Natural Born Climbers
CLIMBING. Kids are natural climbers. Even before they can walk, they haul themselves up on crib rails, coffee tables and bureaus. Once mobile, as parents may recall, a child can be entertained for hours with a flight of stairs, a low-hanging branch, kitchen cabinet, or, pile of rocks. In the old days, rock climbing was the bastion of hardscrabble daredevils who used pitons, ropes and force of will to scale forbidding cliffs. But climbing has changed—or rather grown-up. In the 1990s, in order to train, it became increasingly common for climbers to build private indoor walls, utilizing plywood and plastic (or wooden) hand and foot holds. Most indoor climbing walls were built in basements or garages, but eventually, some “off-the-wall” entrepreneurship resulted in the first public-access climbing gym. Nowadays, rock climbing is nearly as main stream as soccer, football and baseball (and arguably as safe—especially indoor climbing). There are climbing walls in most playgrounds, schools, mountain resorts, and, yes, even cruise ships. There are more than 500 indoor climbing gyms in the U.S.—including public facilities, private clubs, and those connected to outdoor programs. Both West Point and Harvard have training walls for their climbers, and the University of Washington sports 5822 square feet of bouldering, top roping, and lead climbing for students and faculty, with some routes reaching 44 feet in height!
Rock climbing is arguably one of the best exercises around as it works every muscle in the body, including the brain. While outdoor climbing requires more expertise and supervision, indoor gym climbing is inviting to kids of all shapes, sizes (and ages). It breeds strength, grace, discipline and teamwork. Lynn Hill, an icon in the sport, made the transition from gymnastics to climbing as a teenager and never looked back. Now the mother of an aspiring climber herself, Hill contends that climbing can help to develop important psychological qualities in children, such as self-confidence, trust in others, and the ability to communicate. “Of course there are the physical benefits kids get from climbing,” adds Hill, who has brought her son with her to the indoor gym and outdoor crags since he was born. “Climbing helps kids to develop strength, balance, coordination and flexibility,” she notes, “and, from personal experience, it is a great way for children to burn off excess energy while staying in shape!”
Climbing Teams for Kids
Most indoor gyms offer day passes, punch cards and memberships. There’s no age limit on climbing—just a few common sense safety rules. For kids, simply going to the climbing gym, with parents, siblings or friends, is a great way to have fun while staying fit. And, as gyms have become more family-friendly, and coaching more sophisticated, an extensive youth competitive climbing program has developed as well. Keith Ferguson, CEO of USA Climbing, the national governing body for competitive climbing in the US, reports that his organization sanctions more than 300 competitions annually. Says Ferguson, “Competitive climbing participation in the U.S. grew about 20 percent from 2010 to 2011—a surge that has helped get the sport noticed by the International Olympic Committee.” Ferguson says that there are now more than a hundred youth climbing teams in the U.S., most affiliated with local gyms. Mike Rougeux, head climbing coach at the Bend Rock Gym in Bend, Oregon, has been coaching and guiding for a half-dozen years and has seen first-hand the physical and psychological benefits the sport has on youth. “Competitive climbing is a great option for kids,” reports Rougeux. “It’s as rewarding as any youth sport available. As a coach, I constantly see the benefits that competition climbing provides these young athletes: increased health and fitness, confidence, and a respect and appreciation for the outdoors.”
Jeff Pedersen, head coach for the Momentum Youth Team in Sandy, Utah stresses the confidence and decision making that climbing develops in young athletes. “We have a saying on our team, and that is: "You are the climber," says Pederson. “The idea is that we prepare kids through strength and technique training, and by getting them out to lots of different climbing venues both indoors and out. While building that experience, they learn to rely on their own intuition, intellect, passion, and determination in order to be successful. Being on a gym team and competing certainly helps them to become confident, independent adults.”
Competitive climbing is popular worldwide, especially in Europe, Asia and North America. In Europe, top competitive climbers are treated like rock stars. Like most sports, there are a variety of divisions, broken down by age, sex, and ability. In the United States, there are two competition seasons—the ABS (American Bouldering Series) events in the fall, and the SCS (Sport Climbing Series) competitions in the spring. In most regions, there are competitions almost every other weekend. Team members generally compete in three or four competitions—with the goal of qualifying for the Regional Championships. Depending on the results from Regional’s, climbers may then advance on to the Youth Divisional, National and even International level championships. Since competition isn't for everyone, most gyms also have youth programs that provide the chance to build a solid climbing foundation while being part of a group or league.
According to Tyson Schoene, head coach of the highly-acclaimed Vertical World gym climbing teams in and around Seattle, Washington, competition teaches kids things they don’t generally get from regular academics or other after school programs. “The mental side of competition is what youth competitive climbing really teaches kids,” says Schoene. “It is not unusual to have an 8 or 9-year old who is oblivious to competition, but some kids can’t handle the pressure. They crumble at the thought of competing. But life is all about competition. We teach that it is not about winning or losing, but about pulling themselves together, putting their best foot forward, and doing their best. The end result is that they know that if they train hard, and do their best, then they have done a good job. We do it to win, but the reality is that winning is an added benefit-- what comes from their training is the real goal.”
Alex David Johnson started climbing at the age of 12 in Downers Grove, Illinois. “What attracted me to climbing was the individual factor,” he remembers. He liked that he could control his outcomes by hard work. “I didn’t have to worry about anyone else so I could focus 100% on the prize ahead,” says Johnson, who is now a student at a private university in Denver. “Climbing has changed my life for the better. Because of climbing I have been able to represent the US in several world competitions in places as France, Scotland, Italy, Austria, Ecuador, and Canada—all before the age of 19!”
At the age of 7, Dana Riddle was introduced to the sport. “My parents say I climbed all over the pantry shelves, the door frames and really anything I could get my hands on,” recalls Riddle, who is quickly gaining recognition as a top female competitive climber. Now a high school student, Riddle says that once the climbing gym opened in her Texas home town, she “fell in love.” She feels that climbing has given her a broader perspective of the world—that the world is bigger than her and her backyard. “It has helped me to push myself and see the fun of trying your hardest and putting your heart and soul into a climb,” she says. “This whole experience has shown me the importance of setting goals and has really kept my values in check. My team has really been a huge factor in my growth as a person.”
Getting Kids Outside
In addition to developing life skills, perhaps one of the biggest benefits of indoor youth team climbing is that it inspires participants to try outdoor rock climbing. In the past, rock climbing wasn't an activity that youth would generally try—unless they had a parent who climbed or could afford an elite summer camp. There are outdoor climbing areas all over the U.S. (and world). One that is especially suitable for youth who want to transfer their indoor skills outdoors is Smith Rock State Park in Central Oregon. Climbers from around the world flock to Smith Rock for its accessible climbs—literally hundreds are within a 20 to 30 minute walk from the parking lot. Mike Rougeux at the Bend Rock Gym says that most of the kids in his program are excited about heading out to Smith for an outdoor climbing experience.
“Competitive climbers of all ages find that outdoor climbing helps hone all of their skills,” says Rougeux. “Smith Rock is known to be a very technical place to climb as its vertical faces have dime-sized holds and shallow pockets—much like indoor gyms. That type of climbing requires a lot of precision and technique and it really helps them out in competitions. The gym and the team provide a great avenue to gain some of the basic skills for climbing outdoors. There are some specific safety skills that climbers need for outdoor climbing—but those come with experience and good instruction.” As Tyson Schoene at Seattle’s Vertical World sums up, “Outdoor rock climbing is a large part of what we do as a team. While all of the training for competitions is done indoors at our walls, the outdoor experience is the fine-tuning. We find that there is a natural path from the gym to outdoors. Many of our athletes plan weekend climbing trips to places like Smith Rock with their families. Everyone gets outside—whether it is to climb, or, for non-climbing family members, hike around and enjoy the scenery. But eventually, everyone who watches wants to give it a try.”
How to Get Started
To enter USA Climbing–sanctioned events, kids can pay $5 per day, or buy a $55 annual membership. Members of USA Climbing are listed on the official website, with their results updated and tallied on a national scale. Every year, in both the ABS and SCS categories, the top finishers are invited by the International Federation for Sport Climbing (IFSC) to compete in the World Championships. Athletes qualify as Youth until they are 19; at the age of 16 they have the choice to compete as Youth or in the Open category.
Claudiu Vidulescu, the Head Coach for both the Youth and Adult U.S. National Climbing Teams, notes that many of the world’s top climbers started with local gym teams. Some of the youth Vidulescu has coached have gone on to become professional athletes; others have used their climbing skills as a spring board for college degrees and professional careers. “Youth Competition climbing opens a myriad of paths for the young athletes to chose and follow,” explains Vidulescu. “Kids excel in competitive climbing develop friendships that far exceed local, state and national boundaries. They learn to stay focused and psyched.”
Perhaps the most exciting news on the competitive youth climbing circuit today is the possibility that climbing will become a sport in the Olympic Games. The International Olympic Committee Executive Board recently announced that sport climbing has been shortlisted for the 2020 Olympic Games along with seven other sports (including baseball, karate, softball and squash!)—but only one will get the coveted spot. Keith Ferguson says that USA Climbing is “thrilled to have made the shortlist of sports for inclusion in the 2020 Olympic Games—the accomplishment is a testament to the hard work of the wonderful athletes who climb, the IFSC, all of the National Federations, and the many partners who support climbing competitions across the world.” Adds Tyson Schoene, “It would be very exciting if we were accepted into Olympics. Like with snowboarding and half pipe skiing, inclusion into the Olympic Games is an opportunity to really showcase athletes, and to push a sport to the next level in terms of sponsorship dollars.”
Why Kids Love Climbing
As father of two talented competitive climbers, Oregon-based Jim Helmich has enjoyed watching his boys develop via competitive climbing. “We’ve had an extremely positive experience,” relays Helmich. “There’s a significant difference between youth team climbing and traditional high school sports. The dynamic is terrific—with lots of parent involvement, support of peers, and high-quality family time. It’s a very powerful experience, physically, mentally and socially.”
Gym climbing doesn’t require a huge cash outlay. Most gyms charge $8 to $15 per day for climbing; much less if you buy an annual pass or punch card. The only equipment needed is sticky-soled rock climbing shoes and a chalk bag (to keep hands dry, like in gymnastics). Of course, it is cheaper to compete in regional events than international ones—but there are scholarships and sponsorships available for top-performers. “I don’t think a lot of people realize it, but these kids, who get to the upper levels, are at the top of their sport,” says Helmich. “Kids at ages 12 and 13 are very self-motivated to improve—and that type of work ethic at any age is pretty cool. The sport is maturing and growing, and the vibe is very powerful.”
By Nancy Prichard Bouchard
July 26th, 2011