Trends in U.S. Youth Climbing Disciplines

Research > Data Collection > “U.S. Climbing Discipline Trends”

The 2020 Olympics in Tokyo haven’t even started yet but planning for the 2024 Olympics in Paris should. With a *likely* shift in the “Combined Olympic Discipline” from all three disciplines combined to a lead-bouldering discipline and a speed discipline, it’s more important than ever to get a sense of what U.S. youth athletes – the athletes of Paris – are currently interested in.

Over the next four years, USA Climbing will need to determine what — if anything — it can do to shape its future athletes toward the performance requirements it values at the international level. This could mean the Olympic disciplines (Bouldering-Lead combined and Speed specialization), it could mean the single-discipline World Cup circuit, or maybe something else (like a balance between outdoor climbing and performance…).

The following graphs give us a snapshot of “now” from the 2018-2019 USA Climbing Bouldering, Speed, and Lead seasons and show how many athletes were involved in which disciplines as a percentage of the total number of athletes. Possible Categories are:

Graphs for both genders (with analysis to follow):

Graphic of all five female age categories by percentage who participate in each discipline or discipline combination. Categories are by age: FJR (18-19); FYA (16-17); FYB (14-15); FYC (12-13); FYD (11-under)
Graphic of all five male age categories by percentage who participate in each discipline or discipline combination. Categories are by age: FJR (18-19); FYA (16-17); FYB (14-15); FYC (12-13); FYD (11-under)
  • With the exception of Male Youth D (-2.8%) and Female Youth A (-16.7%), males trend toward specialization and females trend toward being multi-discipline athletes.
  • Bouldering-Lead only (Paris 2024 discipline) athletes tend to decrease as the athletes get younger with age (MJR: 12% – MYD: 4.5% / FJR: 20.3% – FYD: 5.1%) even while the opposite is true for the current Combined (Bouldering-Lead-Speed) Discipline (MJR: 15.7% – MYD: 26.1% / FJR: 21.7% – FYD: 32.1%).
    • When looking at Bouldering-Lead AND Bouldering-Lead-Speed athletes together (some of these athletes may prefer just B-L), the numbers stay relatively consistent across categories on the male side (27.7% – 31.6%) with more range on the female side (30.6% – 42.0%).
  • Our oldest male and female youth competitors rarely specialize in Speed climbing (Paris 2024 discipline).
    • However, the percentage of athletes who participate in Speed climbing (either singly or as part of another discipline) jumps drastically as the children get younger, from MJR: 34.9% – MYD: 64.8%, and FJR: 43.5% – FYD: 61.5%.
  • There are very few Boulder-Speed athletes in any category which may be as a result of Speed and Lead combining at the same National Level Event (NLE).
  • When trying to determine the effect of a combined (Bouldering-Lead-Speed) NLE on potential Bouldering-Lead numbers, looking at this data can be indicative but challenging to derive concrete conclusions from:
    • We can compare just Speed-Lead athletes with just Bouldering-Lead athletes. Speed-Lead averages 13.7±3.7% (Male) and 14.9±4.5% (Female) whereas Bouldering-Lead averages 7.5±2.9% (Male) and 12.0±5.0% (Female).
    • We can also compare those athletes who chose to do the combined discipline (Male: 22.4±3.6%; Female: 24.4±4.2%) with those who went to both NLEs but chose not to do the Combined Discipline (Male: 9.8±3.3%; Female: 14.3±5.0%).

Policy & Structure

The Beta Angel Project does does not necessarily have a stake in what values a National Federation (e.g. USA Climbing) chooses to pursue. However, goals can push performance, and we love performance here — whether it’s competition and its variations, or outdoor. However, making policy changes based solely on this data wouldn’t take into account the rich complexity associated with the talent development literature. For example, when attempting to decide how the policies of National Federations impact their stated performance goals, the above data does not speak to the following questions:

  • How will structural changes, such as shifts in either national level events or seasonal changes, impact our youngest vs. oldest athletes from the perspective of motivation, specialization, or performance in general?
  • How do outdoor climbing and the different sub-disciplines within climbing mitigate (or contribute to?) burn-out and reduced performance during the youth-adult transition?
  • How do the types of practice (e.g. performance-related coaching, drill-based, deliberate play – often seen in other sports.) for youth contribute to reducing (or increasing) the likelihood that we’ll convert our best youth athletes into adult performers.

Additional Reading

Feel free to contact me for a more complete list of non-climbing talent development references including titles which have shaped my thinking on the impact of youth development. An incomplete list based on ongoing conversations I have with UK Researcher Russell Martindale (who I’m eternally grateful to): Strafford et al. (2018); Coutinho et al. (2016); Williams et al. (2017); Phillips et al. 2010); Riewald, Snyder (2014); Pasulka (2017); Cote et al. (2014); Collins et al. (2014); English et al. (2018); Macnamara, Collins (2012).