What is Competitive Rock Climbing for Kids?
Rock climbing is no longer an activity just for dirtbags living in their vans. And when it comes to kids, it's no longer just a venue for birthday parties. Interest in rock climbing programs for kids is growing steadily. Perhaps this is because the international competition circuit is full of exciting athletes and is incredibly fun to watch. Or maybe it's because climbing was recently announced as a new sport for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. It certainly doesn't hurt that engaging modern gyms are being built all around the country. As a result, climbing is exploding in popularity in the US. Fortunately for kids and parents, well organized youth programs, from recreational to competitive, have been growing as well. So what is youth rock climbing and how do competitions work?
Most competitive youth rock climbing is indoors at a rock climbing gym. Those gyms have a large variety of bolt-on plastic features that simulate the diversity of rock shapes and textures found in nature. Those are then creatively combined on indoor walls to create climbs of varying grades of difficulty. There are several disciplines in rock climbing, but the most commonly found in a gym would be climbing with a rope attached, called sport climbing, and climbing short walls over pads (no rope) called bouldering. Larger gyms may also have speed climbing where climbers race each other on identical routes, and are timed.
Recreational programs can start with kids as young as 5 years in age. These programs focus on learning the basics of the sport including safety (always!), how to belay (catching a climber with a rope when they fall), climbing technique, and having fun. Along with sport climbing and bouldering, they often they mix in other things like slack lines, zip lines, and other activities that help build strength and coordination for climbing.
Many climbing gyms have a youth competition team. Membership requirements vary; see your local gym for specifics. These programs involve rigorous training to prepare the kids for competing at the local, regional, divisional, and national levels. Being part of a team adds a fun and motivating element for young climbers.
In the US, there’s no minimum age for competition, but you usually don’t see kids younger than 7 competing. USA Climbing (USAC, say ‘you-sack’) has five age divisions by gender. Kids 10 and under are in Youth D, 11-12 are in C, 13-14 are in B, 15-16 are in A, and 17-18 are in Youth Junior. Competitions are held in local regions, two of which combine to make divisions. There are 8 divisions in the US with 16 regions. (See map: http://www.usaclimbing.org/Regional.htm)
There are two seasons to competitive youth climbing. Sport and Speed season takes place between the months of March and July. Bouldering season is between the months of August and February. Schedules for competitions vary by region and the number required by a team depends on the team, but each region usually has around four to six competitions per season. Participation in two regular season local competitions (and placing in the top 20 at one event) qualifies you for climbing at your regional championship. Top climbers from each region face off at a Divisional championship. Then the top climbers from Divisionals go to USAC’s Youth Nationals. Because there are two seasons, there are therefore two opportunities every year to go to regionals, divisionals, and nationals.
All programs should emphasize safety. Rock climbing is always dangerous. People are quite safe if they follow the rules. But naturally we get complacent and that’s when people get hurt. Don’t feel bad for asking lots of questions and being the safety nazi.
You might be asking yourself, what kind of kids enjoy climbing? They are not necessarily the adrenaline-rush seeking kids, as one might expect. A lot of kids who don’t gravitate to team sports really love climbing. Kids who at first appear to be nonathletic can turn out to be amazing climbers. There’s definitely a non-mainstream vibe that comes with the culture and community, and so people who aren’t very mainstream in other areas of their lives are often attracted to the sport. But many young adults, who grew up playing team sports, settle into climbing life and love it. It’s a sport that you can enjoy well into your retired years (dirtbag van-life retirement!). The sport is essentially 3-D puzzle solving with your body. You have to work out sequences, plan your moves, and troubleshoot when it doesn’t work. There’s a very clear beginning and end to every climb. And the progression is easily tracked through the grading system of climbing difficulty. So kids who gravitate towards slow methodical activities with clear systems often find climbing satisfying. In the end, you can’t really know until you bring your kids out to a gym and give it a try with them.
What other useful information would you offer? What questions do you have? We'd love to hear from you in our comments.