Telling is probably the most serious mistake a climbing coach can make. It is, sadly, also one of the most common.

What is telling?

Telling is excessive input from the coach during training sessions. In its most extreme form, it becomes a form of remote control. The coach isn’t coaching - they insist that their climbers respond immediately to their instructions. Making most or all of the decisions for their climbers.

Why do they do it?

  • Some coaches think their job is to make things happen.
  • Some think a coach who is loud and controlling is a 'proper' coach.
  • Some like exercising authority.
  • For many it is a learnt behaviour, copying other ‘successful’ Coaches.
  • Some have an ego that is tied in with the success of the climbers.

Why is telling bad?

Constantly telling climber to "step left", "rockover on the green hold", "use the crimp", "clip now", etc. stops climbers from learning how to react or to work things out for themselves.

In coaching sessions, telling manifests itself as a constant stream of instructions, unnecessary interventions and directing climbers what to do instead of guiding them towards the answers by the use of open questions, or even setting appropriate tasks to allow the climbers to come up with the solution themselves.

The result? Climber development and learning slows to a standstill. Climbers are not motivated to improve and there is a distinct lack of fun and free play.

Any short-term success, from being told what to do, is replaced by long-term failure as climbers who are allowed to think for themselves inevitably outgrow and outperform the over-coached "robots".

Do I talk too much?

The ‘talk to action’ ratio has been used for a long time as a reference point when observing coaches work. Ideally, the talk should be kept to a minimum, while action is maximised, because, in reality, we all learn by having a go, making mistakes, reflecting on those mistakes and trying again.

More recently, I am using the ‘Coaches talk to climbers talk’ ratio to help coaches to decide if they are telling (instructing) or coaching. If the coach is saying significantly more than the climbers, then they are almost certainly telling. While if the climbers are talking more than the coaches (about the task at hand) then coaching is more likely to be occurring.

The solution

Climbers must be allowed to think and make decisions on their own. They must learn to solve problems for themselves not just during coaching sessions.

Spend more time watching during coaching sessions. If you have to intervene, ask questions, don't give your climbers the answers and avoid saying 'you MUST do this' or 'you MUST NOT do that'. Use the TED Questioning model - Tell me, Explain, Describe to engage your climbers in a discussion. Don't forget the power of 'Show me' because if you ask too many questions, your talk to action ratio could be effected massively.

Your climbers have brains. Your job as a coach is to develop those as well.

Excellent coaching is about setting stimulating and appropriate tasks to develop your climbers' skills while developing your climber's ability to self-reflect. Not directly telling them the way to do something or even giving them the solution!

About the Author

Paul Smith has been an active climber for over 20 years and currently runs Rock and Water Adventures. He specialises in providing Technical Advice to range of climbing walls, centres, schools and small businesses, alongside the delivery of the Mountain Training Rock Climbing, Rock Climbing Development Instructor, Climbing Wall and Climbing Wall Development Instructor awards, the Climbing Coaching scheme and elements of the British Canoeing Coaching scheme. He has written a number of climbing related books – ‘Climbing Games’ and ‘Top Tips for Climbing Coaches’. Paul is proud to recieve support from Pyranha Kayaks, Venture Canoes & Kayaks, Peak UK and Salewa.

Thanks to Joby Maw Davis, Alan Halewood, Daniel Wilkinson , Chris Brain and Jez Brown for their comments and suggestions
Telling: The Greatest climbing coaching sin of all

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