On Coaching ABS Youth

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Last fall, after a long absence, I started coaching competitive youth climbers again. It’s exciting to see how youth competitions have developed in the past 14 years; the number of competitors is fairly large, as is the number of coaches. I’d guess that preparing youth for competitions is probably the largest source of coaching revenue in the US, and correspondingly it’s a task that a great number of coaching hours are spent on. Yet public discussions, and published material regarding youth competitions are almost non-existent. So, I think it would be great to start a discussion on how we prepare young athletes for bouldering competitions.

My primary concern is discerning the athletic abilities that contribute to successful performance in competitions in order to design programs that will foster the development of those abilities. The ABS utilizes two different structures, yet both structures favor the climber who can get the greatest number of points in the fewest number of tries. At isolation style competitions such as divisional and nations there is the added pressure of a strict time limit for each problem and the number of tries is used as part of the scoring. In local level competitions any climber can only put in so many tries in a given day before they are exhausted, the more tries each individual problem takes the more fatigued the climber is for subsequent efforts. This fatigue factor often contributes to a climber’s top four problems having widely different point values.  With these facts in mind I think that the most important variables in competition performance are as follows:

1- the climber’s consistent on-sight level. In this case the V-grade she may be able to on-sight several times in a single climbing session.

2- the climber’s ability to recover quickly between efforts. Obviously 4 minutes is the rest benchmark set by the ABS structure so climber’s need to be able to achieve a complete recovery in that time period. In addition we can’t over look the 30 to 45 second rests that are typical of the time between efforts in the work period of an isolation competition.

3- the climber’s stamina level, how much high intensity climbing he can handle in a 3-hour period.

4- the climber’s ability to control his or her emotional state during the course of the competition; in which the climber will undoubted face excitement, frustration, success and failure.

Each of the abilities listed above can be broken down into a number of elements, which I won’t list because I think most readers can do an able job of creating their own lists. Not everyone is going to agree on these four points, and that’s fine, different coaches are going to analyze the dimensions of performance differently, over time we can compare and refine our different assessments in the hope of making them more accurate.

In the remainder of this post I want to address on-sight climbing. It can be one of the most difficult things to improve in climbing performance, and it’s harder to work on that red pointing and it is based on a number of sub skills. As a pragmatic concern I used three different activities to improve flash / on-sight climbing.

The principle activity is Continuous Intensity Repetitions. A pattern that I have seen a number of times is that if a climber can perform 40 repetitions of a grade in a two-week period, after a rest they will be able to flash or on-sight the next higher grade. Lets say a climber’s current on-sight level is V3, if that climber can do 40 repetitions of V3 in a two week period he or she will very likely be able flash V4 in the third week. Naturally there are some conditions, the problems need to be accurately graded, second, the climber needs to do a variety of problems at the V3 level, the length, style, hold types and wall angle should be widely varied. The other thing to know is that it can take time before the climber is ready to do that volume in a two-week period. If the climber is new to this kind of training, he or she may need to start by doing a mix of V2s and V3s such as a workout in which a total of 12 problems are completed eight of which are V2 and four of which are V3. From that starting point the climber will work up to being able to do 10 – 12 V3s per workout in order to achieve 40 or more in a two week period. It’s the high volume at a contorolled intensity within a short time period that encourages a significant jump in on-sight performance. Note that the climbers for whom 40 repetitions in a two week period creates an increase in on-sight level have all been experienced climbers. I do not have as good an understanding of how this might work for less experienced climbers.

The other two activities I use are movement training and on-sight practice, as you might expect these are done in a specific manner.

With on-sight practice I use 3 steps. The first is having the athlete do a complete read of the problem from bottom to top, and they are encouraged to go into as much detail as they can. For some this might mean simply knowing the available holds and coming up with a basic hand sequence. For others it will mean knowing the exact sequence, where the crux is, how is move is going to feel and be initiated, as well as specific points of focus for the more difficult moves. The second step is to have the climber make the on-sight attempt, which is recorded on video. Third, immediately after the on-sight attempt the climber reviews the video and discusses how the actual performance compared to the expectation created during the read.  This type of practice is used long term and is engaged in weekly.

The third activity I use, and the probably the most important, is movement practice. Climber needs a broad base of movement skills in order to excel at flashing / on-sighting, in the on-sight context even small gaps in movement skills create failure, so over time the goal is to develop mastery of the widest range of movement skills possible, including skills that are often found in competitions but are less common in other climbing situations.  I do need to be caraeful about describing the goal of movement practice here, it’s not just about learning a finite set of known movement patterns, it’s about developing a high degree of body awareness, as well as a high degree of conscious control over movement. These last two elements are the most important and allow climbers to quickly make important refinements to moves that other climbers can’t. I also think movement practice is the most important because of what I have seen at competitions. Last season at the local level the vast majority of youth climbers I saw moved rather poorly and a few were doing things in their movement that was potentially harmful.  Only the very best local level climbers had some sophistication in their movement, but those climber had a lot more to learn as well, and it’s movement learning that will be the foundation upon which futher athletic development will be based.

One of the challenges of teaching movement to young climbers is their willingness to engage the process and work at a technical level. Not all youth climbers are equally interested in or willing to undergo this kind of training, meaning that we as coaches need to both communicate the importance of this work to our students, while at the same time providing meaningful incentives at daily practice.

Movement practice is used every day and results are tracked and measured over the course of months.

Finally, how each of these three type of practice are engage in does depend on the age and experience of the climber, as well as their motivation level and where they are in the development curve. These forms of practice are not one size fits all, they are modified for each climber as necessary.

In summary, these three forms of practice are used in the short, medium and long term, with periods of preparation leading up to the actual increase in on-sight level. It’s the quality and timing of these period of preperation that determines when an actual increase in on-sight level will be achieved.

So if any coaches or parents are reading, how do you assess the skills and fitness needed to prepare youth climbers for boulder competitions?

In future posts I’ll address the other points listed above.






7 Responses to “On Coaching ABS Youth”

  1. John MyrickNo Gravatar says:

    Organized youth competition climbing has now been going on for almost two decades (the JCCA started in 1994). I personally have been involved in competing since 1987 and coaching youth climbers for over 15 years. Over the years there have been many discussions, presentations, and written materials produced regarding preparing youth for all types of climbing, climbing competitions and training. We have a USAC (USA Climbing) National Coaching Symposium, put on by the USAC Coaches Committee, every year for the past nine years where top coaches from around the country gather and discuss training and coaching philosophies. It’s a great space to network with other coaches from around the country. The USAC Coaches Committee is a great resource for veteran and new coaches alike. There is a lot of great information out there and the USAC Coaching Community is a great place to learn and share it. I would love to talk to you about coaching and training and see if there is a way we can get you in the fold. It’s an exciting time for competition climbing in the US and the more talent and resources we can get involved in making our athletes better- the better it is for all of us.

    You can contact the coaches committee at coaching@usaclimbing.org

    John Myrick
    Chair, USAC Coaches Committee

  2. Dan HagueNo Gravatar says:

    I’m wondering, does anyone bother coaching their team to compete effectively in the local comps since they really count for nothing but pride? By this I mean that a competitor simply has to show up at two locals and turn in a scorecard to qualify for the Regional; their score is irrelevant to moving on to the next level. Any comp that matters is an on-sight format demanding a somewhat different set of abilities and skills as Douglas has described.

    Yes, I think going to locals is good practice for climbing under time and emotional pressure, but that is all I consider them good for: practice.

  3. DouglasNo Gravatar says:

    hey John, thanks for stopping by, I actually did try to contact the committee last year but didn’t get a response. No big deal, but an effort was made. Anyway, I think you and I just have different opinions of what constitutes the amount of materials out there. What I base my assessment on is things like the fact that there has only been one book writen on the topic in the U.S., Michele Hurni’s introductory guide “Coaching Climbing” from 2003. I am also considering the fact that there has been no scientific research done on youth climbing in the US, I’ve also looked for people dedicating web resources to youth coaching in the US and there don’t seem to be any, but if I’ve overlook something let me know. Also, climbing related publications don’t publish articles on the topic, then consider the fact that little if any scientific field work is being done by US coaches. Of course, such work could be presented at the annual symposium and I would not know about it unless it was published elsewhere after the fact. As for the USAC symposium that is a small private event as one needs to be a member to attend and present there. Thus with all that in mind when I compare the amount of time, money and effort that is going into youth competitions it does seem to me that the intellectual output around youth coaching is fairly small. And please don’t think my comments are critical of coaches in general or the USAC, if anything I’m critical of the scientific community for ignoring this topic (Thomas Hochholzer being the notable exception but he is based in Germany). I agree with you that it is an exciting time for comps in the US so I am doing my part by dedicating a few blog posts to the topic. If you want to do a “state of the nation” (or another topic) guest post here I would welcome it. Anyway, beyond not agreeing with my assessment regarding the amount of information out there, did you have any thoughts on the topics discussed in the post?


    I have a couple of kids who will be competiting for the first time this season, I think developing the skills and fitness for local comps will be good for them as regionals will likely be their last competition of the season. I wouldn’t want them to only have an investment in that one competition. My more experienced climbers who will go to divisionals and nationals will be doing what you suggest, they will use the locals for practice flashing problems.

    Anyway I agree with your larger point that the scoring could be made meaningful, its a little strange that the actual competitive season begins at regionals. By the way, here in Socal there are going to be two “on-sight” [sic.] format comps during the local season, do you have any in your region?

  4. Dan HagueNo Gravatar says:

    None of our locals are scheduled to be on-sight, but now you’ve given me a great idea for ours!

  5. JulieNo Gravatar says:

    Hi Doug,

    I’ve recently started to coach youth climbing for ABS comps. How do you help the kids deal with their frustration when they can’t send something right away?


  6. DouglasNo Gravatar says:

    Hey Julie,

    That is a really good question, and as I am sure you know it depends on the individual child involved. More process oriented kids have less difficulty with this issue. The group that seems to get the most frustrated are kids who are high achievers in other areas and expect things to come easily for them, they seem to be less able to deal with situations in which they struggle or in which the solution to a problem does not come easily to them. I actually have a number of kids who fit this profile on my team. For such kids I have several tactics that I use. First, I tell them up front that in comps, and other settings, but particularly in comps they will face problems that they can only do 1 or 2 moves on, its just the way it is and it happens to everyone. The point here is to manage their expectations, to help them anticipate difficult situations and help them learn what a proper response is. The second tactic I use is to give them a fair amount of competition simulation at team practices. I choose the problems carefully, trying to provide problems they can do, as well as problems they can’t. Thus they are used to being in the potentially frustrating situation, and should become somewhat de-sensitized to it. I also tell them that they can be as analytical as they want, but they can not judge themselves. Finally its essential that the kids be taught good tactics for figuring out the moves on a climb, in competition simulations and other settings I reinforce the message over and over again that they need to apply their tactics, this way they have a tool to use in the pragmatic situation. Finally I also let them know that sometimes it’s alright to walk away from a problem, even in a competition, if they are pumped, or frustrated, or their tactics don’t seem to be working, then its ok to stop, collect one’s self, and move on to the next problem.

  7. ryanNo Gravatar says:

    Hello Douglas,

    Do you have your Self-Coached Climber book in digital format (possibly epub)? I’d like to read it on my iPad using iBooks if possible. I know your Redpoint book is availabe through the Apple store, but not your Self-Coached Climber book :(

    (I did see a Kindle version but it’s only available for purchase in the Amazon US store.)


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