How to Coach Climbers
Updated: Jul 27
If you haven’t had to coach a new (or even intermediate) climber in the past, it’s likely that you will get to sometime in the future.
Coaching is as much of an art as it is a science; unfortunately, most individuals don’t know much about either the art or the science of coaching. Even professional climbing coaches vary wildly in their ability to train a fellow rock climber. So, below we’ve listed a few scientifically proven tips for how to be a better climbing coach. All of these tips apply to any physical activity, so even if you’re not an avid rock climber, it’s likely that you will find some use for these teaching skills in the future.
Many coaches ineffectively use verbal cues. If you’ve been involved in sports at all, you’ve probably heard coaches say things related to a particular part of your body – things like “move your feet” or “reach with your arm.” Well, as it turns out there is a mountain of literature suggesting that verbalizing specific body cues (such as “feet” or “arm”) is not an effective way of coaching (we recommend “Motor Learning and Control: A Behavioral Emphasis” if you’re interested in a textbook on the topic). Instead, you’re better off using metaphors and similes.
For example, when teaching someone to swim coaches say “pick an apple and put it in your pocket” rather than “reaching out in front of you and then pull your arm down past your side.” For climbers, instead of shouting “keep your arms straight” for the thousandth time, consider something more creative like, “a monkey swinging from branch to branch!”
Athletes learn a lot from watching videos of themselves. Think of professional football teams reviewing film of their team, as well as their opponents. Climbers, whether they’re new or advanced, can receive the same benefits.
If you’re teaching someone how to climb, and they’re not quite understanding your critique, consider whipping out your phone and taking a short video. If you want to take it a step further, have your mentee compare the footage of themselves to some other climbers around the gym. It’s a speedy way to learn what you’re doing wrong, and also to highlight what you’re doing correctly.
Admittedly, it can be fun to rag on your friends when they’re not climbing well; however, if you’re trying to coach somebody and make them a proficient climber, positive reinforcement is an incredible motivator for improving athletic performance. As a coach or mentor, it is sometimes easy to take note of all the little things that people are doing wrong, but it’s imperative that for each element an athlete does wrong you also take the time to point out something that they’re doing right.
Using positive encouragement will help improve your climbing student, and it will keep them more interested in climbing for the long run.
Whenever we take a newbie out, it’s easy to overestimate their climbing ability and bring them to a route that’s way too difficult. Even though a 5.7 might feel extremely easy to you, it’s important to remember that the person you’re instructing doesn’t feel the same. It’s always best to find the easiest route possible. You’re much better off easily coaching someone on a mellow 5.4 than trying to keep them from freaking out on a difficult 5.8. It’s always more productive to start on something comfortable and gradually progress to more difficult climbing routes.
Regardless of how effective your coaching is, it’s more important to keep a pleasant and outwardly happy attitude. Whether you’ve had the best or worst day of your life, you should have the same attitude while you’re coaching. If you have a somber, bored, or dry persona, it will quickly rub off onto your athlete – and it can very quickly drain them of their desire to climb. Worst of all is when coaches are frustrated with the progress being made by their athletes. Consider showing frustration the cardinal sin. The best coaches maintain the face of patience at all times.
Ideally, you want to have a charismatic and upbeat personality at all times. Motivate your athletes, don’t deflate them.
Master the Trick
Coaching is a tricky profession. Whether you’re a professional climbing instructor, or you’re just an amateur coach among your friends for a day, providing useful feedback to your students is challenging. Remember to use verbal cues that don’t reference specific body parts (hands, feet, etc.); instead, use metaphors and other creative comparisons. Climbers will be more motivated by a coach that has an optimistic demeanor that is providing positive feedback alongside constructive criticism. When possible, give your student visual feedback via a picture or short film – a picture is worth a thousand words in this situation. Finally, never develop a negative or frustrated demeanor – nothing will de-motivate an athlete faster than a disappointed or irritated coach.
Now that you understand how to coach climbers, read about Choosing The Perfect Climbing Partner.