Youth Competitions: How Young Is Too Young to Train and Compete?

As Olympic ambitions take root, it's worth examining the merits of having kids compete at a young age
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Colin Duffy, 15, on his way to win the Lead Youth B division at the 2018 IFSC Youth World Championship in Moscow. Duffy, who has been a member of Team ABC since 2012, later placed fifth at this year's USA Climbing Combined Invitational.

Colin Duffy, 15, on his way to win the Lead Youth B division at the 2018 IFSC Youth World Championship in Moscow. Duffy, who has been a member of Team ABC since 2012, later placed fifth at this year's USA Climbing Combined Invitational.

Kyra Condie, the winner of this year’s Combined Invitational, started climbing on her local gym’s team when she was 11 years old. Ashima Shiraishi first hopped on the boulders of Central Park when she was six. And Brooke Raboutou famously started climbing around the same time that she started to walk—and was leading routes by the time she was five. While the skill sets of these stars are exceptional, starting on a climbing and competing tract at such a young age is increasingly common as more gyms foster robust youth teams, host kids’ comps such as the Mesa Rim Grom Cup, and in some instances—like at North Carolina’s Climbmax—offer various levels of youth training camps.

But with competing can come a lot of extraneous pressures, such as the anxiety of having to perform well, a desire to meet parents’ expectations, and the general highs and lows of success and failure. Kids vary greatly in their ability to handle these, which prompts a pressing question: Is there a certain age prior to which competing might do more harm than good?

“As a broad statement, I don’t think it’s ever too early to compete,” says Kyle Clinkscales, the head coach at Team Texas. Clinkscales is as qualified as anyone to assess the age question—he has coached teenagers as well as little kids, won numerous national titles, and in the process turned Team Texas into a legendary squad. “I think the training is the thing that has to be watched. I can have a competition for five-year-olds at the gym and there will be no long-term effects on the kids. But if I start training a five-year-old to get ready for Regionals, Divisionals, or Nationals, that’s where the problems come in.”

By “problems,” Clinkscales is referring to the fact that preparing for large-scale USA Climbing competitions entails systematic programs to ensure performance peaks on precise dates. Doing that means removing some of what Clinkscales calls “the play aspect” of climbing—some of the fun and insouciance that is vital to a child’s development.

Clinkscales notes that there are exceptions and some kids can embrace the rigors of high-level competition from a very young age, but those kids often have a unique competitiveness that comes from within. “This is a broad statement, but [such kids] are more driving the bus when it comes to: ‘I want to beat that kid,’ or ‘I want to get a place on the podium,’ or ‘I want to advance to Nationals,’” Clinkscales notes. “Those kids are removing the play aspect themselves—and if that can be backed up with a good coaching program, then it’s the right fit. Whereas when most kids are eight years old or younger, they should just be playing, goofing off, and using their imaginations.”

There is hard science backing the ideas that Clinkscales has formulated from his years of coaching kids-turned-superstars, from Alex Puccio to Claire Buhrfeind and others. Variety is important when it comes to the activities of all kids—an upside being that kids thus explore many types of physicality, while a downside is that such dabbling does not always equate to exceptional results. Dr. Rebecca Williams is a clinical psychologist and a climbing instructor, and her coaching program, Smart Climbing, offers psychological performance coaching for climbers of all ages. “We know that early specialization is not good for kids, so greater variety of sports up to teenage years is important,” Williams says. “Whilst that doesn’t mean no competing, it certainly means that if kids are focusing on a number of different sports, they may not excel in one. As long as parents, coaches, and kids are aware of that—and primed to deal with it as building experience—it’s fine. But my experience is that, more often than not, one of the triad gets disappointed in the results, which can cause problems.”

Pushy Parents

The parents’ encouragement is part of the formula that should be closely monitored when determining whether a kid’s competing is beneficial or detrimental. Dave Hudson is the head coach of the 100-person youth climbing team at First Ascent in Chicago, and he points out that climbing is not immune to the well-known trope of parents trying to live vicariously through the athletic success of their children. “Sometimes the parent is just really into athletics and they really want their child to have a sport—and they’re more into it than the kid,” he says. “As a coach, you may not learn that until a couple months into working with the child, that they actually don’t really enjoy it or they’re just not that into it.”

To help bring some systematic order to any kid’s (or parent’s) abilities and ambitions, Hudson has implemented a multi-tiered team structure at First Ascent that builds upon several age-based recreational classes. For instance, there is a Pre-Team for kids that express a noticeable degree of natural talent, a Development Team for kids who are generally older and a little stronger, a Teenage Team that varies in ability but is exclusively for kids who can lead climb, and two upper level tiers that include an Elite Team that practices for three hours, three days a week.

First Ascent’s various tiers are intentionally fluid, with kids able to progress into more advanced teams via a couple of different tryout sessions throughout the year. Interestingly, age is not the main focus, even though Hudson is always cognizant of it because USA Climbing’s five competition divisions are separated by age (18–19 years old, 16-17, 14-15, 12-13, and 11 and younger). Even if the kids are not competing at a really young age, Hudson still sees value in having them on a team when they are very young: “It forms a really close community—having that team camaraderie—and also the kids just have a chance to get really good.”

Clinkscales, who has different levels for his youth team in Texas too, echoes this, noting that Team Texas generally does not accept kids who are 12 years old or older—and to make the youth team over the age of ten requires some exceptional ability. He explains that it is easier to indoctrinate kids into the Team Texas program when they are younger: “We want to start them on a path of development. We’re trying to start the process so they can get better and better as they get older.”

That path of development is best when the kids have some natural athleticism, which is the physical aspect that Clinkscales looks for first and foremost when assessing young prospects. Hudson at First Ascent also points out an aspect that is more intangible: coachability. “It’s attention-span, it’s attitude—the kids are receptive to feedback and advice that’s not always positive,” he says when attempting to describe it. “Especially with younger kids, we try to keep it as positive as we can, but of course our job is to make corrections, to fix technique and correct mistakes.”

The Road Life

Competing at a young age also means a lot of travel—another aspect that will be embraced by some but disliked by others. The country is currently divided into 16 geographic regions and eight divisions for USA Climbing competitions. In some cases, these divisions include a huge swath of states. Take, for example, the Midwest Region, which includes teams like Hudson’s from Illinois, as well as teams from Indiana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Michigan. Even at the regional or local level, Hudson says that parents might still have to drive for three or four hours and stay overnight in a hotel to take part in a weekend competition.

“It can get expensive,” Hudson admits. “It’s a lot of effort to travel for climbing. But the Olympics gives a little justification to those kids for the investment they’re making—and the parents kind of feel that way too. It’s like, ‘Wow, Olympics! Cool! Maybe there will be college scholarships [for climbing] in a few years too.’”

Hudson does not see climbing’s inclusion in the 2020 Olympics (or possibly the 2024 Olympics) equating to more kids wanting to join youth teams just yet, but he sees participation potentially growing by as much as 25 percent in the year following the Olympics—and that will continue to generate interest in competing at even younger ages: “If there is an American competing in the Olympics and there is TV coverage and a little buzz, I think it will be huge.”