Free Rock Climbing Coach

Most climbers spend lots of energy trying to find ways to climb better. A survey I did of climbers a couple years ago suggests that the joy of accomplishment fuels 60% of climbers to train and keep climbing. Coaching is a proven strategy to improve at just about anything. Whether it be in a sport or a career, coaching accelerates improvement by helping the coachee identify areas for improvement and find ways to address them.

While once in a while I see climbing partners helping each other in a coaching type engagement, it is not very common. Whether it is because they don’t recognize the opportunity, or they don’t know how to do it, most climbers don’t leverage a powerful resource that they have…their partner as a coach. And they do it for FREE! Your partner watches you climb and has valuable insights that can help you improve your climbing, if you can figure out how to leverage it. The purpose of this article is to provide some tips for engaging your partner in co-creative coaching, where both of you can benefit.

The vast majority of “coaching” in climbing is not done by formal coaches. Partners help each other. Couples help each other. Parents help their kids. Kids help their parents! Therefore, I embrace the term co-creative coaching, which conveys the idea that the coach isn’t necessarily “superior” to the coached. In this article I will describe the co-creative coaching process and provide you and your partner with tips, tools, and insights that will help you to co-creatively coach each other.

What is Co-creative Coaching?
To co-create is to create together, alongside each other. Each party contributing what they have to offer. When you engage in co-creative coaching, you and your partner help each other improve (or have more fun). It is not a traditional coach-student relationship, but one where ideas are exchanged, experimented with, and possibly utilized to climb better.
By definition, when you engage in co-creative coaching, you and your partner voluntary cooperate. You can’t be co-creative with a partner who does not want to coach you or be coached by you. It is of utmost importance that you and your partner agree to be co-creative in order for the process to work optimally. I suggest that you share this article with your partner and ask them if they would be interested in co-creative coaching.
Another prerequisite to effective co-creative coaching is that all participants need to have the right attitude. So, what’s the right attitude? The right attitude for engaging in co-creative coaching is characterized by:

  • being receptive to feedback, positive or negative
  • being attentive to your partner and trying to identify things for them to consider
  • being sensitive when giving feedback avoiding defensiveness
  • avoiding being overly directive (e.g., yelling beta in the midst of your partner’s attempt)

To illustrate what I mean consider the following “coaching” exchange. In this example, Josh is struggling at a crux move while Marla is belaying and coaching him.
Josh: Awe man, this is way hard for the grade. I just can’t do this move.
Marla: It looks powerful.
Josh: Yeah, and I can’t keep my butt in. OK, here goes again. Climbing.
Marla: Step up with your right foot. Go, go, go.
Josh: (Slumping onto the rope). Crap. I’m weak.
Marla: Are you getting tired? My neck sort of hurts.
Josh: OK, just let me down.
Josh: (now on the ground) I can’t figure out what to do there.
Marla: I need to go pee.
Josh: OK

I have to say that this is not an atypical exchange that you might hear at the crag. Let’s analyze the exchange.
So, Josh is struggling and sounds frustrated. Marla’s first response basically just supports that frustration yet provides no help: “It looks powerful.” When Josh tries the move again, Marla kicks into beta mode and tells him what he should do. For one thing, most of us don’t process verbal commands very well when we are trying a hard move. It typically distracts us.
Josh appears to get even more frustrated with himself and even verbalizes that he thinks that he is too weak to do the move. Marla follows this up by asking if he’s tired and shares that she is getting tired of belaying. If Josh wasn’t tired before, he is now. She offered no encouragement or perspective. When Josh gets to the ground he shares his frustration again, but Marla does not want to discuss what he could have done differently or help him address his frustration.

Now let’s look at an exchange that is co-creative.
Josh: Awe man, this is way hard for the grade. I just can’t do this move.
Marla: Wow, you looked really good getting up to that point.
Josh: Yeah, but I can’t keep my butt in.
Marla: It looks to me like your right foot is too high and holding you back from that chalked up hold out right.
Josh: Yeah, I feel that, but I don’t see any other feet. Wait, there is this little nubbin just below the high-step. I’ll try that. Climbing.
Josh: (slumping onto the rope again) That felt better, but I still can’t keep my butt in and it’s just pulling me off.
Marla: Yeah, that did look better. I agree that it looks like you get scrunched up and those handholds are small. Hey, is that undercling thumb catch above you any good? It might allow you to stretch out and keep your butt in.
Josh: Hmmmm. Let me see. Take up. Maybe that will help hold me in while I get my foot up to the better hold. I’ll try. Climbing.
Josh pulls the move and proceeds to finish the route. Back on the ground, they continue their conversation:
Josh: That was a very tricky crux. I don’t know how I would have ever thought to do that onsight.
Marla: You did awesome. I did notice that when you hit that crux, you pretty quickly asked me to take you tight.
Josh: I didn’t have any idea what to do.
Marla: One thing that I do sometimes when I get to a stopper move is to downclimb and see if I can get some ideas from a more restful spot.
Josh: Yeah, I just didn’t think about that.

This is a very different conversation and much more productive in getting Josh to the top and in helping him learn something new. Take note of several aspects of their conversation:
The engagement level is very high. Marla is paying attention and interested.
Marla suggests ideas and doesn’t give commands. Marla offers beta while Josh is hanging, not in the middle of moves.
Josh is open to considering what Marla has to say.
Marla sandwiches her critiques with two positive comments. This is a classic technique to help people be receptive to what they might see as negative feedback.
Marla seems genuinely interested in helping Josh solve his problem.
We hope that this example gives you a sense of the attitude required for effective co-creative coaching. Attitude is extremely important, but there is more to a successful co-creative coaching relationship.

A good co-creative coach will:
1) Help set goals: Goals are key to improving performance and accomplishing just about anything. Climbing goals can be to onsight a certain grade, to learn to lead, to redpoint a particular route, or any number of things. A coach’s role in goal setting is to help their partner determine whether it’s an appropriate goal or not, based on several criteria (e.g., matches partner’s priorities; correct level of challenge).
For example, suppose I climb 5.10 and I decide that I want to free the Nose on El Capitan. A coach might ask me how long I think it will take me to prepare and improve my climbing to where I can reach my goal. They might ask me how long I’m willing to stay motivated in reaching my goal. If I say that I want to do it within a year, they might ask me for evidence that suggests to me that that is a reasonable goal.
Likewise, if I am not pushing myself much and have an easy goal, they may ask me how excited I would be when I accomplish my goal. If I say that I’d be ecstatic, they may ask me why.
A coach can also help a climber clarify their goals. Returning to the El Cap example, a coach may ask me about my timeframe and whether the goal is to lead every pitch. They may ask whether it has to be done in one push or if I plan to fix ropes and return to the ground.
Climbers should offer their own goals, but a coach can help the climber understand whether their goal is a good one and help clarify the details.

2) Help identify gaps in capabilities: Another key to successful co-creative coaching is to help your partner identify gaps in capabilities required to reach the goal. If I set a goal, and yet, I do not have all the capabilities to reach the goal, I need to work on developing them. A coach can help a climber identify the gaps and the means to address them.
Suppose that I want to redpoint Apocalypse 91 in Rifle, a powerful and pumpy 5.13. My coach may suggest that I take a burn on it and see where I have trouble. They may suggest that maybe my power endurance isn’t where it needs to be and that I need to work on it. Help create a plan to fill the gaps: Now the identified gaps must be filled, so a coach can help craft a plan to address them. For me, maybe it’s some system board training in the gym, or maybe it’s climbing some specific routes that will build my power endurance over a period of several weeks.

3) Help the person being coached stay on track in their plan: An important function of a coach is to help a climber stay on track to their plan. We all get distracted and deviate from our plans. A good coach can remind us of our plan and even help to modify the plan in the event circumstances require a change. Simple comments such as, “how’s the training going?” can spark a dialog about challenges that the coach may be able to help with.

4) Observe performance and provide feedback for improvement: An important aspect of coaching is to provide feedback based on observations of performance. Doing this requires skill, attention and tact. The coach has to be skilled enough in climbing movement to provide meaningful suggestions. This is not to say that the coach has to be an expert climber. The best co-coaching situation is often when two climbers of fairly similar abilities coach each other.
When one is observing a climber to be coached, the coach has to pay close attention to what the climber is doing when they climb. It’s easy to get distracted when belaying or spotting, but a coach has to really pay attention.
When a coach provides feedback, it needs to be given in a way that is non-judgmental, and should be as a question or suggestion, rather than a command. Instead of saying, “put your right foot in that pocket”, you might say “did you see that pocket out right?” Or you might say “have you thought about whether that pocket might be useful?”
When providing a debriefing after a climber gets back to the ground, a coach should engage the climber in a conversation about the climb. As mentioned previously, an effective technique is to open with some positive feedback, such as “you really looked smooth through that opening boulder problem.” You then probe or make suggestions about a troublesome part of the climb. You might say, “I notice that you struggled with the fourth clip. What was going on there?”

5) Celebrate: A coach and climber, especially when they are co-creative coaching partners will naturally celebrate victories together. Whether it be reliving the experience around the campfire or celebrating with a favorite beverage, celebration is an important part of a co-creative coaching relationship. They are part of the reason we climb.

I hope that you find this article useful and that you can engage your climbing partner in a co-creative coaching relationship. It will really improve your climbing ability. And it’s free!


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