The Teaching Conundrum

Picture the scene: a small child, a glint in her eye, stares vacantly upwards at a succession of brightly coloured, shaped pieces of moulded resin bolted in a not-quite-haphazard fashion to a piece of rough 1/4″ plywood. You, meanwhile, are stood behind, your neck not quite craning as steeply, as you’re significantly taller. Unless you’re short.

Now, you’re trying to persuade this small little darling, who can successfully negotiate a large oak tree but struggles with stairs, to climb to the top of this piece of wood, often by only using a single colour of holds. Sound familiar?

If you’re in your early twenties and have never worked in a climbing wall, i would wager not but if, on the other hand, you have your own children or are paid to look after the children of others and teach them something, then i would imagine you may well be nodding right about now. We all have to start somewhere and no matter who you are and how many big grades you’ve climbed or not climbed, everyone starts at the bottom. Everyone has a first climb and at that instance, before we step off the floor, we are all equals, and are all equally capable of sitting on a foam pad, looking at the next set of holds however far away and thinking, “Fuck me, it’s a long way”. (If you’re only five, you may use other language, the swearing is optional.)

But the going up isn’t the bit i want to talk about. Let’s assume you have a particularly gifted child (or a remarkably easy wall and a dunce) and you’re now in the position where said child is perched precariously at the top of the wall, suddenly attached like a limpet to a ship by the sheer fear of apparent death. What are we going to do?

Here are several options that spring to mind:

  1. Wander off and go and enjoy a cup of tea in peace and quiet, safe in the knowledge that our child can cling on to those jugs for an inordinately long time and as long as they’re up there, they’re not running around the centre, pissing off the regulars.
  2. Adopt the mentality of your charged and chant “Jump! Jump! Jump!” until peer pressure takes it’s toll and our little child comes hurtling forth from the rafters to collapse in a small heap on the floor in a crumpled mess of bones and flesh before springing up screaming and searching for mummy.
  3. Watch smiling as a frightened, possibly by now tearful, miniature human being tries desperately to reverse the hardest ascent of their short little lives before making it to the bottom, shaking like a leaf.
  4. Climb half way up the wall, grab the back of the small object on the wall and commence a battle of strength and wills and try to peel them off the wall, letting the chips fall where they may.

These are, obviously, only options and not suggestions. In reality, the options and the crux of this argument are: do you teach children to jump from the top of the wall or to climb down carefully?

Rich Edwards slapping for the top on La Grima 6b at Arrastradero
Rich Edwards slapping for the top on La Grima 6b at Arrastradero

So far i’ve only mentioned children and this is deliberate; adults are more than capable of making their own judgement here. For this we are only concerned with kids and what we teach them to do.

For most walls, the latter of “climb down” is normally adopted and i can understand why. It neatly avoids flying and flailing children. It takes away the worry of nasty high-impact landings that can often go wrong. There are many pluses to it, and it is generally safer; to an extent. Crucially though, it removes the liability from the wall by keeping things nice and simple and safe. Less accidents, less law suits and that is completely understandable.

For private tuition (for example teaching ones own children) I vehemently disagree with this style of teaching with bouldering and i will explain why. And a lot of my explanation is just as relevant for the climbing walls too, especially with those who return regularly, so if you’re thinking you only teach kids when working in the wall, listen anyway.

Another popular phrase i use when it comes to bouldering is “if you’re not falling off, you’re not trying hard enough”. What i mean by that is that if you’re flashing every problem you’re on, no matter by the margin of ease, you should be trying harder problems. Bouldering being what it is allows you to push yourself to the very limits of what you’re capable of doing, and then pushing that boundary still further, because in general, the consequences of falling off are negligible.

But imagine if you didn’t know how to land. That might sound a bit weird, surely it’s just waiting until you connect with the floor, but there are ways of falling and landing that make that impact slightly more pleasant. It’s similar to when a drunk falls down a flight of stairs unscathed or a baby falls and just bounces, it’s all to do with relaxing on impact and shaking it out. Fear brings tension in the body, which brings injury. This is the crucial bit that can only learn by actually doing it and learning that falling is okay.

Competing is one area where you can't afford to be climbing down!
Competing is one area where you can’t afford to be climbing down!

At this point our budding instructors might be sniffing their noses at me, and thinking that for a kids club, getting them to be shit hot boulderers isn’t the goal and they’re right; but for two crucial points.

Firstly, falls happen all the time, at every grade, at any time. Holds spin, hands slip, these things happen and one second you’re clinging on, the next you’re lying on your back wondering what the hell happened then! Yes you can make the standard so remarkably low that a slip or spinning hold would not result in a fall but if you’re going to do that, there’s no point bouldering at all, you’re entirely missing the point.

So imagine if that spinning hold is the last hold – the one that was supposed to be that thank-god jug right at the end. This has happened to me, gripped, slightly pumped, i’ve thrown for that last hold knowing it’s massive and knowing i can stick it if i just give it everything, only for the hold to barely be attached and for me to come to earth in an unspottable manner, limbs flailing everywhere. A slip of a foot or a whole catalogue of things could happen to cause an unexpected fall and unless you’re aware of landing, it’s gonna hurt and hurt big time. It might even put you off altogether, and i’ve seen that too.

Secondly, as with trad climbing and especially with children, those first few sessions are the bedrock to build on for the rest of your climbing career. Teach them to fear falling now and it could take years to overcome it. Look at the training and coaching books if you don’t believe me, there are whole chapters dedicated to Fear of Falling and even now, i come across legions of climbers astonished that i am more than willing to throw myself onto a pad but am terrified of taking even a small whipper, even on bolts. That has come from years of practice and judgment and to be frank, precious few injuries.

At the same time, i am not advocating our original solutions, as i said immediately afterwards. If not teach people to climb down safely, then what? Surely i’m not suggesting teaching swimming my throwing someone in from the deep end?

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As it happens, i’ve coached one youngster (under-10 at the time) and several young adults and obviously had to deal with this. Our ten-year-old’s fear kept her from going too high in the first instance so i employed an old technique: go as high as you feel comfortable and jump. Look down, and hurl yourself from the wall. Only a foot off the floor? Not a worry, it just means it will take more time to get to the top. And time isn’t a worry when you’re dealing with demons like these.

Got that wired? Go back to your high point. Now do one more move and repeat. Slowly, Ffion’s high point was pushed higher and higher and meanwhile, she learned how to hit the deck. She naturally rolled, her knees naturally crumbled to absorb impact and where things weren’t quite right, guidance was given on how to change things. Slowly, one thing at a time.

Sometimes it wasn’t enough, and she was concerned about landing on her back/head/wherever. It’s perfectly natural and understandable – the thought of landing on the back of your neck can still cause concern for me now. Case in point, an unnamed friend from work: a qualified MIA holder working at a prestigious climbing centre. We’ve been bouldering outside, my friend topping out a V8 with a simple heel hook at head height and a rockover and he refused to commit, the problem left going begging.

Solution: careful spotting and this is probably the most poorly executed piece of safety in the entire sport. I’ve seen it a hundred times, even in pro videos of completely pointless and frankly dangerous spotting: arms straight welcoming a dislocated shoulder or two, thumbs out ready to be snapped back, eyes watching the action not the climber, spotter aiming to grab the shoulders not the backside. The best example i’ve seen of superb spotting was actually from the same friend mentioned in the previous paragraph and can be seen here:

But this is, again, something never taught properly (that i have seen at least). All you’re trying to do is guide someone, get them to land a bit neater, give them a bit more confidence that if they do gob it and fly down out of control, they’ll not hurt themselves. On a hard project, there’s no-one i’d rather have behind me, ready and waiting. Even if he is staring at my arse.

Part of the problem comes from the fact that this is generally taught by trad climbers finding themselves in the unknown vicinity of the pads. To most trad climbers, the old adage “the leader shall not fall” still holds completely true and this then comes through in their teaching. That’s not necessarily the fault of said trad climber, that’s what they know, but these things should be taught by people who understand the discipline well.

That is to say people who know that bouldering pushes your limits, physical and mental, and involves falling. A lot. It involves learning how to fall, how to land, how to drop and roll and when is a good time to go for it and when is best to back off. It’s knowing how to trust your spotter and in turn, how to spot them well to return the favour. If you don’t know this, you can’t teach it. So please just take the advice. Or stay on the ropes, where you probably know more than me!

 

Once published, this article became THE most read page on the site. It generated some controversy and so a response piece was written. It can be read here

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