My first two months of coaching a youth climbing team
When I was hired on for my first coaching position at the climbing wall, I was hoping that as much as I would pass on my knowledge to them, the kids would inspire and improve my own outlook on life.
I’d been climbing for 7 years with tons of competition, recreational, and team experience. However, I’d only just acquired my climbing gym instructor certification (CGI 1) in the past two months and didn’t have much experience instructing. But coaching a youth team had been a dream of mine for at least the past 5 years.
I’d like to share what it’s been like to be launched right into a coaching position, my own physical challenges to coaching, the struggle to develop a healthy team dynamic, and the joys of kids & climbing.
Being an injured coach
Task: teach and inspire thirteen 9 to 16-year-olds to climb.
I’d finally been given my dream opportunity — the only catches were a wrist and a foot injury that had stopped me from climbing for the past 9 months, and continue to rule out any teaching demonstrations or active participation with my team. I couldn’t race or play tag with the kids during warm up to get them hyped. I couldn’t demonstrate techniques or inspire the kids through action, and that was really difficult to come to terms with.
I’d always imagined that on Day One I would arrive all vibrant and bouncy, ready to play boulder games with the kids and have my joy be infectious.
Instead I stood at the end of the track during our initial fitness phase, trying to encourage those kids who just wanted to get on the climbing wall to finish their last 100m. It was hard not being able to use my own physical cues to set the tone and direction, and it was hard the first time I had to say no to each kid when they challenged me to try the boulder problem they’d designed. I wasn’t used to giving advice based simply on observation, or not having climbed all the problems at my home gym.
It was hard explaining to the kids why I couldn’t climb and how I got hurt climbing, hoping it wouldn’t put them off climbing while knowing all too well the reality of injury.
It’s better now that the kids all know about my injuries and don’t get disappointed that I can’t join them. Now every time we get a new set of problems they ask me which ones I would be able to climb, and I smile ruefully as I say almost any and all.
Learning to communicate differently
Less able to rely on physical teaching and communication, I’ve been forced to rely strongly on my cognitive understanding and knowledge of climbing. I have to sequence problems having never climbed them, and assess whether each kid is ready to learn a new skill. I have to break down techniques I’ve taken for granted in order to give a clear, concise explanation. And even then it often doesn’t work.
Explaining a skill well and explaining it in a way that reaches the kids…is not really one and the same. I can break down a skill to all its core elements and be met with blank stares, complete disinterest, or a mind-blowing lack of retention.
After my co-coach and I taught top-rope belay skills for two week, and assessed everyone’s competency, we rounded the corner of the highwall loft to find three groups of the most experienced team members belaying with Gri-Gris attached upside down. Scary.
The team dynamic
I’ve found it all comes down to the team dynamic. Even something as simple as sitting quietly to learn a new skill depends entirely on the dynamic of the group. For the first two months of coaching, my partner and I could not for the life of us get the kids to do the end-of-practice conditioning (opposition workouts) we had planned for them. We would clearly outline the exercises, demonstrate proper form, and set very attainable standards.
They. just. did. not. take. Somehow the kids would manage to screw up the rotation cycle, skip over entire stations and simply lie there refusing to challenge themselves. It was incredibly frustrating. I had the goal that the youth team would not only teach those kids to climb, but it would also teach other valuable concepts like cooperation and hard work.
I’d try to provide the more advanced members opportunities to challenge themselves during our introductory phase, yet they were entirely apathetic and would stand around while the newer kids zoomed past them through the drills. A large part of our whacky dynamic and work ethic was that I inherited the team — and the older members really missed their old coach. It had been more of a small, lax hangout group before and the kids weren’t used to applying themselves.
I think the worst part of it all was not even that I’d come away feeling incompetent at engaging them — I just felt like the kids weren’t even having much fun at practice.
I think the first time I felt like I actually got through to the kids was when we took them for an autumn romp over to the neighbourhood park to play grounders on the equipment. Completely unrelated to climbing yet totally related — that experience of team bonding, independence, and the escape from everyday life.
It got to the point where I just dreaded showing up to my coaching shifts.
I still feel pretty overwhelmed and unprepared at many points throughout our practices. I know I have the skill and experience but applying it is another matter. I’ve had such excellent coaches/role models in the past and it’s easy for me to compare myself to them and get frustrated. I want these kids to live up to their potentials and just be able to look forward to coming to the climbing wall throughout the week. I’ll have days when I’ll feel I’ve really failed to facilitate that, or live up to my own potential.
Meeting in the middle
There’s a certain point — forced or unforced — when you do finally get through (or they get through to you). I learned that if I make conditioning a race, they’ll do it. I learned that this group of kids actually likes running concrete stairs, and their favourite activity so far is being tied together with short lengths of rope and forced to climb painfully synchronously up the wall.
Last week (for some reason, maybe a change in the wind) I suddenly started getting through to one of the more experienced kids, and he even started seeking me out for advice on different routes. Today he even confided some of his fears about top-roping, which gives me something to work on with him.
Of course, one of my kids also encountered me on the train this evening on our way to practice, and kept his earphones in and music blasting as I walked next to him the whole way to the gym. But we’re getting there.
It’s been just about two months of coaching my youth team now and today was one of those days (the first of many, I’m sure) when everything went right. My co-coach and I worked well in unison, the kids had a fun time, I noticed such marked improvement in everyone’s skills, and the kids took some unfortunate news we had to give them about a set-back in our plans for the lead climbing season very gracefully. Conditioning was completed without complaint and in good form. I really saw our mutual efforts come together in a positive session.
So to all you new coaches out there — hang in there! Though they may occasionally break down your confidence (and many lesson plans) these kids will heal your injured soul and remind you why you are passionate about climbing and being active.
Is it hard to coach a sport you’re passionate about but can no longer do or perform to the same level at? Yes, I do have a job that reminds me of what I’m missing out on every day. Is it worth it? I guess so. As much as I’ll teach skills and create an outlet these kids can feel proud of when times are rough, they’ll remind me what I love about climbing but also show me that I am something more than just my own passion.
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