Coaching Climbing – How To Train Juniors with Care and Caution
Climbing coach Neil Gresham and sports physiotherapist Nina Leonfellner-Tappin on how to train junior climbers with care and caution.
In 1997, when a 14-year-old boy who started climbing in a gym made the first ascent of Necessary Evil (5.14c), then regarded as the hardest climb in the United States, the climbing world felt shockwaves. Since Chris Sharma burst onto the scene, gym climbing has skyrocketed in popularity, standards on real rock have kept pace, more and more kids have gotten hooked on climbing, and coaching methods have evolved.
Climbing is a great sport for youngsters—it teaches them to be independent and responsible, to appreciate the artistry of movement, to look deep within themselves, and to venture beyond their comfort zones. Climbing switches on lights for a broad range of personalities, from team players to lone operators, often regardless of talent.
From a coaching perspective, it is highly rewarding to help youngsters steer a course through this incredible sport. However, the stakes are high, with pitfalls and potential hazards to negotiate. Many juniors have a daunting number of competitions on the calendar, volume that is only likely to increase now that climbing is slated for the 2020 Olympics, increasing the threats of over-training and burnout. Most juniors don’t understand the principles of training and physiology, and few have an injury history to learn from.
It is up to coaches and parents to guide and educate young climbers in their training, climbing and competing. The field is young and research is still minimal, so we should strive for sound knowledge and share ideas and experiences, both good and bad.
Growth and Development
Juniors can be classified as prepubescent, adolescent and late adolescent. Injury risks vary subtly as a junior climber passes through each stage, so getting to know each athlete well and working closely with parents is key.
Prepubescence is the stage before puberty (sexual maturation and the ability to reproduce). Adolescence is the period when, and a few years after, puberty arrives, and is characterized by bone and hormonal growth spurts. Late adolescence is synonymous to late teens; in this period one normally has—though not in all cases—reached sexual and skeletal maturity (the point after puberty when the bones have fully grown and the growth plates and centers have ossified completely). Adolescence is the most vulnerable age group for injury. Sports physicians, orthopedic consultants, physiotherapists, researchers, and strength and conditioning coaches state 12 to 15 years as the highest-risk age bracket. Until skeletal maturity, both females and males are at risk of bone-growth plate fractures or bone lesions (damage that can lead to a fracture or a stress fracture).
Girls are not considered skeletally mature until menstruation. If they have not yet acquired their periods and are still growing, they are considered at risk for growth-site lesions. If males have reached sexual maturity/puberty but are still growing, they are also at risk. Assessing skeletal maturity can be tricky, as it may arrive at any point between the early teens into the 20s. The only way to know for certain is to obtain a hand X-ray, which for climbers is very useful. Finger injuries are common, and an X-ray can assist in ruling out a fracture or bone lesion, while also enabling an assessment of skeletal maturity. Until youths are skeletally mature, consider pain in fingers seriously, and do not hesitate to ask for a hand X-ray. According to Dr. Noel Cameron, professor of human biology at Loughborough University, U.K., X-ray radiation these days is minimal even for children.
In addition to the risk of immediate trauma to joints and bones, high-intensity, repetitive exercise during adolescence may lead to symptoms of arthritis later on in life. Dr. Paul Read, strength and conditioning researcher at St. Mary’s University, U.K., and his colleagues, have recently written about the increased incidence of hip cartilage tears and joint deformities in elite adult soccer players who trained at high volumes (four sessions per week or more) during their adolescent years compared to those who played less at the same age range. The researchers’ findings back the importance of moderating volume for adolescent climbers and ensuring that they perform supportive conditioning and antagonist sessions to help safeguard them.
Diet is especially relevant to athletes going through puberty. The subject is beyond the scope of this article, but children should consume sufficient fat and protein to help with tissue growth and hormone synthesis, as well as the other essential macro and micronutrients of a balanced diet. Coaches should issue basic advice on nutrition and ask parents to check that their children are eating a diverse range of healthy foods and not under-eating. The best scenario for juniors is to see a nutritionist as part of a multi-disciplinary coaching team.
If a youngster experiences pain lasting for more than a few days, consult a medical professional. Kids should not climb with swollen finger joints, as the swelling is a high indication of growth lesions. According to researcher and orthopedic surgeon Dr. Volker Schoeffl, who works with the German youth teams, 90 percent of finger-pain cases in juniors aged 12 to 15 years are caused by growth-plate lesions, which require rest.
Juniors should only tape fingers to prevent hyperextension, not to support a suspected injured pulley ligament; it may instead be an avulsion fracture (when a fragment of bone attached to a tendon or ligament is pulled from the bone proper) or a trauma to the surface of the joint. Growth-plate lesions are serious injuries with potential longterm consequences. A junior climber in this scenario who is desperate to compete and who wants to tape and climb through the pain for an event is jeopardizing his or her climbing career (and unlikely to perform well anyway). Fortunately, with treatment and rest, minor growth-site injuries can heal well. Rest does not mean complete rest but restricted activity, with low-impact, low-intensity, pain-free exercise.
Muscles, tendons and ligaments are strong and flexible in a growing child. However, his or her developing bones, joint cartilage, and the bony-attachment points of tendons and ligaments are fragile. A growing bone begins as cartilage and develops into dense bone. This occurs at the ends of the long bones (growth plates) found in our fingers, arms, legs, spine and pelvis. Bone growth also takes place within the small bones (ossification sites) in your wrists, hands, feet and kneecaps, and there are growth centers or plates (apophyses) at the attachment points for tendons and ligaments. The cartilage of a joint surface goes through a complex growth process. These growth sites are fragile in children, especially adolescents. Strong muscles, tendons and ligaments pulling on these points can apply harmful shear, compressive and traction forces, and may cause traumatic or overuse injuries. Principal sites are young climbers’ finger tendons and ligaments and their elbow-tendon attachment points, but there are cases of sustaining calcaneal (heel) growth-plate fractures from heel-hooking.
Key Risk Factors
High-volume and high-intensity climbing training during adolescence presents a major risk. Pre-puberty training, or a moderate, methodical grounding in good technique and movement patterns and the acquisition of base strength, however, can possibly help prevent injuries in adolescence.
If juniors (from prepubescent through to late adolescent) are doing a number of intensive physical sports at the same time as training for climbing, then the risk of burn-out and/or injury is high. However, off-season cross-training and alternative sports can promote all-around athletic ability and motivation.
Juniors have a tendency toward generalized hypermobility (i.e.: when a joint straightens past 0 degrees). One hypermobility researcher, Dr. Alan J. Hakim of London, says that 60 percent of all juniors show signs of generalized hypermobility. Finger hyperextension can strain and overload finger joints and pulley attachments, while elbow hyperextension strains the wrist and shoulder joints and their tendons. Coaches can assess finger and elbow hyperextension, and use a screening process (see below).
Tips for Coaches
INJURY AUDITING: Use an auditing system to learn from juniors’ injury histories and to help prevent injuries. Record and discuss every injury. Log the nature and onset of the injury or pain and any details about the type of training performed.
SCREENING: Screening tests assess general posture, joint mobility, flexibility, strength and stability. They provide coaches, climbers, parents and medical practitioners vital supportive information, and help juniors learn how to take care of their bodies. Screening is an educational opportunity outside of team practice to discuss things like puberty age and whether females have acquired their periods yet. It may be easier for adolescents to speak about menstruation to a medical practitioner, like a physiotherapist, than a regular coach. If an outside presence is not possible, a coach can organize basic screenings and include such inquiries in a questionnaire for team members at screening times.
Screening done by physiotherapists, strength and conditioning coaches and/or educated climbing coaches can prevent injuries by flagging risk factors, such as hyperextended elbows and a weak core, at an early stage. Choose screening tests carefully. Pull-ups, press-ups and core strength exercises are advised, but avoid campusing and lock-off timing as they are dangerous for juniors. Record, and ideally show with video, the point when a young climber’s form deteriorates rather than having them take an exercise to failure. Examine neck positions and look out for “chicken winging” during pull-ups. Note if elbows or fingers are in hyperextension, or if shoulders are jutting forward, or lower backs are over arching.
Before each screening, issue parents and team members a letter explaining the procedure and a consent form. Provide parents with a chart for recording their child’s height and weight each month, to help identify growth-spurt periods where the risk of injury is high. The screening questionnaire should record factors such as injury history, dietary habits, climbing-shoe and regular-shoe sizes, training habits/routines, and other sports or activities. Screenings also provide an opportunity to discuss healthy training habits and the potential for over-training. Discuss the risks of wearing tight climbing shoes when feet are still growing. Tight climbing shoes compress the toe joints, mainly the big toes, and can harm the growing joint surfaces and cause early arthritis symptoms. Advise kids to take their climbing shoes off between routes and problems.
STRATEGIES: Training for Juniors
Longterm Development Model
Track juniors’ longterm progress, especially as they use new training methods. First, focus on developing technique, then endurance, and—last—strength. In the model below, the range of time durations reflects different talent and motivation levels. Years of climbing experience are more relevant than age for introducing higher loads of training, provided puberty issues are taken into account. Reduce volume and intensity at the onset of puberty or during growth spurts.
1) DEVELOPMENT PHASE (first one to three years of climbing) Focus on technique and skills acquisition, based on variety and repetition. No “training” in the first year. Build a base of specific endurance and general conditioning.
2) CONSOLIDATION PHASE (two to four years experience) Introduce moderate training to develop specific base-strength. Use feet for assistance with all exercises, and gradually build up volume. Introduce basic program planning. Focus on maintaining climbing form when fatigued in endurance sessions.
3) REFINEMENT PHASE (four-plus years experience) Progressively increase intensity and frequency of strength training, but not during growth spurts. Introduce advanced-program planning techniques, such as periodization. Fine-tune technique.
WARM UP: Include a pulse raiser (jogging around, skipping, burpees) and an abdominal and core warm-up (sit-ups, leg paddles, planks), followed by mobility work (arm circles, finger clenches, shoulder-blade activation, hip circles, leg swings).
COOL DOWN: Light climbing, antagonist-type exercises and static stretches, focusing on the forearms, lats and shoulder.
Hold regular sessions to prevent injuries caused by muscle imbalances. Juniors who fail to work their chest muscles may develop permanently rounded upper backs, while failure to develop forearm extensors or triceps could lead to finger and elbow complaints. The more climbing a youngster does and the harder the sessions, the more antagonist work is needed. A guideline is once a week for younger age groups and two to three times a week for older juniors.
The target antagonist muscles are the forearm extensors (use a thick elastic band or an extensor trainer, see Grip Trainers) and the chest, front shoulders and triceps (push-ups are most practical). Additional muscles to target with supportive conditioning sets are the core, abdominals, legs and buttocks. Short sessions are key, and a little bit of training is always better than nothing; for example, 5 to 10 minutes during the warm-up, prior to climbing, and 10 to 15 minutes at the end of the session. Complementary coordination and press exercises such as handstands, wall-walks, support-holds, L-sits, frog-stands and various floor crawls are all worthwhile.
Temperature Regulation and Hydration
Children produce more body heat than adults, and their sweat glands are less active to disperse it. They also suffer more from voluntary dehydration, meaning that their thirst levels are less than bodily fluid requirements. Additionally, children often pay little attention to the fatiguing effects of exercise. Coaches should teach discipline and restraint and remind junior climbers to drink and rest, especially on hot days.
Technique and Posture
Promote good posture and technique in training and climbing. Discuss individual errors and recurring faults. Technique drills during warm-up can help address these areas. Instruct juniors to use correct shoulder positioning and avoid chicken winging. Check for hyperextended elbows when hanging on straight arms or from a sidepull. When fatigue kicks in, allow a few moves but never the majority of a route with sub-optimal technique. Discourage climbers from being excessively dynamic to the point of losing form and control, but also discourage an overly static style in which a climber holds lock offs too long. A smooth, controlled, fluid style is more efficient and kinder on the body. For climbing on overhangs, teach use of the feet and core engagement over cutting loose.
Avoid or minimize high-impact dynamic moves and use of “tweaky” holds such as sharp edges or pockets. Many injuries occur when climbers work the same move repeatedly, so set time limits and make children move on. When doing pull-ups or bar training, avoid holding deep/full lock offs for any period of time, no matter how brief, as this overloads and strains the elbows. Campus-boarding is high risk for those under 18, as it applies extreme shock-loading forces onto soft, growing finger bones and joints. No footless campusing is advised between ages 11 to 15, and juniors should avoid it during growth spurts and puberty changes. Don’t worry, climbers like Tyler Landman and Adam Ondra reached the very highest grades during adolescence without touching campus boards. Those under 18 should not do weighted campusing, according to Dr. Schoeffl (orthopedic surgeon) and Isabelle Schoeffl (pediatric doctor), the latter also working with the German youth teams.
Useful criteria for negotiating whether a junior could start bodyweight campusing is whether he/she is over 15 and has been training and climbing for over eight years (preferably starting before puberty), has no history of injuries, and has developed base strength (to approximately V6/7 level) from bouldering and from doing feet-on campus ladders. Other requirements are regular-core stability training (including pressing exercises) and coach/climber attention to correct technique. Introduce campusing only when a junior’s training volume is low, insist juniors rest and ice their fingers afterward, and allow only one campus session a week.
Tracy Wilson, coach for the Colorado Rocky Mountain School climbing team, the current state champions, says, “We haven’t invested in a campus board because it’s not an appropriate tool for 90 percent of our athletes. Most have only been climbing for a couple years, and their bodies aren’t ready for the kind of stress placed on them while campusing.”
Motivation and Psychological Issues
All sports present their pressures. Children in competitions contend with performance and peer pressures at a stage when they are emotionally immature. Sports psychologists understand that peers have a huge influence on the psychological and emotional development of the young athlete. Studies show that enjoyment levels and perception of ability are everything in progression. Parents and coaches who encourage young people in a positive but subtle manner will enhance their confidence and enjoyment, which, in turn, may improve their performance. Coaches who are negative or overly pushy can have the reverse effect. Do not push too hard too soon. Allow children to succeed, and keep it fun—at every age and every stage.
Nina Leonfellner-Tappin is a sports physiotherapist and a climber of over 15 years. Neil Gresham has coached since 1994.
This article originally appeared in Rock and Ice issue 241 (April 2017).