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How Much (and When) Should Kids be Training?

Climbing has significant social, physiological, and developmental benefits for children and young adults. But there are also things they should avoid. And things you should avoid as a parent or a coach.

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It finally happened—climbing is a big league sport now… sort of. It was in the Olympics! It’s time for parents move their families into vans and stake out their spots at the nearest gym. Opportunities for climbing pros are blooming; money from sponsors and investors is raining in. If you’re a parent or coach, the time is now to prep young climbers who aspire to reach their full potential.

But how do we shepherd kids along that path?

Youth climber pulling hard moves in a youth world cup event
Nimród Sebestyén Tusnády, from Hungary, digs deep during semifinals at the Youth World Championships. Tusnády finised in 15th place in the Combined ranking. (Photo: Sytse Van Slooten / IFSC.)

The best athletes start early. They’re given the right amount of gas at the right time in the right direction. Hitting the developmental stages, or characteristic periods of growth and maturation, correctly requires active planning. To cultivate your young athletes to have healthy mindsets and long-term passion for climbing can be a daunting task. Based on the recommendations made by Athletics Canada (athletics.ca), below are six tips for addressing each crucial stage, adapted for climbing. Age ranges and stage names are from Athletics Canada.

And for all those individuals who are pushing young climbers too hard, we have created a nice little chart:

The tools (one, two, three) correspond with the appropriateness of action (awkward, inappropriate, you need to be shamed).

Stage One: Active Start (ages 0-6)

Your youngsters are just beginning to understand the world around them. Their senses and motor skills are developing as they learn to walk and talk. In this stage it is important to get them moving. Don’t let them be 6-year-old couch potatoes. Climbing, much like crawling, is intuitive to kids from the start—take them to the gym and let them play around. Teach them that physical activity is a fun, normal part of the day. Also stress the importance of good nutrition. Kids need a colorful diet high in fruits and vegetables from the start.

Toddler learns to rock climb supervised by parent
At first, it’s all about fun and movement, training neurological systems and minimizing growth plate stress. (Photo: Simon Carter, Courtesy Eldorado Climbing Walls)

Stage Two: FUNdamentals (ages 6-8)

Now is the time for your kids to be “running, jumping, throwing,” and learning more complex, coordinated movements. Get them out of their comfort zone to learn new moves by focusing on agility and dynos. Teach them to “monkey climb,” which involves swinging around on jugs and doing fun run-and-jumps in tennies. Be sure to monitor them to avoid bad movement patterns and injuries. It’ll be less fun than dynos, but also sit your kids down to practice flexibility.

Young climber at the 9-Degrees gym at Alexandria, Sydney, Australia.
Kids six years and younger simiply need to get on the wall and move. (Photo: Simon Carter)
Kids age 6 to 8 should not climb to the top of taller bouldering walls.

Stage Three: Learning to Train  (ages 9-12)

By around age 9, kids should be ready to focus on more sustained, challenging tasks. Introduce them to coaches who will lightly push them in longer bouts of exercise. Testing and tracking protocols can also be introduced, with supportive concepts like attention to warm-ups, cooling down and maintaining good nutrition. 

According to Athletics Canada, “Children who do not develop their fundamental motor skills by age 12 are unlikely to reach their genetic athletic potential.” 

This is the time to get children into professional coaching programs that will integrate the physical, mental and emotional concepts within climbing. And keep focusing on flexibility as your kids hit their growth spurts. Weekly training time shouldn’t exceed 11 hours.

Parents should not compare their kid to others or put pressure on their child's climbing performance

Stage Four: Training to Train (ages 12-16)

In Stage Four we’re talking about pre-pubescent and pubescent teens. Beware! They will be experiencing the biggest growth stages and changes in their bodies in their lives.

Female youth climbing handing in a scorecard to a judge during a competition
Paige Boklaschuk (CAN) hands over her score card in the Youth World Championships. Boklaschuk finished in 12th. Youth climbers are liable to take subtle cues from parents or authority figures and translate unhealthy amounts of performance pressure on themselves. For parents and coaches, it’s best to minimize your contribution to that. (Photo: Sytse Van Slooten / IFSC.)

Their training routines will need to be catered to developmental changes. Because bones tend to grow before tendons and ligaments, youths’ connective tissue may be at risk during peak growth. Athletes should focus on endurance activities, such as sustained route climbing, to protect their tendons. After a child has attained peak growth, he or she can focus on strength and speed. Athletes seeking to reach an elite level may want to begin to specialize in climbing and spend less time doing other sports. Total weekly training time can be 12-15 hours. 

A female teenage climber climbs foot-first during the bouldering round of a youth world championship
Hana Kudo (JPN) gets crafty in the final Bouldering round at the Youth World Championships in 2019. Kudo finished the Bouldering round in fifth. (Photo: Sytse Van Slooten / IFSC.)

Parents should not punish their children for not getting good results in climbing competitions

Stage Five: Learning to Compete (ages 16-18)

Sport specialization continues in stage five, along with the development of required technical, physical and mental skills. The athlete can begin entering open (adult) competitions, up to around 10 to 18 per year. The ratio of training to competing should be 90:10. 

Messing up the beta is part of rock climbing. Don't make your kids wrong for it.

Stage Six: Training to Compete (ages 18-21)

Here athletes can begin following advanced training cycles, and focus on mental growth in preparation for the stress of high-level competitions. Athletes should focus on developing a thorough competition routine that includes strategies for coping with increasing stress.

Climbing can be a healthy, life-long pursuit. Parents should be excited that their kids do it, regardless of professional status.

This piece originally appeared in Gym Climber #4.