What to Know

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Research > Syntheses > “Developing Climbing Talent”

For Parents, Coaches, Youth Program Managers, and National Federations

Acknowledgements: I’m indebted to Dr. Russell Martindale, Associate Professor at Edinburgh Napier University, Dr. Phillip Watts, Professor Emeritus of Sports and Exercise Science (Retired) at Northern Michigan University, and Dr. Shannon Siegel, Co-Chair of the Department of Kinesiology at the University of San Francisco, for their review of different sections of this write-up.  They were very generous with their time, advice, and recommendations.  They are not responsible for any mistakes, omissions, or poor arguments on my part! 

What is “talent development” and how does it relate to climbing?

As a climber, ask yourself: why isn’t the local strongman/woman at your gym able to climb 5.15 or V16, or hang with climbers on the international circuit? What differentiates the super elite from the plain ol’ elite?

As a parent, maybe you ask yourself why some like-aged, totally different height kids have to compete against one another? Is it fair? Or maybe ask yourself why a kid — despite insane abilities to hold on — never quite “gets there”, or even worse: burns out.

Climber and climber parent both hear comments about “who’s got it.” Do they? Some programs or training centers are discussed as if they have climbing “pedigrees.” What’s their “secret sauce?” Some places amp motivation, see high levels of injury, or burn out. Why? Some churn out more “elite” climbers per capita than others. Reasoning abounds. What’s better? What works? Is there any method to any of it?

These questions and more are generally (for non-climbing sports) discussed in the scientific literature, and youth and adult programs could benefit from understanding where the science, best-practice frameworks, and arguments lie.

In 2020, the training center I direct began to shift its youth climbing program toward an evidence-informed approach to athletic development.  In addition, I began looking at how to more effectively prepare youth for the youth-to-adult transition. These new policies were informed by, and based on, best practice models and research.  Overall, this research is usually referred to as Talent Development (TDE), Talent Identification (TID), and Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) research.

Just using a framework wasn’t enough for me, however. I wanted to understand. In the process I found a considerable amount of work on not only youth, but the youth-to-adult transition, and “super elite” (as opposed to plain ol’ elite) athletics. I also wanted parents, authorities, coaches, and other interested parties to be able to digest the information quickly in a climbing-specific context — hence this is a synthesis subject to all caveats regarding poor interpretation, argumentation, and overreach. Click a link below to explore short briefs on the following subjects: