How Much Should Your Child Rock Climb?

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It finally happened—rock climbing is a big league sport now… sort of. It was at the Olympics! It’s time for parents to move their families into vans and stake out their seats at the nearest gymnasium. Opportunities for climbing pros are flourishing; money from sponsors and investors is raining down. If you are a parent or coach, now is the time to prepare young climbers who aspire to reach their full potential.

But how do we accompany children on this path?

Nimród Sebestyén Tusnády of Hungary digs deep during the semifinals of the World Youth Championships. Tusnády finished in 15th place in the combined standings. (Photo: Sytse Van Slooten / IFSC.)

The best athletes start early. They are given the right amount of gas at the right time in the right direction. Hitting developmental stages, or characteristic periods of growth and maturation, properly requires active planning. Nurturing your young athletes to have a healthy mindset and a long-term passion for climbing can be a daunting task. As recommended by Athletics Canada (athletics.ca), here are six tips for tackling each crucial step, suitable for rock climbing. Age categories and stage names are from Athletics Canada.

And for all those people who push young climbers too much, we have created a nice little table:

The tools (one, two, three) correspond to the relevance of the action (clumsy, inappropriate, you have to be ashamed).

Step One: Active Start (0-6 years old)

Your children are just beginning to understand the world around them. Their senses and motor skills are develop as they learn to walk and talk. At this point, it is important to get them moving. Don’t let them be 6 year old couch potatoes. Climbing, like crawling, is intuitive for kids right from the start – take them to the gym and let them play. Teach them that physical activity is a fun and normal part of the day. Also emphasize the importance of good nutrition. Children need a colorful diet rich in fruits and vegetables right from the start.

Toddler learns to rock climb under parent supervision
In the beginning, it’s all about fun and movement, training neurological systems and minimizing growth plate stress. (Photo: Simon Carter, courtesy of Eldorado Climbing Walls)

Second stage: Having fun through sport (6 to 8 years old)

Now is the time for your children to “run, jump, throw” and learn more complex and coordinated movements. Take them out of their comfort zone to learn new moves with a focus on agility and dynos. Teach them to “monkey ride,” which involves swinging on jugs and doing fun runs and jumps in tennies. Be sure to watch them to avoid bad movement habits and injuries. It will be less fun than dynos, but also sit your kids down to practice flexibility.

Young climber at 9 Degree Gymnasium in Alexandria, Sydney, Australia.
Kids six and under just need to get on the wall and get moving. (Photo: Simon Carter)
Children 6-8 years old should not climb to the top of higher block walls.

Step Three: Learn to Train (9-12 years old)

By age 9, children should be ready to focus on more sustained and challenging tasks. Introduce them to trainers who will push them lightly into longer exercise periods. Testing and monitoring protocols can also be introduced, with supporting concepts like attention to warm-ups, cool-downs and maintaining good nutrition.

According to Athletics Canada, “Children who do not develop their fundamental motor skills by age 12 are unlikely to reach their genetic athletic potential.”

Now is the time to get kids into professional training programs that will incorporate the physical, mental and emotional concepts of rock climbing. And keep focusing on flexibility as your kids hit their growth spurts. The weekly training time should not exceed 11 hours.

Parents should not compare their child to others or put pressure on their child's climbing performance

Stage Four: Training to Train (12-16 years)

In the fourth stage, we are talking about pre-pubescent and pubescent adolescents. You must beware! They will experience the biggest stages of growth and changes in their body during their lifetime.

Climbing young women handing a scorecard to a judge during a competition
Paige Boklaschuk (CAN) presents her scorecard at the World Junior Championships. Boklaschuk finished 12th. Young climbers are likely to subtly take inspiration from parents or authority figures and translate unhealthy performance pressures onto themselves. For parents and coaches, it’s best to minimize your contribution to this. (Photo: Sytse Van Slooten / IFSC.)

Their training routines will need to be adapted to developmental changes. Because bones tend to grow before tendons and ligaments, young people’s connective tissue can be at risk during the growth spurt. Athletes should focus on endurance activities, such as sustained rock climbing, to protect their tendons. Once a child hits their growth spurt, they can focus on strength and speed. Athletes looking to reach an elite level may want to start specializing in rock climbing and spend less time doing other sports. The total weekly training time can be 12-15 hours.

A teenage girl climbs feet first during the bouldering round of a world youth championship
Hana Kudo (JPN) gets tricky in the final bouldering round at the 2019 World Youth Championships. Kudo finished the bouldering round in fifth place. (Photo: Sytse Van Slooten / IFSC.)

Parents should not punish their children for not performing well in climbing competitions

Stage Five: Learning to Compete (16 to 18 years old)

Sport specialization continues in stage five, alongside the development of the required technical, physical and mental skills. The athlete can begin to participate in open (adult) competitions, up to about 10-18 per year. The training to competition ratio should be 90:10.

Messing up the beta is part of the escalation.  Do not harm your children.

Sixth step: Train to compete (18-21 years old)

Here, athletes can begin to follow advanced training cycles and focus on mental growth in preparation for the stress of high level competition. Athletes should focus on developing a thorough competition routine that includes strategies for dealing with increasing stress.

Climbing can be a healthy and lifelong activity.  Parents should be happy for their children to do this, regardless of their professional status.

This piece originally appeared in Gym Climber #4.

Virginia F. Goins