Becoming a Climbing Instructor… or a Coach? The Pathway Explained

Please note, this article is related to the intructional and coaching awards in the UK specifically. Others countries are available (with their own schemes)

After finishing making a recording for a podcast in which I’m starring – during which we talked about the UK climbing coaching awards in relation to the older, well establised instructional awards – I set about my jobs list. Right up at the top is to send someone an email… where I explain about the UK climbing coaching and instructional awards. It’s a conversation I have often with people in the wall, with freelance instructors new and old. I’ve even written an article about the coaching awards for Professional Mountaineer magazine!

The reason I spend so much time talking about this stuff is that it’s confusing. That’s not me criticising Mountain Training (the organisation that govern all this stuff), it was always going to be complicated and even more so in the past twenty years as climbing as an activity has grown and diversified so broadly. There’s a lot of history from a rich, broad and fantastic world to be mixed in with all of this.

So, I figured let’s give people a simple resource to refer to. This article will outline what the awards are designed for, who each award is designed for and where they’re intended for. We’ll give a really simple overview to begin with then dig a little deeper a bit lower down.

The Awards

Let’s start off nice and simple. What awards are there. Well, here’s the Mountain Trianing pathway infographic as a good starting point.

It’s a good graphic and shows it nicely. As this is focused on intructors and coaches, we’re going to disregard the Skills Courses out left, investigate them at your leisure.

So the middle column. From the top, we’ve got:

  • Indoor Climbing Assistant (ICA). A good entry point, this award is designed for people who assist (clue’s in the name there) a qualified instructor. A holder won’t be able to run sessions on their own. In some climbing hotspots across the country, these can be hard to find running. More info on the MT website here
  • Climbing Wall Instructor (CWI). The modern standard entry point for instructors. A holder of a CWI will be able to run sessions on artificial structures on top ropes, auto belays and bouldering walls. These are normally indoor climbing walls but can also be manufactured walls outside too, as is commonplace in many centres i.e. Centre Parks. More info on the MT website here
  • Rock Climbing Instructor (RCI). This used to be known as the SPA (Single Pitch Award) and is related to outdoor climbing on top ropes and bouldering with certain restrictions such as having the ability to walk to the top of the route. More info on the MT website here
  • Climbing Wall Development Instructor (CWDI). Basically the CWI including teaching lead climbing. More info on the MT website here
  • Rock Climbing Development Instructor (RCDI). Basically the RCI including teaching lead climbing. More info on the MT website here
  • Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor (MCI). A higher level award, this one covers all the big stuff such as multi pitch, scrambling, all sorts. It’s one to aim for. More info on the MT website here

These awards are all based around keeping people safe in different environments. That is their focus. They are not really that worried about how you move on the wall or how you develop, although will still remember that it’s about teaching people and will have elements of this in there too. Crucially, these are the awards that allow you to find work in the industry, such as a centre of a climbing gym.

So what about the right column? There are three in here:

  • Foundation Coach (FC). The focus here is how to teach groups of individuals on a single session. More info on the MT website here
  • Development Coach (DC). Again, it’s how to teach but this time, multiple sessions with the same group of individuals. More info on the MT website here
  • Performance Coach (PC). Another higher award, this one is mega tough (at time of writing, I’m going through the training) and looks at coaching groups or individuals over long periods of time. More info on the MT website here

All of the above awards follow a standard path of experience, training course, consolidation and assessment.

If that wasn’t complicated enough, there are some workshops to supplement these courses too and even more confusing, while all of those are run by Mountain Training (MT), the workshops are run by the BMC (British Mountaineering Council):

  • FUNdamentals. These one day workshops look at teaching and enhancing technical movement skills in climbing. There are 3 one day workshops. I run these courses so if you’re interested, click the link
  • Physical Training. 2 one day workshops focusing on the physical training aspects of climbing
  • Mental Skills. At time of writing, these don’t technically exist yet but are in the pipeline (I’m involved in the design of these workshops) and will look at psychological aspects of climbing
  • Other Courses. There are a few more, such as the Coaching Children and Route Setters courses, both of which are fairly self explanatory and worthwhile in their own way, although both are rarer

See the BMC website for more details on the specifics of each of these courses.

Where Do I Start?!

Short answer: either CWI or FUNdamentals 1

All three of these facets of climbing education mesh together much more than people realise. Have another diagram for demonstration:

Notice the breakdown: the CWI, RCI etc. are all interested in keeping people safe in the environment through good group management; the FC, DC etc. look at how to teach; and finally the workshops emphasise what to teach.

All three are really important, again, much more than people realise. However, the instructional awards have been around much longer – since the 1960s, believe it or not – with the others only around 10 years old (as of time of writing, they started around 2014), meaning they’re yet to really find their place in the minds of wood-be instructors.

The other crucial aspect of this is that it is the instructional awards that get you work. Put frankly, the insurance companies aren’t really that interested in teaching and learning (understandbly) so put the CWI/RCI as the requirements to work. All of this makes this an obvious place to begin.

However, my personal feeling is that the workshops can be a great place to begin your journey into teaching climbing. Notice how even the ICA and CWI have an assessment to complete and the training alone isn’t of huge use. The workshops, however, have no assessment and have massive value for one’s own climbing, not to mention being a great way to network with existing instructors. I mean, I might be biased, being only able to currently provide FUNdamentals but I like to think that even if I could run everything, I’d still suggest this as a good option.

Get In Touch

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A Prowess run BMC FUNdamentals of Climbing workshop in Birmingham

So What Do I Need To Get Started?

Go climbing. I mean, that’s a simple answer so maybe, erm, nah, just go climbing. Lots.

The one thing all of these courses share is that they build on your experience as a climber. While it’s not my place to judge, I do find it slightly baffling how people can sign up to an outdoor education course or a trainee instructor without already being a climber. Perhaps if someone already had experience of other outdoor activities such as hillwalking or paddlesports, it would make sense. But either which way, we need to have personal experience before we develop professional experience.

Of course, with something like FUNdamentals 1 or CWI, you might be using them to get into climbing before learning the bad habits. Fair play, this could be a good option. Even so, CWI has pre-requisites for training and if you can’t fit your own harness correctly and tie in, you’re in for a tough day.

As a guide, consider this: if you don’t already own all the kit you’ll need (shoes, chalk bag, harness, rope) then consider whether the Skills Courses might be better.

Most Prowess FUNdamentals run in North Wales at centres such as the Beacon or the Indy. However, it is possible to travel, please get in touch for more info

How Do I Book Myself On or Register?

Most of these courses are advertised through what is known as CMS. While mention of CMS will get a shudder from many instructors, it’s not that bad and is a central point for finding all of these courses and workshops (plus a lot more actually).

For a link to find ALL of the aforementioned courses currently running in the UK, please click here.

To attend any of these, you will need to be registered with Mountain Training. Irrespective of what it says on the website, registration with the organisation is FREE and the fee comes when you sign up for the relevant award. If you’re simply registering for the future or to attend a BMC workshop, there is no fee. However any award with a training and assessment will include a fee to sign up to.

For a link to register with Mountain Training, please click here. They’re really cool and helpful so if you get lost, give them a shout.

One last thing, do yourself a favour. Another bain of existing instructors is something called DLOG. This is your Digital Logbook and is used for assessments to decide whether you have the required level of experience to pass. Start logging days/sessions when you register. This is part of the reason people hate it, because they leave it and have to back date all of their sessions. If you start early, it makes it way easier. If you already have a heap of experience, you can attach a document detailing what you’ve done to date.

Andy Swann running a BMC FUNdamentals workshop in Manchester

Anything else?!

Erm… yes but if you’ve already found what you’re looking for, stop here and go put it into action. If there’s anything else you’ve heard of but haven’t found here that has left you pondering, read on.

So far we’ve talked about awards from Mountain Training and workshops from the BMC. The other big organisation you may have heard of is NICAS. NICAS (or the bouldering equivalent NIBAS) is an organisation that provides structure for kids under instruction. Climbing being what it is, previously, kids on regular clubs didn’t really have any structure to follow and often, sessions were a bit hit and miss.

NICAS basically created a syllabus for kids and instructors to follow, with boxes to tick, skills to acquire and certificates along the way. It is not a coaching award scheme. Many who complete Level 4/5 often go on to complete climbing awards but there is no requirement to complete any NICAS/NIBAS awards to become an instructor.

There is a requirement to have completed FUNdamentals to deliver NICAS sessions, though, as well as Foundation Coach for Level 4. So if you want to deliver NICAS one day, why not book on one of my FUNda’s courses now and beat the rush… Not that I’m plugging my courses in any way of course.

There are other organisations thrown in to the mix as well that you may stumble across. GB Climbing is a branch of the BMC, focused on competition climbing. Meanwhile the Association of British Climbing Walls (ABC) are becoming a major player, grouping together, well, British Climbing Walls; something for much further down the line.

Then there are member organisations, such as AMI (Association of Mountaineering Instructors), BAIML (British Association of International Mountain Leaders) and the annoyingly titled Mountain Training Assosication (MTA, different to Mountain Training). Even Mountain Training is broken into England, Cymru (Wales) and so on, not to mention the Scottish (MCofS) and Irish (also MCI, again annoyingly) equivalents.

You could climb on the pile of acronyms alone. I only mention them to make you aware. Stick to the bits you know of and try not to get too mixed up between them all. Your main organisations to focus on are Mountain Training and the BMC. Oh and Prowess, of course. And if ever you get a bit lost with it all, you can always get in touch with me.

Best of luck with your journey!

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