What it means to be a climbing coach

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Coaching is a rewarding, challenging position that requires patience, empathy, and a firm hand.

“The interesting thing about coaching is that you have to trouble the comfortable, and comfort the troubled”

Ric Charlesworth

Many of us who have played sports as a child can look back and remember the coaches they had. We can probably remember word for word some things those coaches have said. We can remember how they celebrate our successes and guided us through our losses. For those of us who are lucky enough, we got the opportunity to continue on and coach the next generation.

I first became a youth rock climbing coach when I moved to California in 2013. I was excited to bring the lessons I learned as a young athlete to help shape lives through climbing. Having had many coaches throughout my life it felt natural to step into that role, but when I became Mesa Rim’s first adaptive climbing coach I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into.

Over the past six years I have learned momentous lessons from our team. The growth and knowledge I’ve acquired from being a part of this team I will hold dear forever. Here are a few of the uncountable things I have learned about what it means to coach and be a part of an adaptive climbing team:

You are going to make the people you care about suffer at some point.

  • Society has a misguided stigma around people with disabilities. They are weak, fragile, and we have to be sensitive with them. This leads to people having a life where everyone is tiptoeing around them. This might possibly be the worst feeling ever.
  • I vowed that I would treat each climber as an athlete and a person. I wouldn’t baby them or stop them from having a hard day. While this takes careful communication between coach and athlete, I think it is one of the most important balances I deal with day to day.
  • It can be a little unnerving to see a woman yelling at a man with one leg to try harder, and I’ve definitely caught some side eyes from other climbers, but at the end of the day that climber is an athlete and he needs to be respected as one. Even if that means pushing them to challenge their limits.
  • It can be really hard to watch someone struggling on a route, and not just say “Okay that was a good try you can come down now.” But you know that in doing so, there isn’t any room for growth. It doesn’t help them get any closer to their goal.

You will become a close family.

  • If you have a team full of people with disabilities at some point something will go wrong with someone, but when that happens you have a whole bunch of people ready to step up for you. A couple years ago one of our teammates was in the hospital with a brain infection. There was no question among us that we were all going to be in the hospital waiting room throughout the night just in case she needed anything. And that’s exactly what we did. We set up camp and waited to hear back on every lab work, brain scan, and new medication. We vowed not to leave until she was able to also. It’s rare to move to a brand new city, and already feel like you have a built in support group.

You are leading by example.

  • Being both a teammate as well as a coach, I am in an unusual position. I know that the choices I make as a climber will set the standard for what is acceptable on our team. If I try a hard route and fall and then sit around moping for an hour that is exactly what they do. If I train once a week for thirty minutes with a bad attitude they will too. If I get up early, train hard, and be driven towards my goals they will also.
  • On the mornings that I’m tired, sore, and just want to go back to bed I have to remind myself that my decisions don’t only affect me, but ten other people and their lives and their goals and I hold that responsibility heavily.

It will change the way you see humanity.

  • You will see strength in people that you never knew existed, and this will suddenly start translating out of just your coaching life and into your everyday life. You will start to believe in the unknown abilities of everyone around you. With the knowledge of what people are truly capable of you will become a better motivator, friend, and significant other. You will begin inspiring those around you because you know what strength and dedication really looks like.

For all of these things, I am thankful.