The future of climbing coaching

Posted by Nicola Jasieniecka on 18/02/2014
Photo: Stuart Littlefair

Sports coaches have existed in many sports for eons, but not in climbing. This is rapidly changing as a new wave of passionate and talented climbers are equipping themselves with the skills required to coach climbing effectively. We spoke to GB Junior Bouldering Team manager Tom Greenall to find out what these developments mean for the future of climbing in the UK.

Why do you love climbing over any other sport?

I love climbing because it is a truly multi-faceted sport. There are so many aspects and variables to work on that there is always something new to try.  I have been climbing for nearly 18 years and I have always enjoyed the way in which I have been able to switch focus and explore new aspects and disciplines. It simply never gets boring. Coupled with this is the great social and community aspect. Climbing is one of the few sports that seems to totally transcend gender, age, ethnicity and ability. It’s incredibly inclusive and in many ways is more of a lifestyle sport. Possibly similar to sports like surfing it is addictive!

How long have you been working full time as a climbing coach?

I have been coaching climbing full time for the past two years and part time before that for a further four. Since graduating from university I pursued other career pathways within sport and coaching before finally deciding to turn towards climbing coaching specifically. I am now lucky enough to work doing what I truly enjoy the most, coaching a huge spectrum of groups and clients as well as balancing this along with development work for Mountain Training and the BMC in coach education.

Mountain Training recently launched the climbing Coaching Scheme, how has it been received so far?

The Coaching Scheme has been greatly accepted, as it is something that has been needed for quite a while. We have seen a fantastic uptake in terms of new candidates joining the scheme (over 370 since October 2013), particularly within the Foundation Coaching tier. I am really excited to see this cohort come through to the Development Coach courses as from what I have seen there is a huge wealth of coaching talent out there that are now rightly able to receive accreditation for their great work.

What’s the most exciting thing about being involved in climbing in the UK at the moment?

The most exciting thing from my perspective is the incredible amount of talent that we have coming through the system in the UK. Over the years we have seen a few climbers develop to international stardom while the general standard of climbing, in particular competition climbing, remained relatively low. However this is definitely changing and it is incredibly invigorating to see what might happen in years to come, both indoors and outside.

Speaking of talent, you’re based in Sheffield which has traditionally been a hotbed for talent in the climbing world. Which other cities/regions are producing lots of talented climbers? Are they all indoor climbers?

We have a few hot beds around the country and I am convinced that these clusters are directly correlated with the coaching workforce that supports it. In particular the South West and Bristol is an incredible conveyer belt of talent just now.  Together with London these must currently be the strongest two cities in the country at the moment.

What do you find more satisfying: coaching or personal climbing?

Great question and I think that it has to be coaching. Whilst my own personal climbing is a very important part of my life, my main motivation and drive is certainly towards coaching. The old school ethos of “you need to be a good climber to coach” is now totally outdated. In a more modern setting, to be a good coach you need to work at it and this involves a lot of self directed learning and knowledge seeking. People are great climbers because they invest countless purposeful hours in their own development and that adage is also true for coaching, except instead of working on yourself, you’re working to prepare better for sessions or learn new strategies to teach etc.

That said, I know a few incredible climbers who are also great coaches, so the above is not true in all cases. I am sadly just not one of those rare cases as I am much more likely to get up early and read a new book on coaching than squeeze in an extra core routine session.

What would be your top tips for anyone interested in coaching the next climbing superstars?

While I think that there is a lot of knowledge out there my advice would really be to keep it simple. In the last few years we have experienced an incredible information boom within climbing coaching, almost to the point where everyone is talking about doing an-aerobic capacity work or predicting their lactate threshold.

We seem to have missed out a few steps in the process and while sports science has its place, it is not the foundation of climbing performance, more the icing on the cake.

1.      Build a solid base of general athleticism – Too many young people are out there developing in an overly specialized way. Trying to develop good general athletic bodies is an excellent way to prevent injury and put in place a solid physical platform for later in your athletic development.

2.      Develop excellent movement patterns – We seem to have got so wrapped up in the “how many reps in how many minutes” way of working that we have forgotten that climbing is all about moving on the way. Climbing is complex and very skillful in that it requires the athlete to join many movements together. As such this should be the main focus of practice and not isolated movements.

3.      Foster a healthy attitude – Young people can be very hard working, dedicated and even obsessed. Knowing where climbing fits into life is an important lesson to deliver for any climbing coach. Prioritise enjoyment and development over winning and keep goals focused on the process and not on the outcome.

4.      Put the athlete at the center of the process – Central to the coaching process is the athlete. The whole wheel revolves around their motivations, goals and development. It is all too easy, especially when coaching talented athletes, to get attached to the success as a coach. Let them be the ones to drive their own future and if this means stepping back and letting go, then that’s sometimes necessary too.

What qualifications do you hold that support your day-to-day work?

As well as my most recent Mountain Training and BMC qualifications I have a wide number of supportive training from wider sports industry. In particular I value my degree and also some the CPD training I have received from Sports Coach UK.

1.      BSc (Hons) Sport Development and Coaching

2.      Mountain Training Development Coach Award

3.      Mountain Training Climbing Wall Award

4.      Sports Coach UK Safeguarding and Protecting Young People

5.      Sports Coach UK Analyzing Your Coaching

6.      Sports Leaders UK Tutor – Community/Higher Sports Leader Award

What are your hopes and dreams as climbing develops as a sport?

My big dream really is to establish a smooth development pathway for talented athletes. Starting with their first experiences in their FUNdamentals stage right through to being actively climbing well into their pension years.

Over the past few years’ things have really improved, mainly thanks to Mountain Training and the BMC who have developed great training for staff and intervention opportunities such as the Regional Academies. However, the pathway can still be a little broken at times and we still loose a lot of talented climbers through injury and burn out. I am really hoping that better coach education will strive to do just that as I would love to see the competition stars of today still enjoying climbing in whatever discipline that maybe well into the future. 

Last year you climbed The Power of The Dark Side (E8 6b) and were then promptly hit by a car. Over nine months later, has that day changed your outlook in any way?

Yes that was an interesting day. I guest that in some ways it has. It was a real reminder that the unexpected can happen at any time and that being prepared for that is very important. Both me and my wife were lucky to not receive any serious injuries but for a while I did flinch every time a car came head on towards us.

It certainly didn’t put me off doing harder routes but maybe the lesson here is that until you’re home on the couch with a brew, you’re not out of the woods!

This article is part of a series of articles celebrating Mountain Training’s 50th anniversary year in 2014.


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