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Research > Syntheses > Developing Climbing Talent > “Policy Questions”

Note: this is #8 of 8 different write-ups on LTAD available at my website. For the overview, click here.

Let’s catch you up: this is one part of an overview of research into athletic talent. This research is usually referred to as Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD), Talent Identification (TID), or Talent Development (TDE) research. It has implications for everything from “who’s got it” to “will I reach my potential if I didn’t start when I was 4” to the “secret sauce”. Sometimes the research isn’t particularly practical, and so we’re left with questions and/or interpreting in the absence of precise information. Here are some questions you may have, as well as my attempt at answering them.

Your write-up on Early Specialization seemed inconclusive – where do we go from here?

We need further debate within the climbing community, and further research within the scientific community. That research and debate should address the following areas:

  • Is climbing an early specialization sport, and if so, is early specialization gender-, discipline-, or individual-specific – and do success factors change as climbers age?
  • What is the appropriate, data- and/or research-based climbing-specific policy which balances early specialization for performance with burn-out and injury?
  • Does the “relative-age effect” – such as being born early in a selection year or, as in the case of IFSC age categories, having more success at the “bottom” of your two-year selection cycle – occur in climbing?

Should a National Governing Body (NGB) “Change the Structure” or “Improve Coaching”?

  • Discussion regarding approaches to talent development have included the following distinction: (1) changing competition structures and rewards to encourage athlete behavior and (2) improving coaching.  While the structures and reward systems for athletes in the United States are (as of 2020) in the process of being shifted, coaching improvement has had a long, often fraught process going back decades.  Some questions I have for an “improve coaching stage:”
    • Does climbing need a formal certification system that encourages greater learning?
    • Does climbing need a coaching reward system to incentivize coaches in a way which treats performance as only one criterion?
    • Will the handful of dedicated, highly successful climbing coaches in the United States be willing to work toward encouraging other coaches? How can gyms be better inccentivized?
    • What does USA Climbing have to learn from its route-setter certification process to incentivize commercial gyms to put more resources into its coaching staff?

How should I change my program to take into account the early vs. late specialization debate?

Given that the evidence for sport climbing’s inclusion on a continuum of early vs. late specialization is low, it is interesting to consider strategies based on the extremes:

  1. Assume that it is a LATE specialization sport and improve policies surrounding early sampling and diversification.
    • Implement an LTAD framework.
      • Note that one LTAD-based program I spoke with suggested being prepared for criticism of “holding athletes back.”
    • Focus programs on creating larger pools of short-term “samplers” rather than only emphasizing top early talent.
    • Include a talent recycling program from similar capability sports (e.g. parkour, silks, ballet, gymnastics, etc.).
    • Reduce “weeding out” programs or caps.
  2. Assume it is an EARLY specialization sport and improve mitigation activities of harmful effects associated with burn-out and chronic injury.
    • Improve early age diversification through sampling into differing- and similar-capability sports.
    • Improve coach education regarding (1) sports psychology approaches (e.g. motivation, incentivization, and positive coaching), (2) repetition/variation of practice activities; and (3) chronic injury surveillance.
    • Improve relationships and/or cross certification with Physiotherapy, Sports Psychology, and nutrition.
  3. Assume it’s both, do it all, and individualize the options based on your read of the specific athletes.

How do I get better athletes outside of becoming a better coach?

  • This is an oversimplification, but increase the size of the talent pool, and improve the environment.  Here’s how:
  • Talent Pool Size
    • Identify Donor/Cluster Sports & develop programs to “recycle talent.”
    • Improve all elements of diversity as an approach to encouraging the organic-growth of “giftedness.”
    • Fast track athletes who show promise in a safe and sustainable way.
    • Incorporate high-level, successful talent models into the motivational element of your program.
      • A World Cup Announcer recently discussed multiple-overall lead season world cup winner Mina Markovic within the context of the younger, highly successful Slovenians being developed on the “Slovenian Conveyor Belt of Talent.”
        • Anonymous comment (certainly not from the author’s wife): “Mina isn’t on the conveyor belt.  She created it.”
    • Look to younger kids, but do it appropriately
      • The talent development literature appears highly skeptical of early specialization. Early sampling is recommended, so consider early development-stage programs that approach sampling through fun, engaging activities.
  • Improve the Environment
    • See the section on “Does the Path Matter”

My pre-teenager loves climbing.  Do I really need to force him or her to do other sports?

  • Sports are on a continuum of early- to late-specialization sports.  We don’t know enough about where climbing is to determine whether we should be pushing kids early.  See this link to early vs. late specialization arguments in climbing. Additionally, part of this is personal ethics.  For example, one argument within the context of gymnastics is that you may get amazing performance from an elite tier with early specialization, but how many second-tier gymnasts will be affected or never “sample” a sport they fit better? 
    • As a coach, it’s not as simple as saying “Which is more important to you?” since most youth athletes are not at an age where they can truly understand the long-term ramifications of pushing to extremes. On the other hand, opening a dialogue up with parents, coaches, gym owners, and youth within the context of understanding where the evidence is (and is not) seems to me a prudent approach.
    • Also note that genetic variation is a second factor which needs to be taken into account when preparing a youth program. Some athletes will be more susceptible to specific types of injury (e.g. tendon-related, or even growth-plate related). Additionally, genetics research I’m currently reviewing suggests that certain athletes both (a) start in different places, as well as (b) that there are “responders” and “non-responders” to training, related to (c) that certain types of responses to training are more genetically-based than others (e.g. aerobic vs. anaerobic). Climbing training prescription should be as individual-specific as possible.
      • Reference note: references are available upon request. The statement about injuries is based on conversations this author has had with medical practitioners, specifically around elbow tendinitis and wrist growth plates. The statements on training are based on a genetics review I’m doing for a paper currently under development.
  • The following is a list of ways to mitigate burn-out and repetitive overuse injury, while giving your child some of the benefits of early sampling/diversification:
    • Vary the extent of deliberate play vs. deliberate practice, noting that the balance will shift from leaning toward play to leaning toward practice as the athlete progresses through stages.
    • Vary who leads the play and/or practice, whether it’s adult- or youth-led, noting again the point about balance and shifting that balance.
    • Reduce repetitive drill (again, balance)
      • Note that “projecting” in the climbing world is an example of repetitive drill, even though it’s somewhat mitigated by the fact that it is youth-led.
    • Vary the who, what, and where of climbing experiences.  A shift in any one element may be beneficial.
    • Introduce CABS (Coordination, Agility, Balance, Speed) exercises off the wall and incorporate them onto the wall. 
    • Cycle groups, or shift activities based on individual strengths, in order to provide positive social comparison value for each athlete AND improve the identity of small groups as a team so they can share individual accomplishment.

Do other sports conform to the American Development Model (ADM)?

  • Yes.  Hockey has arguably the most in-depth build out.  It has a significant number of resources at, including age-specific practice plans, ADM drills of the month, a parent handbook, an interesting network of “ADM regional managers,” and even an official designation for a “USA Hockey model association” requiring a series of highly prescriptive recommendations.
  • Others which have it:  Golf recommends it and has a certification program.  Football has a version as well – check out some of the inspirational videos: 3-pages in to the Football Development ModelLacrosse has a version – I appreciated that every stage had an intermediary stage as well.  I’m unclear how to feel about stage 4, or 11-14 years of age, which includes the following statement: “This is the stage in which we make or break the athlete.”  Field Hockey has it – the part that interested me the most was their coaching education section – it seemed simple and included both high-level training as well as workshop-level training.  Judo views ADM incorporation as age-based and skill-based.  Tennis has the simplest version I’ve seen, a 3-stage model.
  • What do all of these sites have in common: recommendations for coaches right down to the practice level, information for parents, age-based guidelines, judging information, local chapter or school information.
    • Some of the common principles include small-sided play, a focus on skill before competition, coach training,
  • It’s important to note that just because there are websites by sport-specific national governing bodies advocating an LTAD-specific framework does not mean:
    • That it’s being transferred from national governing bodies to the kids themselves.
    • That it is an approach which cannot be questioned or does not have blind-sports.

Acknowledgment: 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!