Justen Sjong, known as “The Sensei,” works with many climbers—including pros like Alex Puccio and Nina Williams—to help them realize their goals. He’s an accomplished climber himself, with the first free ascents of El Cap routes Magic Mushroom (VI 5.14a) and The PreMuir (VI 5.13c/d) to his name, as well as 5.14 sport redpoints. In 1994, he started coaching as a way to share his passion. He’s since honed his teaching toward making better—not just stronger—climbers. Sjong, also an instructor for Climbing’s Climb a Grade Harder: 5.12 and Beyond course, talked to us about his journey and approach to coaching.
How did you get started coaching?
I got started because I enjoy sharing climbing with others. Back then, the only [training] work that was possible was teaching a belay class. Anyone who could climb any sort of grade didn’t think of wanting a coach. Kids’ groups were the first where that idea of hiring someone to be a coach took shape. [I started by] working with kids. Naturally, as climbing evolved, the idea of people working with a coach grew and grew. Now, top-level climbers have coaches as adults.
If there weren’t any climbing training programs around at the time, how did you develop your curriculum?
Reading off-subject books—a lot of business leadership books, self-help, sports psychology; anything that interested me, I would read and try to adapt to climbing. And I still do that. I like to be creative.
What’s your philosophy as a coach?
It’s my job as a teacher to get people to want to understand more. My job is not to tell them what is important. My job is to share what I see, and try to help them determine what might be important and why.
What’s unique about your approach?
I try to get the individual to understand why they’re doing certain things, and to understand why I need to get them to change that mindset or behavior. If I do my job well, I make them very aware of what’s actually going on. There’s a lot of reflection going on, like, “What just happened? Why did it happen? What do we need to do to solve this? What is the solution to the situation?”
Often, people are looking to get strong quickly, and the faster you get strong, the more likely you are to get injured. Usually the answer is not strength. Often people just want to get a bigger hammer to fix it, but I try to provide them with specialty tools to actually solve the problem rather than temporarily fix it. I try to bring light to these other categories that tend to be very vague.
Does this thoughtful approach affect other aspects of climbers’ lives?
Oh, yeah. Usually the first session with me it’s, like, “Wow, you have highlighted my struggles in all parts of my life. How did you do that just in 20 minutes?”
Usually it’s their personality type. If they’re naturally very type A—aggressive, they know exactly what they want, or engineers—they get in their own way, they overanalyze, they appear very robotic on the wall because they’re always thinking things through. They can’t just let things naturally happen through their body.
Sometimes you get someone who’s a little more laidback, and it’s, “Your goal here is very ambitious, and I do believe that you can do it, but you actually have to show that you care and that you’re willing to actually try. And you have to put yourself out there—you can’t be scared to put yourself out there.”
Why do you like training climbers?
I enjoy seeing their excitement—that they are connecting the dots that we’ve been talking about. Often, months later, they are like, “Wow, that really impacted my life in a positive way—not just my climbing, but my life.” It’s an opportunity to help people become better versions of themselves. And everyone loves reaching goals—I’m on their side to help them reach their goals.
Are you a 5.11/5.12 climber looking to break into the upper grades? Take Justen Sjong’s Climb a Grade Harder: 5.12 and Beyond course and you’ll see tangible gains in your climbing in only 9 weeks.