How Do Rock Climbing Competitions Work?

How Do Rock Climbing Competitions Work?

There are three disciplines to competitive rock climbing in the US: bouldering, sport, and speed. All are done indoors at rock climbing gyms, or in some cases, other special indoor (or outdoor) venues.


Bouldering is a discipline of rock climbing done on low walls, usually 12-15 feet high, where the climber is not protected with a rope and harness. The floors beneath climbing walls are covered with foam pads and cushion the climber should they fall off the wall. Bouldering is known for its short and challenging movements, often quite tricky, which requires creative physical problem solving with one’s own body to navigate. Because of this, each climb is called a “problem”.  In a bouldering competition, there are usually multiple problems to climb. The winning climber is the one who gets to the highest point on the wall with the fewest attempts.

Sport Climbing

Where bouldering is done on short walls, by comparison, sport climbing, done on a rope, is usually on much taller walls. Typically these climbing walls are 40 to 50 feet tall. Climbers wear harnesses and tie in with a rope. There is a belayer who uses a device to help stop a rope’s movement, which in turn catches a climbers fall.  There are two types of roped climbing during the sport season: top roping and lead climbing. The former is typically meant for the younger youth and the latter, being much more difficult, is done by the older youth. The longer climbs in Sport are called routes. The routes get more difficult as you get higher up on them. The climber who gets to the highest point wins.

Speed Climbing

Speed is the dual slalom of rock climbing. While tied into a rope, you race against the clock, usually with another climber beside you, on identical courses. Whereas the previous two disciplines often reward slow and measured movement, speed climbing is a race and the fastest time wins.


There are two alternating seasons to competitive climbing in the US. Bouldering is the first season, which starts in September of every year, culminating in USAC’s Youth Bouldering National Championship every February. Sport and Speed season starts in March and ends with the Sport and Speed Youth National Championship every July. Each season has a regional final which feeds into a divisional final, which then feeds into the national championship. The top climbers for each age group from the national championship is named to the US National Team and has the opportunity to represent their country at the Youth World Championships* in August.

Age Categories

Lastly, there are five age categories for each gender. The age cutoff is December 31 of that school year (e.g., For Aug 2018-July 2019, your child's age on December 31, 2018 would determine his/her category).

Youth D: 10 years and under
Youth C: 11-12
Youth B: 13-14
Youth A: 15-16
Junior: 17-18

*Only youth age 13 and older can compete at the World Championships.

See also:

Redpoint vs. Onsight Rock Climbing Competitions

Onsight vs. Redpoint Rock Climbing Competitions

Onsight vs. Redpoint Rock Climbing Competitions

What is Competitive Rock Climbing for Kids?

What is Competitive Rock Climbing for Kids?