I want to address an often-ignored aspect in kids participating in competitive sports: young athletes' emotional and mental health. As with many sports, a major factor in climbing performance is the athlete’s mentality. Too much pressure, and the climber may crack. Too little, and the climber may lose focus and motivation.
As a parent of a young climber, I struggle between encouraging my son, Jaden, to his potential versus pushing him too hard. Given that my husband and I also climb, we easily fall into the trap of fixating on grades.The sentence, "You have to start climbing V5 problems to be competitive" has actually come out of my mouth, when I could have identified specific skills in a difficult problem and encouraged Jaden to practice those skills. I want Jaden to "have fun and relax" at a competition, but alternatively, I want him to "take this seriously" so he will perform his best.
Udo Neumann wrote about training children who climb in his Art of Bouldering. Udo is the coach of the German Bouldering Team and shares training videos of the national team that includes Julie Wurm, Jan Jojer, and Monika Retschy. In a section on child development, Udo discouraged "grade-oriented climbing" because this puts children under pressure that can impact their overall well-being. For those parents and coaches who encourage children into climbing as a serious sport, Udo's approach is "a way that doesn't leave them either injured or disillusioned and out of sport for good at 13 or 14." Instead of fixating on immediate results, parents and coaches can focus on what actually matters: intention and consistency. Udo states that training is a long term commitment: "Ultimately, sustained success comes from training and performing well over the long term rather than winning in the short term."
Jordan Terry, Sender One LAX's youth competitive team head coach, teaches young climbers that falling and "feeling like a failure" are the most important parts of progressing. Young athletes may find it difficult to see that something that feels so negative is something positive. This process of mental growth takes a lot of time to for young kids, especially young motivated athletes, to cultivate. Jordan makes sure to tell youth competitive climbers about the times that she has fallen or failed, in climbing or in life. Jordan is honest about mistakes and ask for forgiveness when she missteps, and asks her youth athletes to do the same with their team. By asking others to be accepting of their "off" days, it becomes easier for young competitors to forgive themselves. This mindset then leads to more opportunities for success. Learning to accept falling off a project, saying "I can't", and being supportive for teammate creates an environment of trust for young competitors while also holding each other accountable to reaching climbing goals.
Climbing competitions are a challenging aspect of USA Climbing (USAC), because the pressure is high and there is temptation to compare oneself to others. Jordan cautions parents against entering into a competition space with any discussion of how their young athletes will do compared to other young climbers. Although Sender One youth athletes train as a team, climbing is an individual sport. It may be easier for parents and coaches to talk about "focusing on your personal climbing goals" than consistently creating a fun and constructive climbing environment. Jordan believes that as long as parents and coaches stay calm and maintains a casual and high-spirited energy, youth athletes will get the sense that "comp day can be equal parts high-pressure excitement and simply a good time."
Jordan's advice for parents of youth competitive climbers is to praise young athletes for a job well done or trying hard AND talking about how their young athletes felt when they weren't climbing their best. "Kids don't want to be told that they did great when they feel like they didn't, it doesn't feel genuine," says Jordan. Parents are more helpful by by working with young climbers to identify what specifically bothered their athletes about their climbing, put some thought into what could go better next time, and then move on with their day.
Injuries and accidents can lead to a plateau or recession in progress, both physically and mentally. Check out another blog post to help you overcome mental blocks on the wall. Especially in younger athletes, it is important to give them the push they need to discipline their training, but allow them the freedom and fun of the sport to truly maximize their potential.