Little monkeys grow up - Up-Climbing

Little monkeys grow up

by Elena Corriero
Athletes like Adam Ondra, Brooke Raboutou, Enzo Oddo or Ashima Shiraishi have accustomed us to extraordinary performances, that almost banalize once mythical climbing grades. The skills of the young “mutants” – or as such they have been defined – have repeatedly shocked the climbing world. We were almost sure that certain feats were impossible. But, alas, no.
But this is not the point, though. How normal will these grades and performances become?
Adam or Enzo have shown what can be done if talent and passion are combined with an early start, and with good training methods. So, what if they only were the forerunners of a new generations of mutants, that will once and for all normalize the performances that today we still look at in awe?
Robyn Erbesfield, star of the competitions in the first half of the nineties, married to Didier Raboutou and mother of Brooke and Shawn Raboutou, is a good candidate to answer such a question. She was the first woman to onsight 8a+, and to redpoint an 8b+. Robyn has been climbing for some 30 years, and for 20 years she has been coaching, specializing mainly in youth climbers.
As a climber herself, she treated herself to her first 8c more than 15 years after the climax of her competition career; as a coach, she has seen her daughter Brooke Raboutou become the youngest ever to send an 8c (Welcome to Tijuana, in Rodellar, Spain). Stella Noble, one of her trainees, is the current National Champion, and at 10 has sent her first 7c+. One could be tempted to say that Brooke is simply following in her parent’s footsteps, but the ability to transmit one’s passion in a constructive way shall not be taken for granted; all the same, it requires great parental committment to support in the right way the development of a precocious talent.
The desire to accompany their children Brooke and Shawn in their discovery of climbing pushed Robyn and Didier to start in 2004 a program dedicated to children, including very young ones, meant to get them acquainted with climbing.
ABC – an acronym that stands for agility, balance and coordination – welcomes children starting from age 3, and is articulated on multiple levels to follow their progresses until 19, proposing new objectives along with their growth.
“When Brooke was two year and a half, and Sean five year and a half, I realized they were very passionate; I wanted to create a world where they and other kids their age could practice climbing in an environment sized down for them, rather than taking them to the gym. They were lost in adult’s climbing gym: they were not allowed to run, to play, to speak loud” recounts Erbesfield-Raboutou.
ABC was first launched at the Boulder Rock Club of Boulder, Colorado, but it was subsequently exported to other climbing clubs that adopted the ABC methodology and program. Since 2004, the success has been such that Robyn had to broaden the concept radically. Being hosted in a gym for adults was not enough anymore: the children needed their own place. In 2012, ABC opened two gyms, in Boulder and in Salt Lake City, Utah, entirely dedicated to the youth; gyms where adults – parents or relatives of the young members – are only admitted on certain days, and certain times.
ABC is not concerned with climbing only, focusing in the first place on the psycho-physical development of the child thorough movement, and possibly this is the key to its success. According to Robyn, the first task of a good coach is to “nurture” the child, satisfying his or her curiosity and desire for discovery, without imposing the adult’s perspective. The activities proposed by ABC centers aim at developing self confidence and self esteem thorough games and challenges that help the youngest in shaping their identity by discovering the space around them.
“Everything moves and wobbles”, explains Erbesfield. “That’s what we say. Children always have to manage unstable situations.” The Monkey Pavilion is the special space envisaged for to the youngest, from 3 to 7 years of age. The first two levels of the program, called “Monkeys”, are dedicated to children up to 6; Super Monkeys are children from 6 to 12. With the increasing age, the curriculum starts to focus more on climbing technique proper, and includes among other things safety notions (knots, belaying and so on). On the occasion of all school breaks, ABC organizes outdoor climbing practice camps, both abroad – especially in Spain and France – and in the States. The most talented children can be groomed for competitions – if they so wish, obviously – and finally enter the ABC Pre-Team and ABC Team: and in this case, the acronym turns to stand for “America’s best climbers”.
Roughly 30 of the 200 youth actually enrolled in the ABC program in Boulder, Colorado, are members of the Team – including Brooke – the youngest ever to climb and 8c – and Stella Noble, National Champion in her category, who sent this summer her first 7c+, at 10 years of age. Competition are an important factor of aggregation, as they constitute one of the best ways to provide children with concrete objectives, but Robyn says she’s lucky, for all the Team members equally love outdoor climbing. Erbesfield quotes Stella Noble as an example: “I asked her which was the best part of her summer. She won the National Championship, but she mentioned instead ‘doing Sonic Youth, 5.13’, which was something bigger to her than being National Champion.”
Obviously it’s the coach’s task to stimulate the children without pushing them excessively, and without imposing on them goals they don’t embrace.
“Probably the most important skill of a coach is to make sure the athlete is safe, to encourage in a positive way, without pushing”, explains Robyn Erbesfield. To nurture the athlete, which means taking care of all of his needs, not just push them to train hard. Children must have a balance, they should have fun and some intensity, too. A coach must listen to the child.”
The relationship with parents can be complicated, but Robyn chooses to have a positive approach nonetheless. “I always look at it as if parents want the best for their children, and even if there is a moment when I hold my breath and say ‘How are we gonna handle this?’, I think it’s a natural reaction that parents want the best for their child. If we start with that idea we will eventually find a way to communicate with parents and in case let them know they should push back a bit and leave more space to the child.”
After all, the commitment of families is crucial in the growth of an ABC elite climber, who needs to visit climbing areas all over the world, devote all spare time to climbing and spend three hours a day training, four to six days a week. “It’s a huge commitment for families, in terms of money, and time”, says Robyn. “It’s climbing as a family. But that’s the choice of any elite athlete, and it is the same in other sports.”
But then, back to our initial question: how much will the level grow in the next years? Will athletes like Oddo, Ondra, Brooke or Ashima multiply until their extraordinary performances will become normal?
Robyn Erbesfield is categorical. “No, I consider people like Adam, Sasha, Ashima, Enzo very special. Exceptional.” There will be a generalized improvement of level, due to better training methods and to the widespread programs for children. According to Robyn, the average level in youth bouldering may attain 7c+ or 8a, but not 8b. Similarly, it might be normal that young climbers onsight 8b+, but not 8c+. Briefly, we won’t be facing a generation of mutants. “Every level will progress; but not all will be like Ondra.
Ashima, Brooke, Adam, they are exceptions. There will be other exceptions, but they will remain such.”