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Parenting Beta: Mental Health in Youth Competitive Climbing

Parenting Beta: Mental Health in Youth Competitive Climbing

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Words by Jane Chin, Ph.D.

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.

...youth athletes will get the sense that "comp day can be equal parts high-pressure excitement and simply a good time."

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."

Falling is part of getting better!

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."

Sender One youth athletes train as a team, climbing is an individual sport.

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.

Brain Train: Overcoming Mental Blocks on the Wall

Brain Train: Overcoming Mental Blocks on the Wall

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Words by Lauren Irvine

“It’s all in your head.”

Sound familiar? It’s a mantra every climber repeats at some point, and usually not in the most comfortable of positions: death gripping, sweaty palms, scrabbling feet, shaky arms. Unless you’re Alex Honnold, you’ve probably found yourself defeated not by a difficult move, but by the mental mettle needed to commit to it.

Whatever your demotivator is--falling, injury, self-doubt--once the haze of fear descends, it’s hard to maintain the focus needed to push through it. And when you’re on the wall facing that fight-flight-or-freeze reflex, your brain realizes that it only has one option: freeze. That means that all the adrenaline dumped into your body by that triggering event has nowhere to go, leaving you hanging there for (what feels like) dear life as your arms rapidly pump out--not exactly the best scenario for logic and rationality to make a comeback!

But it’s not impossible! Gym training is the perfect opportunity to face your fears head on in a safe environment where risks are definitely more perceived than real (although, as always, be sure to follow proper climbing safety guidelines and etiquette). Here are five methods for pushing through the paralysis and getting your mind back on track for the send:

Think different. Spend some time actually analyzing your climbing to identify your strengths and weaknesses. Talk to your climbing partners or gym buddies to get an honest third-party perspective on your movement, body positioning, and efficiency. With a solid idea of where exactly you excel, you can develop a more effective training program to address those problem areas that are unconsciously contributing to your lack of confidence.

Paint yourself a picture. We all find ourselves at the bottom of a route miming the movement sequences with our arms. Turn it into a positive, confidence-building ritual: instead of just waving your arms around, visualize yourself clearly setting up and executing each move. Think about how you can do it as opposed to obsessing over the sketchier moves.

Drill it in. Dedicate some of your warmup time to concentrating on those weaknesses instead of just autopiloting your way up easy routes. You don’t have to work at your level--just consciously choose your warmup routes or problems based on a skill you need to improve, such as balance-heavy slab footwork or dynamic mantle moves. Then, drill yourself on it. The familiarity will translate to your projects.

Safely confront your fear, over and over again. If a long fall above a clip or off a boulder topout is what makes you hesitate, use your gym sessions as an opportunity to train your brain as well as your body. By taking control over falls, you can conquer the terror that comes with the anticipation of empty air. Just do this for one route or a couple boulder problems per session--too much more at once will fry your nerves.

Get on an easier lead route, climb to and clip the third bolt, and immediately take a controlled fall. (Note: let your belayer know what you’re planning to do before you get on the wall, but don’t forget to call “Falling!”) Repeat climbing, clipping, and falling up to the finishing clips. This automatic action will help you cut off the “Don’t fall, don’t fall, don’t fall” loop that can often plague our thoughts on the wall. As you get accustomed to falling safely, take controlled falls on routes closer to and then at your grade.

Similarly, take controlled falls off the bouldering wall. Keep climbing higher and letting yourself drop, taking care to fall and land safely--don’t do your best sack-of-potatoes impersonation.

Prove it to yourself. The worst-case scenarios always happen when you’re on your big project. You reach the crux way more pumped than anticipated, or you’re gassing out because that bouldery section was more muscley than you recalled, and suddenly you’re five feet above your last clip and a committing move on a tenuous hold is between you and the next bolt. It’s the perfect storm of circumstances for that full-body fear to take hold. If you’re getting close to an outdoor excursion or are getting really close on your latest project, head off this potential success-killer at the pass by (safely) putting yourself in that situation. Near the end of a training session, try a harder route when you’re almost maxed out and commit yourself to three attempts to get through the crux. Your own ability may surprise yourself.

In the end, climbing really is just a big game of mind over matter. Train your brain just as you strain your muscles in every climbing session, and your concentration and confidence will continue to increase right alongside your grade.

*Disclaimer: Sender One Climbing is not responsible for any injuries sustained during this training exercise. Use this article at your own discretion. Falls are inherently dangerous, and should be practiced in a controlled environment. Please be considerate of other climbers during all exercises.

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