Climbing Coaching For All: Ensuring Our Sessions Are Inclusive

This article investigates how we as coaches can adapt our existing practice to ensure we are inclusive to all. Much of this is based on my own experience working with disabled climbers, as well as my training on courses run by Adventure for All. However my experience is limited and this is a belief-based article. Also please note that in this article, we are specifically looking at physical disabilities and are not considering learning difficulties or mental health issues. We will investigate these in a separate article at a later date

I often refer to climbing as an instinctive activity; an innate skill that we simply do. Like walking, running or other movement skills, climbing is one of those things that comes completely naturally.

In society, though, there are plenty of people who struggle with innate skills. We will have all come into contact with someone who has a physical disability that inhibits their ability to move in the same way as those we refer to as ‘able bodied’. Yet, surely an activity such as climbing, where the challenge is entirely personal, can easily be made accessible for anyone.

Well, it can be harder than we first think. While many of us have the best intentions of ensuring anyone, no matter what their level of physical ability, can come and attend our courses, when it comes to the session proper, they find it difficult to adapt.

So that’s what we’re talking about here: how do we adapt our delivery and our session plans to ensure that they are open to anybody who would like to attend. We’re going to break it down with one of my favourite models, the TTPP Model, and look at some of the considerations we may need to have before the session begins.

The author demonstrating Side Support for a climber during a Climbing for All (Disability Awareness) moderators course meeting in Oldham June 2024. Photo: Graeme Hill

How To Approach Sessions With Climbing

Speaking to many people about this topic, there’s a common theme that has come out: treat people with physical disabilities in the same way that we treat able-bodied people; certainly to begin with. We would not make massive assumptions about an able-bodied climber’s ability before we had met them and probably seen them climbing and neither should we do so with disabled climbers.

One of my favourite phrases is “we all start at the bottom” and in that way, the level of disability does not impact our approach at all. People with physical disabilities are exactly that: they are people. And all people have their individual skill set, knowledge of techniques and abilities.

That is not to say we completely ignore the disability, we can make some allowances in advance. If we have a session booked with someone who has told us they are in a wheelchair, we already have some idea of the performance levels and what they are able to do. The key is to differentiate between assumptions and allowances, giving everyone the opportunity to demonstrate what they can do.

My personal approach is to begin with calibrating their abilities. Let’s start by trying a climb and seeing how we get on. From there, we can individualise to match the person and their individual skills and either tone down the challenge or dial it up as needed.

What we’re going to look at now are how we adapt what we might class as ‘standard practice’ (standard only in that it is the practice that we use more often) to match someone who has a clear and obvious impairment.

Safety Still Overrides Everything

For all that we are keen to focus on learning objectives, movement skills, appropriate goals and so on, safety considerations must be at the forefront of our mind. There are often extra considerations we must have with people with physical disabilities – sometimes including some extra kit – and we really do need to make sure this is done first and foremost.

Let’s demonstrate with an example. I currently have a long-term client with quite severe cerebral palsy. Early on, we encountered various problems relating to how they were descending down the wall. On one session, as the climb had moved away from the plumb line of the anchor, my climber didn’t have the ability to stay in control and was swinging wildly across the wall. To combat this, we tied into two top ropes and I belayed using a simple tube style device as per trad climbing.

Utilising two ropes – a technique taken from trad climbing – to safeguard a client with cerebal palsy

There was another climb where they managed to bend in half in the middle and ended up rag dolling down the wall. To prevent this happening again, we brought a chest harness into the system.

While we may have been able to foresee these issues, whether we should’ve begun with these preventative measures is still unclear; it’s a fine line. One issue those with disabilities of any kind may have is being made to be different from able-bodied participants, making them stand out from the group. Our aim, in my opinion, is to include everyone in the same way as much as possible, including additional safety aspects as and when the are necessary.

Again, it’s a tricky balance and should be handled carefully, openly and with an explanation. But first and foremost, we have to ensure everyone is kept safe throughout.

Kit Considerations

In terms of kit, there are some extra considerations we need to take into account. I don’t want this piece to drift away from the coaching side of things, so I’ll keep this super brief. The reason I’ve included it is off the back of a quick trip to my local climbing shop to play a role as a personal shopper.

It’s not something I usually do with clients. The reason I did on this occasion was to offer some context on the specific type of climbing we were engaging in. It is these extra considerations that may need to be made; as much with able bodied climbers or those with Learning Difficulties or other hidden disabilities too.

Technical Considerations: Paring It Down

My working definition of Technical is coaching is that the person is moving as efficiently as possible. Notice how this definition is wholy open to interpretation for the individual, on that particular move, in that moment. It’s a simple – and unintentionally inclusive – definition.

What that means in practice for a coach is having an array of technical skills in their back pocket that they can help a client to enhance. For the most part, these are pretty standard things that we roll out over and over, able to be adapted to the individual as needed.

Elsewhere, I’ve written an article for something I’ve called PrinFrAp. It describes how we have principles that sit at the base, surrounded by Frameworks that allow us to describe and explore these principles, before an Application phase where people put it all into context on their own.

If we put this into context of inclusivity, some of the principles will largely remain the same; but not always. Likewise, a framework we use regularly might not just be unhelpful, it might be downright mean.

However, that’s not to say we throw the baby out with the bathwater; not to mention the comment above about trying to keep everything as much the same for everyone as is feasible. Some of our Principles are just as relevant and some Frameworks work equally well for anyone at all.

Finally, there will be some aspects that we hadn’t usually thought of: Principles that we hadn’t considered and Frameworks that we may need to build. And these all sit together in one handy little Ven Diagram:

The Abdall Diagram: Principles and Frameworks for Able, Disabled and All

So let’s take an example. Imagine we have a visually impaired climber:

  • Being precise when placing feet is not something we can focus on. It’s a common principle in footwork but not relevant here. That sits in the red section
  • Shifting our weight from side to side to release a foot is a principle we always need to employ and is no different with a visually impaired climber. That one goes in the orange
  • Without being able to see footholds, we may need to enhance other areas, such as feel for footholds. It’s not something we would usually do with someone with 20:20 vision, it’s a new consideration. So that one goes in the yellow section

The Abdall Diagram above can help us as coaches to consider what we may wish to disregard and what we may need to create when working with a disabled climber. My advice would be to start in the orange wherever possible.

One final point of note on this topic is that this will change depending on the disability e.g. cerebral palsy, visual impairment, etc.

Physical Considerations: Wildly Varied

Part of the problem with the term ‘Physical Disability’ is that it covers such a multitude of afflictions. Remember that Paraclimbing is not simply “disabled climbers” all climbing together. Competitions are supposed to exist in a level playing field among competitors and therefore, there are multiple categories, including:

  • Blind Sport Classes (B1, B2, B3)
  • Amputees (AU2, AU3, AL1, AL2)
  • Limited reach, power or stability (RP1, RP2, RP3)

Therefore, for us as coaches, we need to come back to that idea from before: everyone is individual. Where this gets interesting is that, while by definition a disabled climber will have some movements that they will find harder than an able bodied climber, this could potentially lead to enhanced gains made in other areas.

Don’t believe me? Yeah, check this out…

I am not suggesting that every disabled climber has developed an antagonist superpower relative to their disability. What I am suggesting is that we need to ensure we are distinguishing between assumptions and allowances. The best coaches will be the ones who can hone in on what is possible and enhance that, rather than getting distracted by what is not possible.

Tactical and Psychological Considerations: As Per Usual

I’ve fallen foul of this one myself. Initially, it may be that we may need to make adjustments vis a vis tactical (decision making) skills and psychological skills. However, I quickly realised that my approach with able-bodied climbers actually fitted with disabled climbers perfectly well.

In fact, when it came to some psychological skills, the climbers I’ve worked with who have a physical disability actually have enhanced skills with some psychological aspects of their lives. For example, with many climbers, trying to get them to understand how to embrace challenge and push themselves can be quite difficult. With my disabled clients, embracing challenge has become second nature to them. After all, it’s a challenge they face on a daily basis: having to work harder than the average person to achieve much the same outcome with everyday tasks, .

That said, I naturally tried to accommodate for many of these skills when we ran those first sessions. It wasn’t a conscious decision – a good take home for us all, these are often not conscious decisions but ingrained behaviours that we are no longer aware that we exhibit – but clearly, I couldn’t just run my typical session and part of that became the way I spoke to my clients. However it didn’t last long before I realised the similarities.

Goal setting, for example, is no different. Yes, there is often a need to manage expectations but that can be said for the vast majority of ALL my clients, not just the disabled ones. The only challenge I found here was mine own and the fact I needed to research and explore what might present as an appropriate challenge for this individual.

It’s why we don’t have a Venn diagram for this section. The crossover would be too great to be a good illustration.

Action Over Inaction

All this being said, it can be daunting to take on a session with someone with a clear physical disability. Most coaches have built their practice through some level of personal experience. But how can we build personal experience of how it might feel to be disabled?!

I’m not a huge fan of the trend of using apparatus to simulate disability. Yes, I can see the merit but we can have empathy for someone without having to share their lived experience.

Potentially the worst action we can take is to do nothing at all. One reason these conversations are happening is to ensure that anyone can be involved in climbing and the first step is to open the door, not only to the people but to the idea of adapting our own practice as well.

And this can be a daunting practice; with good reason too, it is difficult and it’s okay to recognise that.

With each person being unique, each will have a different relationship with their disability. If our intentions are good, we are open and transparent with our clients and treat them with the same respect as anyone else, there is not reason we cannot have as much success with disabled climbers as with able bodied climbers.

Conclusion and Take Home Points

Let’s summarise some of those Take Home points then:

  • Both able-bodied and disabled people are people and should be treated with equal amounts of respect. Begin with a conversation exactly as we always do
  • Distinguish between assumptions and allowances to ensure we’re actually creating an equal environment that allows everyone to thrive
  • Remember that safety pervades everything and adapt practice as needed for the climber at hand
  • With technical skills, think of our Abdall Diagram: principles frameworks that aren’t relevant; those that are as relevant with anyone; and those that are new for this disability
  • Everyone is individual and with physical abilities, disabled climbers may have built enhanced strengths in other areas to compensate
  • Likewise, disabled climbers may have enhanced psychological skills such as embracing challenge based on their social issues. But as above, we cannot assume and must provide the opportunity to show us what they can do
  • Overall, calibrating abilities in the same way as with able bodied climbers can often be a good place to start: let’s go climbing and see how we get on

I’ll leave you with this point. One of the reasons I personally enjoy coaching so much is seeing others achieve their own success and being a part of that. As you get higher into coaching, it becomes harder to achieve. Yet one of the most emotional moments in my coaching career was seeing a disabled climber, with severe cerebal palsy, complete a climb for the first time.

For that person, the challenge was enormous. The physical and mental endeavour to succeed was greater than almost every other climber I’d ever seen. And it was an emotional moment that made me proud to be involved.

Please note that I am still exploring working with disabled climbers and paraclimbing. There is limited information out there and while there are organisations to work with, they can be harder to find. For more information on working with disabled climbers, please get in touch and I will help connect you with someone who can help as best I can.