An open letter to anyone involved in organizing climbing competitions for kids
Dear Organiser / Route setter,
My name is Guy Holwill. I have been involved in climbing competitions since their inception in the early 1990’s and I have set routes for many of these events. I really do understand that setting routes is challenging, especially for kids. More recently, my kids have taken part in a number of competitions. Based on these experiences, I’d like to offer some views on how these events could be improved.
In my opinion, there are two primary objectives for kids’ competitions. #1 to determine a winner, but more importantly (especially for small children) #2 for the kids to have fun and want to take part in the next event. My recent experience is that the route setters are focused on #1 but miss #2.
Let me give you an example from a couple of weeks ago. The competition was split into two, with bouldering in the morning and routes in the afternoon. The routes were actually fine, except for the weird scenario where all the climbers progressed to a final that was so easy that everyone flashed the route.
The bouldering was a different story. My daughter took part in the under 11 category and there were 4 problems. The first problem started with a jug and involved a big first move that only a few of the taller kids could do. None of the shorter kids could do the first move and they felt extremely frustrated. The second problem started with opposing side pulls. The problem was that the shorter kids couldn’t even reach both starting holds from the ground. When I suggested that the route setter and organizer place a boulder pad at the start for kids to stand on so that everyone could reach the starting holds, I was told that it was like this in World Cups and that the short competitors should jump into the starting position. Except these were 10-year-old kids and not World Cup athletes. One child was reduced to tears because she couldn’t get onto the wall, while the taller kids just stood there and grabbed the holds. The 3rd and 4th problems were much better, although both featured a few long reaches.
On the positive side, there were three zone holds on each problem – so the kids felt like they got something if they could do the start moves but couldn’t do the problem.
I didn’t watch all the age groups, but I spoke to the girl who won another age division. Their problems were so hard that although she won, she still felt like the day was a failure because she made so little progress on the problems. Just imagine how the other competitors felt.
Whilst these are specific examples, there were similar issues at other kids’ competitions, including a route climbing comp where not one of the kids could reach the starting hand holds!
So, here’s the thing. Wouldn’t it have been different if the focus was on having fun.
Maybe something like this… Problem 1 = easy and everyone can do it. Problem 2 the same, but slightly harder and 1 or 2 kids don’t flash but still get up. Problem 3 easy enough for all kids to get to the 2nd or 3rd last hold, with a harder move to finish. Maybe half the kids get up and the other half feel like they got really close and maybe next time they will do it. Problem 4 decides the winner, but only the top half of the problem is hard so the everyone still does at least half the problem. You might argue that this would create too many ties, but this could be avoided by using the multi-zone approach.
Another thing to consider, especially among the younger kids, is that there are big differences in height and that young kids don’t dyno. You need to think carefully about long reaches and add a bunch of poor footholds so that the smaller kids have options.
Route setting for young kids requires a different mindset. It is not about replicating the World Cup, but rather about creating a fun environment where the kids are encouraged and want to return for the next competition. I’m not saying that we should make it all easy so that everyone can be a winner. I am saying that we can still set a tough standard for the winner, while enabling all the kids to feel like they have achieved something. As the kids get older you can start to make it more like World Cups, but at this rate, we’ll have scared away many of the kids who could be our future stars.