Warming to Each Other: Safeguarding Ourselves As Coaches

How do we safeguard ourselves as coaches to avoid injury when working with clients without demotivating or demoralising them?

Let’s start with a basic premise of climbing coaching: our clients are not paying us to climb. We’re not there to work on our latest winter aggregate sheet or to tick off our project, we are there to help the client become a better climber. Period.

The problem then arises that in order for us to facilitate learning for the client, it’s very possible we may well need to don our rock boots and step off the floor. This might be as part of a demonstration of a technique or it may be for one of myriad other reasons. Despite that initial comment, climbing for the coach does happen and can work well in the right scenario. I regularly climb with clients; working on climbs myself while still coaching effectively. With one client, I want to develop social channels and cultivate the right environment that is not the typical teacher and student and one that becomes more collaborative. With another, I used my own attempts (on totally different problems on the bouldering wall) to slow the climbing down in order that the client did not climb too much and burn out. Years back – and I stress this is not recommended and I don’t do this any more – I occasionally climbed the climbers projects to reduce arrogance levels and bring them down to earth a little.

Our reasons for getting on the wall may well be totally justified but for many of us, it’s more of a last resort and often not incorporated into the lesson plan. After all, we can all relate to the feeling of seeing a stronger climber suddenly appear and complete the climb we have spent a long time working to no avail (and let’s face it, most coaches will be either more technically adept or stronger than our clients).

The easy answer, and i would suggest the most commonly used by coaches, is simply not to climb while coaching. Yet i’ve spoken to many coaches who raise the issue of the coach becoming injured by stepping off the floor on something too hard without correctly warming up. And it is a real issue.

As an example, i had a session with a regular client a few weeks back and he’d beaten me there and had started climbing prior to my arrival. Typically for this enthusiastic youth, he’d not warmed up for long enough (or had actually been there much longer than i realised) and was working one of the top grades in the wall and asked for my beta. I got sucked in and started demonstrating the moves; still in my approach shoes and waterproof jacket… Effectively, i’ve walked in to the wall and got on a 7b+ boulder problem, cold and unprepared. It’s a sure fire way to get hurt and of course, once we get injured, we can’t do anything.

The story worked out fine, for three reasons: firstly, i’d done the route days beforehand and knew what would stress me and what wouldn’t; secondly, the route suited this pretty well, being big static moves on large, open handed holds; and third, i’m personally well conditioned for a very short warm up and rarely have any issues getting on hard climbs incredibly quickly, combining this with good intrinsic feedback to know when i need to let go. Nevertheless, getting sucked in like this without a proper warm up is a very real possibility – we’re coaches because we love climbing aren’t we? – and it is definitely NOT recommended.

So what is the answer? How do we safeguard ourselves and stay fit without short changing or demotivating our clients?

Much of the answer will depend on the dynamic of the session you are having, the level of both you and the client and the time constraints you are under. Either which way though, we need to be considering our own safety as much as that of our clients.

Arrive early?

One option is to beat them to it and get to the wall before them, so we can be warm and ready for once they arrive. However, there are several major drawbacks to this that mean that, while a sensible option to have in hand, warming up pre-session is not always possible.

Consider that we are being paid to be in the wall or at the crag and as much as we may well enjoy being there and spending time climbing, that this is time we are not yet being paid for and thus, effectively reduces our hourly rate. While this may sound a fickle point (and could possibly be accommodated for with our pricing structure) it is a very real issue for those of us who are not booked up months in advance.

Time spent at the wall warming ourselves up before our clients arrive is time that we cannot spend doing anything else; writing, marketing, being with our children, etc. Most coaches will incorporate our coaching with other work and time matters.

Then of course, we have the other issue of an early start. I’ve had clients who have wanted a session to start when the wall opens, meaning i have no access to the wall before them. Granted, i could try warming up with other training aids or at home but realistically, that will only get us so far and again, is sub-optimal.

Finally, consider that warming up gets us warm but inactivity cools us down again. If I do an hour long warm up, then talk to my client for 30 minutes before allowing them their own hour long warm up, how primed am I likely to be when I finally need to demo a move or technique? Then consider that our client has a long session and we’re throwing an extra hour on top of that for ourselves, our fitness levels will need to be pretty exceptional.

All told, pre-session climbing may well work for some coaches but should not be the sole method we use to safeguard ourselves.

Warm Up Seperately?

Another option may well be to warm up away from your client, especially if your client is an experienced climber capable of conducting their own routine. However this has major downsides too.

I tell my clients not to warm up before our session and that if they want to incorporate a normal climbing session into a coaching session, to let me know and they can continue after I’m gone. The reason: I want to see them warm up. Most climbers aren’t currently injured when they go to the wall (debateable but hopefully you know what I mean) and so what they’re doing is largely working. As such, I don’t prescribe a warm up for anyone. Instead, I watch what they are doing and offer some tweaks or advice along the way. If they are warming up further away from me, I can’t see them and can’t help.

Moreover, climbing apart doesn’t exactly create a nice, welcoming and shared experience. If you look at Mosston and Ashworth’s (2008) Developmental Channels, we’re not simply looking to develop physical skills but also social and emotional skills too. We can’t really do that being in different places.

And of course, it can’t exactly feel like good value for the client, even if they have been given some drills to do and left to their own devices for a significant chunk of the session. Granted, allowing autonomy for students if a fantastic way to help them develop and has been a popular exercise for me in the past, especially with clients who are looking to me to answer all their questions rather than finding the answers for themselves (see Schommer (1994) and Mosston and Ashworth (2018) for more about teaching styles). However I would suggest doing this right at the start of your session is not the best time.

Change the Dynamic

One of the popular phrases I use, especially with beginner groups of differing levels, is about one of the great joys of climbing. An indoor facility – or a well chosen outdoor venue – will have a wide variety of grades of route. Two climbers at opposite ends of the grade range can climb together, each attempting their own route, without any implication to each’s challenge levels.

Compare this to a tennis match. A semi-pro player having a match with a beginner will barely be challenged, while the beginner may well become overworked and disheartened. For the match to be challenging for both parties, their level needs to be similar. This is not the case with climbing, as long as the dynamic between the climbers is correct.

It is natural for us to measure ourselves against those around us and for their performance to affect our own motivations. However, it needn’t be so. Measuring ourselves against others is known as Elite Referenced Excellence (Collins et al, 2012) in the Three World’s Continuum Model (for more information, an article on motivations will appear in the menu very soon) and can be a powerful tool in driving someone to achieve their best. These athletes measure their success against others and it may even be possible, if you have a client at the right level with this motivation, to use your own climbing to drive them onwards.

Where tennis is predicated on Elite Referenced Excellence exclusively (you win by bettering your opponent) climbing has elements of Personally Referenced Excellence, whereby we measure our success compared to our own previous achievements. Indeed, one of the major appeals of climbing and other adventure sports is just that: the lack of peer-to-peer competition. Many of us are trying to climb as hard as we can, almost irrespective of anyone else.

Where the problem comes is when the climber becomes embroiled in ERE when they don’t mean to. That anecdote from earlier about someone completing our project is relevant again here and it is very common with those under instruction/coaching.

For us as coaches, understanding, explaining and switching the motivation of the climber – in other words, changing the dynamic of the session to become more collaborative and less competitive – may be all that’s needed to allow you to climb alongside your climber, warming up and staying warm and thus safeguarding yourself.

Address the Issue At Hand

Of course, it may not be that simple and your climber may well be the type that will continually look at your abilities and use them as an excuse for their own failings: “oh, why can’t I do that?” for example.

This may well be symptomatic of other issues aside from technical and it may be that this is the trigger that we need to find and address the real issue at hand. Is our climber looking for excuses for their weaknesses rather than being prepared to address them? Are there underlying psychological blocks preventing them from improving? Is there more going on here than i first realised?

I’m not suggesting we are all clinical psychologists that should suddenly be practising unlicensed pseudo-psychology in the middle of a session in the climbing wall. Nevertheless, being aware that the barriers to success can take many forms – the TTPP Model is one that investigates the areas to progression – and that there is not one fix-all approach to coaching can allow us as coaches to provide a quality service that is right for the client. If in doubt with a client, consider further reading or getting help from another coach; feel free to get in touch to be referred to another coach who may be able to help you.

Remember: We Come First

The crucial element to this article is that our safety must come first. Yes, the client’s safety is paramount but if we are hurt, we are no longer able to safeguard them, or to a lesser extent offer good value for money.

A parallel example would be from my time of the Ogwen Mountain Rescue Team. We were continually drilled to think “Self, Team, Cas” in that if we don’t look after ourselves or our team members before the casualty, we risk becoming another casualty. It’s the same in first aid: danger first, then deal with primary care for the casualty.

It’s the same here. We must make sure we are not compromising ourselves and that includes being properly prepared to deliver the session we have intended for our client. If we can do that, our sessions can continue to be of the highest quality for all involved.

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