At 12-years-old I could climb 5.12, but barely do a pull-up. While this would surprise many adult climbers, most youth climbers can relate.
I began climbing at age 7 in a small basement gym in Chicago, called Hidden Peak. At the time Hidden Peak was training some of the strongest youth athletes in the country, such as Isabelle Faus and Michaela Kiersch. I quickly developed strong fingers, along with flexibility and technique. I relied heavily on these skills to push my climbing ability and perform at a high level in competition. But a lot changed right around age 12 or 13, with emotional and physical changes creating such setbacks in my performance that, central though climbing was in my young life, I eventually took some time off.
I was experiencing this horrible and wonderful thing everyone goes through … puberty. All of a sudden I had boobs and a butt, and they were constantly in my way in climbing. As I grew and gained weight, my fingers ached on small crimps for the first time, and my flexibility faded just as quickly.
My male counterparts were hitting puberty as well, but their bodies were increasing in muscle mass. The boys were able to do more pull ups, not less, and they improved on the campus board and were climbing harder than ever. My female friends and I found that the splits, which had always come so easily to us, were not so easy anymore. I used to love to show off the crazy sit starts I could do, but with the extra weight those, too, became much harder. I loved to slab climb, relying on my technique and flexibility, but now my weight was distributed differently. Slabs were awkward. I didn’t know where my center of gravity was.
All of these things pushed me to take a year off climbing. I dabbled in basketball and soccer, but eventually made my way back to climbing. I realized all wasn’t lost. I realized I would have to work harder at certain things, such as flexibility, that had previously come easily, and I would have to work on things I had previously not had to train. I had to learn to climb in a brand-new body, and although it required work, I thrived post puberty, achieving my best competition performances as well as hardest outdoor climbs.
It happens frequently that young female athletes will excel on the competition scene in Youth D or C (under age 13) and then not experience the same success in their older years of competition. As a youth athlete, I watched it happen to friends. I thought at the time that once they experienced physical changes with puberty, they would be unable to perform at a high level ever again. I have learned over the years how wrong I was. All these athletes need is knowledge: knowing what is coming and being prepared for it.
Today, as a coach to some of the best athletes in the world on Team ABC, in Boulder, Colorado, I feel lucky to be in a place to get to work with athletes of all ages, but I feel extremely fortunate to get to work with preteen girls. My story is not an uncommon one, and having the conversation is extremely important. I talk to my young female athletes about puberty all the time and wish that I had had a female coach to talk to when I was younger. They are embarrassed the first couple times I bring it up, but in the end it always ends up having a meaningful impact. It is important for them to know what is coming (bodily changes, boobs, butts, periods, raging hormones) and that they are not alone.
What is Coming
Puberty for a young girl has many aspects. The first, very noticeable one is changes in their bodies. Girls will develop breasts, larger hips and butts, and grow taller. These bodily changes lead to a new distribution in weight. At the time, I found the hardest thing to navigate was having a new center of gravity: It can feel like you are learning to climb all over again. It is important that the conversation be about how to navigate a new weight distribution and not about losing weight. As a youth athlete, I didn’t realize that my hips and breasts were genetic. I was an elite athlete in extremely good shape, and I just happened to have boobs. I quickly learned to wear a sports bra when climbing for support and not only for fashion.
Puberty also involves girls getting their first periods. This one really threw me for a loop in my climbing. With my first period I was sent off to climbing practice wearing a pad. It was wildly uncomfortable all of practice, it moved around as I tried to heel hook above my head, and I felt disgusting sweating during my core practice. After that first day I thought maybe once a month I would just be out of climbing practice. Thank goodness I learned about tampons and realized that my period didn’t have to stop me from climbing at all.
On top of all these physical changes, emotional changes can take a huge toll on an athlete. As my emotions raged, I became more emotional about my climbing. I was more frustrated than ever if I did not succeed; sometimes it looked like anger and sometimes it looked like sadness. I compared myself to other female athletes, girls that I would call friends, more so than ever. All of a sudden I didn’t want my friends’ success, and I would be mad at them for having it. I was mad at friends who hadn’t yet hit puberty. I was mad at friends who were navigating it better than I. I placed all of my self worth on my climbing performance and despaired when I had a perceived bad performance.
As a coach, I talk about all of this with my athletes. When it is time to start wearing a sports bra, we talk about it together. We work together in private lessons to learn where our new center of gravity is by playing balance games and making up fun climbs. I always keep a box of tampons on hand at the gym and let every girl know where to find it. I try to bring the 12-13-year-old girls together to talk about what is going on.
It is amazing how their perspective changes when they learn that their friends also are uncomfortable in their pads or that their friends have also found themselves more emotional about their climbing. I do not try to stop the emotions: We just acknowledge them. We say it is OK to be envious of a friend as long as we can still love and support them through their success.
Breaking Down Barriers
Even though every preteen girl goes through the same things, they often have a hard time sharing their experiences with each other, leading them to feel even more alone and helpless. The most important thing I have done as a coach is initiate these conversations and break down the awkward barriers surrounding what is happening. As we have these conversations, we can adapt their training to account for a changing body. We start to preemptively incorporate more stretching, building bigger muscle groups, and we check in frequently on injuries that may arise as their bodies change.
I hope more female coaches and athletes talk together about puberty—the good, the bad and the seemingly horrible—because it is all a lot less horrible when you are able to ask the questions and share your experiences.
Claire Gordon is the team programs manager and elite coach with Team ABC. She has been climbing for 16 years, starting with the indoor competition scene and now has transitioned to mostly an outdoor boulderer. She can almost always be found at the crag or in the climbing gym, but if not she is probably at home playing with her dog Beans.