professional climber and chiropractor who I had the pleasure of tooling around Boston with for a weekend years ago and she recently wrote two wonderful articles about climber posture and how to start combatting it– you can find them here (part one) and here (part two). She’s working on additional installments for the series. I’m so psyched to see something like this emerge. But…CLIMBER POSTURE– ugh, it’s such a bummer we’re doing this to our bodies. And coaches: we’re doing this to the bodies of kids who are the future of our sport. We need to stop. The only way we can stop is by educating ourselves about how to prevent it from happening and begin correcting it when we notice the symptoms. I truly believe you don’t have to be a chiropractor or a PT to understand why “climber posture” entails a slew of unhealthy outcomes in the future and is a bummer beyond aesthetics alone– Natasha’s articles hit the nail on the head and there’s no residency pre-requisite for reading them. If we accept as coaches that our job is to guide our climbers toward their goals, we must address long-term goals alongside the short-term goals. The only way a kid’s gonna’ go pro in ten years in a booming sport is by remaining healthy and continuing to climb and compete well on a very regular basis without virtually any hiccups along the way.
I’m putting this out there because I’m really excited to be a youth climbing team coach right now while climbing is being commended and popularized for how exciting it is, and I’m a strong advocate for an element of sophistication in the training and program design that we’re on the road toward establishing. I want to be a part of that discussion. I love working with kids in this capacity. When I’m coaching, I’m not in the boat with those who consider the team kids nuisances to the gym rat community (although I was totally guilty as charged before I was a coach). I see ten years from now when they’re sitting at the drawing board deciding the future of our sport. The physical, mental, and emotional developments that kids experience during the period when their personalities are taking shape are awe-inspiring and when you give them something like climbing as a really positive outlet for all of that energy, the strength and confidence you get to watch them build really keeps you in the game. It’s cool to watch youth climbing teams pop up all over the place and throw more and more kids out there to expand the limits of our sport. But I think we, as coaches, should also be talking about how we’re protecting and prolonging them. Some of them are “just kids” trying out this crazy rock climbing thing and some of them are quite literally the future.