Pushing Past the Puberty Plateau: Keeping Girls in Competition Climbing
By Amy Hoffman
Hang around youth competition climbing long enough, a pattern will become visible: many, many girls and boys competing in the D and C categories; fewer in B, fewer still in A and Junior. This happens for many reasons—high school sports take priority over an individual sport like climbing, school gets harder and requires more time, kids’ social lives become more important than the many hours spent in the climbing gym, and more. But for girls, frustration over their changing bodies can lead to dropping out of sports permanently: The Women’s Sports Foundation (1) says they drop out at 2 – 3 times the rate of boys between 8th and 12th grade.
The normal changes of puberty for girls include a small amount of weight gain, changes in body composition and center of gravity, skeletal growth before tendons catch up, and a smaller increase in strength than the boys get. A competitive girl climber may become discouraged when she can no longer climb as hard as the boys her age (at least for a time). This is not specific to climbing—all sports that require balance and motor skills see a decrease in female participation as well as a temporary decrease or plateau in performance among girls (2). Once growth is finished, her body will stabilize and she will begin to see improvements in performance again (3), but that in-between time can be very frustrating.
So, how can you help your daughter stick with her sport through these changes? There are many angles to this topic including awareness, diet, training, injury prevention, etc. Our list is just scratching the surface.
1. It begins with awareness. Sierra Blair-Coyle (2018 PanAm Bouldering Champion and pro climber), who grew up on the youth competition circuit, advises: “At some point in your climbing career, you are going to hit puberty. For some people the changes happen rapidly and for other people they happen slowly. You could also notice changes earlier or later than your peers. Sometimes growing can make it more difficult to train and improve; you might not be progressing at your previous rate of improvement. While this can be annoying, it is unfortunately just another challenge you have to overcome in your climbing career. Everyone evens out eventually when they stop growing and there is no substitute for hard work throughout this time. Even if you are feeling un-motivated or discouraged, keep charging forward!”
2. Make sure girls have female role models. Climbing can be a bit male-dominated, so seeing women crushing is important. Whether these are female pro climbers that they follow on social media or coaches/climbing friends, help your daughter seek out women that have come through the puberty plateau stronger than ever and are still dedicated to their sport. Climbers like Kyra Condie, Meagan Martin, Brooke Raboutou, as well as an icon like Lynn Hill all have Instagram accounts where they share their training, travel, and competition experiences; Girls Who Climb organizes meet-ups for female climbers, both indoor and outdoor. Rock Climbing Women and Brown Girls Climb are organizations that work to connect female climbers.
3. Encourage your daughter to set goals that are not related to strength or climbing grades: she can work on footwork, coordination moves, endurance, or other climbing skills that will allow her to see improvement even while she may not be seeing increases in the v grades.
4. Make sure both that she is eating enough and that she is getting more healthful foods than junk. It’s important that girls put down enough bone density in their teenage years, and that they don’t try to prioritize body composition over health. Also, eating veggies, fruit, good protein and healthy carbs can help maximize her time in the gym and keep her energy up all day. Watch for disordered eating and reach out to your doctor if you think your daughter might need some help to keep healthy eating habits.
5. Support your daughter’s sports goals and help her to see the value of sports in her life as a whole: climbing has a wonderful community and can provide life-long friendships and social opportunities. Fitness and strength are important, and time spent exercising is never wasted. Also, she will learn to persevere through difficulty, and the puberty plateau WON’T last forever—she will soon see gains again!
Special thanks to Sierra Blair-Coyle for sharing her advice.
I’m Mom to two youth competition climbers: Male Youth D (recently qualified for his first bouldering Nationals), and Female Youth B (has been to Divisionals and was the impetus for researching female adolescent performance plateaus). As a result of the kids’ many weekly hours in the gym, I took up sport climbing and enjoy working toward my own modest goals.