Route setting for kids

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.


waterfront comp

Justin Lawson showing off his incredible (lack there of) foot technique at a climbing comp held at the V&A Waterfront in the early 90’s

18 Responses to Route setting for kids

  1. Calvin Oct 3, 2019 at 12:13 am #

    Interesting topic to bring up and it just brings up far more questions about these competitions than it does about route setting.

    So if climbing is about kids having fun then why bother with competitions at a young age? Is there any evidence that competitive climbing for instance under the age of 13 actually increasing the likelihood of the yielding a climber that is more competitive when they are in the open competition category than a climber who rather climbed for the enjoyment of it in non-competitive setting? If there isn’t any solid evidence you might as well have kids just having a great time in the gym and outdoors where they can be positivingly encouraged and supported to improve their technique and strength etc as they grow older. Then when they are older they can decide whether climbing competitively is something they would be interested in and enjoy.

    The next question is, what is the international standard or approach to competitive climbing at a young age? Does aspect No.2 feature in other countries? At the moment you are blaming the route setters for the issue but if the governing bodies are the ones dictating the standards and styles of these events then perhaps the setters are merely following a briefing by the organizer, did that factor in when you decided to criticize them?

    And the final question will be a little inflammatory but why the hell not. Some people just aren’t cut out for competitive sports, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be great climbers. Who’s goals and dream are being achieved by having young kids competing? The kids or those of the parents vicariously living through their kids and potentially fuelling an unhealthy environment that is progressively sapping the joy of climbing from these kids. If the goal is getting your kids to enjoy climbing and embrace it as part of their life style then perhaps parents shouldn’t be signing them up for all these competitions.

  2. Flex Oct 3, 2019 at 8:01 am #

    Same as it ever was.
    I hated comps back in the day because invariably there was a ridiculous reach/dyno that I had no chance of doing while the 6 foot 2 guy who had only ever climbed 22 on real rock cruised.

  3. Guy Holwill Oct 3, 2019 at 8:15 am #

    Lot’s of thoughts Calvin, and I agree with many of your points. That is why I addressed the letter to Organisers and Route Setters.

    My experience is that many kids actually love competition, but only if it is a level playing field. Hence the frustration with starting holds that only half the kids can reach.

  4. Ant Oct 3, 2019 at 10:28 am #

    Hi Guy, good article thanks.

    – I think Guy is intentionally not naming any specific venue or people – its a general comment to wrestle with, I think Guy is also making the point that competition, with winners and losers IS good, but simply that its helpful that all (or at least most) come away with a feeling of excitement about self-improvement.

    I’m currently 35, and started climbing at the age of 12. (First comp was probably on the wall pictured above!) As a young kid, climbing was probably the first thing I was any good at, and as with all things, success begets confidence begets success and so further… I competed ‘competitively’ (for the era) for a number of years, and enjoyed it.
    – Yes the world cup climbers of tomorrow will only get there if they are psyced in the process
    – and yes, there is totally a place for junior comps to be offering all sorts of educational and developmental joy outside of World Cup ambitions.

    From those Waterfront days, I recall routesetters discussing route-setting for juniors as follows:
    – ‘You should be able to reach all the grips with your elbows…’
    – ‘Just plaster the whole wall with jugs – only handful of them will be able to make it all the way even so…’
    Now sure, this policy can advance with the times, but the principle tells you something. I was one of those kids that fell off about 2/3 of the way up the overhang on jugs…

    Kudos to the venues, the route-setters and the parents for making schools-climbing a considerably more active and vibrant fraternity than it was in my day. Onwards and upwards…

  5. Allister Fenton Oct 3, 2019 at 11:36 am #

    Hey Guy

    I wear a lot of different hats within this sport / health craze / lifestyle we call climbing, so I’m going to put each one on and contribute my 10c. How do you catch a monkey? Slowly slowly… you’ll be pleased to know that there are many amazing individuals who are making inroads into these issues, your letter comes at an interesting time in our sport’s history in SA (an by sport I’m referring to comp climbing and indoor climbing, very different to climbing on rock), and hopefully in the next two to five years a lot of this will have been addressed. There are lots of people saying the similar things to you, stick with it, take your kids outside as much as possible, let them compete as much as possible and try to foster some of the passion that makes the sport so great. (Some of the people reading this could do with this…: )

    I’ve been climbing recreationally since the mid 2000’s, worked at Drifter’s for almost 5 years, am an MCSA member, trad climber, sport climber etc. I’m a fairly average climber, I enjoy the process, exploration, nature, hanging out with mates at the crag and my fair share of type 2 fun. I’ve competed in a few serious comps (mostly coming in last or close to) and a few fun comps and leagues. I always enjoy the fun comps (NBL, Rock Rally, Top Rope Tough Guys etc) and don’t have the best time competing, Calvin’s last point hits quite close to home, should a lot of these kids be competing? Yes, but not at provincial, national or “serious” comps. I think the MCSA and various “outdoor clubs” have dropped the ball in terms of catering to these kids who love to climb, would benefit from competition but aren’t ready for that provincial / national level of competition. CityROCK has hundreds (probably thousands) of kids visit every month yet MCSA is struggling to attract members under 30?

    I work for CityROCK JHB as “climbing manager” but basically my relevant role for this discussion is that I’m the head coach. A lot of the kids I coach are ready to compete, some aren’t. Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) or Long Term Participant Retention theory says kids of all levels (or ages) should be competing, the question comes into the level and intensity of competition, separate from the role of competition structure in social, emotional and psychological development. The various bodies that host comps at the gym do have demands as Calvin raised, but often leave the routes themselves up to the setters. As you’ve mentioned, the routes set for the day do have a huge influence on how the comp is perceived, how fun it is and if we can get a valid result. I’ve been working with our head setter to improve our setting for kids and hopefully we’ll see some better routes in the future. LTAD has some great theory and climbing is just starting to realise that it exists, from a CityROCK point of view, we’ll be introducing more fun comps and hosting less serious ones.

    I’ve recently joined the Gauteng Climbing committee for 2019 / 2020. I went to the SANCF AGM the other weekend and I was the only one there under 35, but more importantly I was the only one who didn’t have a child involved in the sport. Rock climbers love to criticise comp climbing in SA (it’s small with less than 500 registered climbers, mostly kids) but aren’t willing to step up, be involved and put their voices into the mix. A lot of these organisations, comps and policies are run by parents who haven’t climbed, aren’t clued up on these issues the way a climber is and are trying their best with what they have. As a GC member I’m hoping that next year we can have a more transparent comp process and that a lot more kids will enjoy their comp experiences. These things take time to introduce, there are policies and legislation, the minds of parents and the ever present $$$ issue so don’t hold your breath, but jump in and help out.

    To wrap up, we’re making good inroads into what you’ve discussed already (plus more) and hopefully more parents like yourself who have climbed in the past are willing to get involved and contribute to the process. I’ll be at the tradathon this weekend if you’re there, would love to have a chat.

    Allister Fenton

  6. Andrew Vermaak Oct 3, 2019 at 1:27 pm #

     The routes are the same for all climbers, as are the rules! It is therefore unreasonable to assume competitors are prejudiced because of height. My son competes at a national level in judo so I’m familiar with these types of claims by parents. The points put forward here speak to 3 general areas 1. Parents need to teach their kids coping skills and how to deal with disappointment 2. Coaches must adequately prepare their kids for comps 3 if you want to compete hard train hard. The allure of climbing for me is that it brutally reflect your weakness. If you cant do it you’re too weak!!! To blame route setters is simply preposterous!!!! Also reflect on yourself as a parent, outsourcing blame is not going to ensure progress!!

    • Justin Lawson Oct 3, 2019 at 9:42 pm #

      I strongly disagree Andrew.

      In the same way that competitors need to be able to walk onto the mat to compete (e.g. Judo), so too must climbers be able to reach the starting grips.
      I’ve seen climbers not be able to move off starting holds but never not reach them. You’re not too weak if you can’t start the climb (or make it onto the mat).
      (Again, this is specifically in reference to kids climbing – things are different when it comes to Open categories).

  7. Paul Brouard Oct 3, 2019 at 3:19 pm #

    I set at Asana climbing gym in Idaho with a head setter who is pssibly the most professional person I have ever dealt with.

    The idea of some competitors being able to reach the starting holds and some not fills me with dismay. During registration we know the heights of all competitors. We have a measuring pole with minimum heights marked off for every youth category. We use this constantly when setting youth boulders to ensure a degree of fairness. And in fact we consider tweaks during forerunning based on whether or not a kid makes it into an adult final.

    Setting with the the user, audience, and their particular needs and limitations is a central tenet of modern setting: I’m sorry about a 10 year olds needs is not purely competitive

    • Chris Naude Oct 3, 2019 at 4:46 pm #

      I really like the idea of knowing the height of the kids and this could be an important learning that we simply add this to the registration form.. Nice!

  8. Paul Brouard Oct 3, 2019 at 3:32 pm #

    Kinda ironic that you reference a sport with weight categories 😉

    • Andrew Vermaak Oct 3, 2019 at 3:53 pm #

      Lol. Yes, but the rules are consistent for all climbers, that is known going into the comp. Should which ever committee change the rules globally theres no problem with that. But its kind like blaming a traffic cop for giving you a speeding ticket. The mail should be aimed at whoever oversees climbing rules, not route setters. I’ve no problem with height parameters, but take your case to those in charge, not those executing a currently accepted std

  9. Andrew Vermaak Oct 3, 2019 at 3:53 pm #

    Lol. Yes, but the rules are consistent for all climbers, that is known going into the comp. Should which ever committee change the rules globally theres no problem with that. But its kind like blaming a traffic cop for giving you a speeding ticket. The mail should be aimed at whoever oversees climbing rules, not route setters. I’ve no problem with height parameters, but take your case to those in charge, not those executing a currently accepted std

  10. Keith Oct 3, 2019 at 4:06 pm #

    It sounds like poor route setting to me.

    The best-set routes in a competition have the most unique scores. In other words, climbers fall off in different places from each other. Having reachy moves won’t achieve this.

    Luckily the objectives #1 ranking and #2 fun need not be at odds with each other. Setting routes with the objective that climbers fall off at different places to each other tends to achieve both. For olympians and kids alike

  11. Boet 1 Oct 3, 2019 at 4:30 pm #

    Hi Guy,

    Why are we arguing about competition climbing when we can climb outdoors???
    Let’s just go have fun…
    P.S please don’t bolt any jugs to our outdoor routes😉

  12. Chris Naude Oct 3, 2019 at 4:44 pm #

    Thanks for starting this debate Guy. It’s a really interesting and important subject and one with widely differing views. I am involved in the administration, in the WC and have seen what a difficult balancing act there is in setting a comp for juniors. I have been on the receiving end of parents complaining that it is way too easy and what are we training our kids to expect, through to “are we crazy setting such difficult problems”, all speaking of the same problems. The issue is that the children of that age have wildly different abilities, strength, height etc and parents are quite sensitive, many parents place huge pressure to have a National comp so that their U10 kids can be awarded provincial colours. Others just want it to be fun.

    Over the years I have felt pressure from all sides. “We’ll never be competitive if we don’t push the grades”, “we’ll destroy the enthusiasm if we do” so in the end, being a federation whose primary aim is COMPETITION climbing one probably errs on the tougher side! Having said that, I feel for the route setters. Your idea of progressively more difficult problems is spot on but it doesn’t always work out that way. In our last comp we had at least one set where the “easy” first problem was not managed by anyone and other harder ones were topped by everyone!

    They still have the elbow-reach idea, but with the pressure not to end up with a tie and still being fun for kids of unknown ability, probably don’t always get it spot on. One thing I am sure of is that their objective is to make a fun comp with no tied podium places. Looking back at results from the past one can see that with individual exceptions they are not too bad at getting it Ok. Hopefully each competition we run, we get a little better but expect to see some that don’t work!

    Personally, I am in favour of the LTAD model mentioned by Allister. Meaning that the comps should be more fun, more variety and less about the formal climbing comps but there are other equally valid ideas. If anyone would like to read more on this, have a look at

    I would just like to finish up with a response to Allister’s comment that climbing is run by parents who are not as clued up as a climber might be. This may be true to a degree but I would like to say a huge thank you once again to all those dedicated parents who have administered the federation to the best of their ability (100’s of hours for free) without offers of assistance from anyone who is not being paid to do the job so even though I’m not sure what is meant by “transparent comp process” (there is really nothing opaque about the process) I will join in his call for those who feel that they have something to offer to step up and volunteer and will enjoy this important debate that will never end as the players move on and are replaced by others.

  13. climbcityrock Oct 4, 2019 at 11:49 am #

    Hey Guy, thanks for your insight. We hear you! It’s really cool to hear from a parent who cares so much, especially one with your experience. We understand your points and think this can be a really tricky thing to get right. National competitions and provincial competitions at these younger age groups are a new thing (to us at least!). As a venue it puts us an a tricky spot where we have to adhere to the organiser’s (provincial or national committee) requests and still find a balance of setting for the above average climber and the majority average climber. Basically we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t, in every aspect of these competitions – agreeing to hosting them or not, setting to get a good result spread or setting for feel good. Ultimately, there’s no win for the venue/route setter and has even lead to us questioning if kids climbing should be a part of our future CityROCK venues.

    We think we’re improving when it comes to the ‘less serious’ interschool and low-key comps. We will consider your input going forward. We request that you continue to offer this in a constructive and polite manner which was not the case on the day of the event (I believe you owe a few people a beer).

    Many thanks for your letter, the CityROCK team

  14. Grant Rens Oct 4, 2019 at 12:33 pm #

    Hey Allister,

    As a historical point the SANCF ( South African National Climbing Federation) was formed exactly to seperate Indoor Competittion climbing from what the MCSA does and there is an MOU stating in fact that the MCSA will not engage in any form of “real” competitive climbing – anything that would lead to SAScoc? and competition ratings of any sort.

    So – though the MCSA has indeed got a very big interest in Youth Climbing and should be doing a lot more it will not involve itself in any form of “formal” competition climbing. Naturally any fun stuff that promotes climbing will be supported by the MCSA. As you know the MCSA is a volunteer organisation and normally this would be followed by encouraging YOU to be the change – but I know you are that so no issues there – just the final observation that a club is what its members make it so if the members see the need to incrementally increase its Youth Work then it will happen.

    What does need to be said is that for all individuals who really want to get out into the real outdoors rock climbing scene the MCSA does have a place for you and will help you reach your potential. The MCSA is a UIAA member and there are international youth climbing meets. Unfortunately it does require the effort from the individual to get in contact and get outdoors as the MCSA is a club and not a service industry where people are paid to take care of you.

    Thank you Allister for all you are doing to shake things up and for being that change.

  15. Gustav Janse van Rensburg Oct 8, 2019 at 6:45 pm #

    If you don’t get people off the ground, they’ll never get off the ground? Post a video showing an example and link to it. People understand visuals better than words sometimes (myself probably more than anyone I know).

    Thanks for opening the can of worms – not nearly as entertaining as watching all those kids worming around at one of these last comps that I popped in to watch! 😉

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