Full Circle: What Coaching Youth Climbing Has Taught Me

Team Charleston Robert Lavarnway Misty Mountain Ambassador Reviewing Footage

By Robert Lavarnway

Had you asked me when I first got into rock climbing back in the 90’s if I would ever coach a competitive rock climbing team, I would have laughed. Rock climbing wasn’t meant to be competitive, it was all about me and the rock. Heck, I didn’t step foot in a gym for at least the first two years that I climbed. Back then we did it to be away from the noise, the craziness of daily life. Many still do today, but just as many view it as an athletic pursuit, one that has become Olympic worthy.

Team Charleston Regional Championship 2009 Robert Lavarnway Misty Mountain Ambassador
Team Charleston Regional Championships 2009

I started climbing right at the end of the Stonemaster Era. Lynn Hill had just freed The Nose in a day and she was our idol (and crush) and I fancied myself a young John Bachar, both of us being sax players. Most climbers were still grungy, dirty hippies, smoked a lot of weed and lived life freely. Back then you had to learn from a mentor, someone who took you under their wing and taught everything they knew. It may or may not have been the most accurate or even safe information, but it was still one climber passing the torch onto the other. With the invention of climbing gyms, auto belays and the internet, that mentorship has largely disappeared and climbers are much more self-sufficient. They also tend to come from more affluent walks of life. Have you seen the price of a gym day pass lately?!

Today’s modern climbing gyms are state of the art athletic facilities. Aside from the walls, they contain full weight and cardio gyms, yoga studios, and even smoothie bars. Climbing gyms are designed with the intention of being direct competition to Gold’s Gym and the like. One significant difference (aside from the climbing) between the two is the youth programs. Climbing gyms have become the training grounds of the next generation of climbing athletes and Olympians. To watch a youth team practice is an immediate lesson in humility. Who would have ever thought 11 year olds would be onsighting 5.12+?

And this is where I come in…

Those who can’t do, teach, right?


Those who are passionate teach!

Team Charleston Graduates Misty Mountain Robert Lavarnway Ambassador
Original members of Team Charleston 9 years later at their high school graduation.

After traveling the country and climbing some of the best rock the U.S has to offer, I landed in the Lowcountry and took up the mantle of training the next generation. For ten years now I have been the head coach of Team Charleston, having the honor of coaching some amazing athletes. Throughout the years, I have witnessed rock climbing become a life changing activity for many of these youngsters, much as it was for me in my youth. The cool part is that these kids are learning so much more than how to climb. Through their training and competing, they are learning sportsmanship, stress management, safe risk-taking, and how to take care of their bodies.

They are developing self-confidence, courage, and critical thinking skills. I don’t know of many other arenas that provide all this at once.

Over the years I have experienced every aspect of life of many of these kids. Boyfriend/girlfriend issues, learning to drive, graduating, even competing in and winning Chopped Jr! I have been to concerts, plays, poetry readings, and graduations. While attempting to share my love of climbing with these kids, I have unexpectedly come to share in their lives as a mentor, too. With all my climbing knowledge and experience, I have found the largest component of coaching involves being a good listener; along with a master’s degree in youth psychology. Of course, being a good coach requires a hefty knowledge of kinesiology, sports medicine, and many other physical aspects, but it’s the ability to connect with the athletes and understand them that is truly important.

Team Charleston Robert Lavarnway Misty Mountain Ambassador Outdoor WallOne of the things I have always admired about climbers is that they seem to have a spirt that never accepts defeat, one that is always striving to reach the top, physically and metaphorically. While I may be biased, I feel that the kids that I coach are some of the best examples of this. Training at our facility is not easy. Being outside means we have to contend with the elements and daylight to get a decent workout in. I remember a particularly cold morning a few years ago where I sat bundled up in a hoodie nursing a cup of coffee. I could hear voices from down the trail and moments later, ten kids burst into view, racing each other back to The Climbing Wall. While most kids would still be in bed or playing video games, these kids were braving the cold in an effort to become their absolute best. That morning, they went out for a run, then a round of calisthenics, some yoga, and stretching. All of this happens before they even put on their climbing gear. The morning’s focus was on endurance. Remember running suicides in gym class? Well these kids do them up the wall. Climb up a fourth, down climb a fourth, climb up half, down climb half and so on. It’s inspiring to see these young athletes so dedicated, especially when I want nothing more than a second cup of coffee.

I learned long ago that coaching and ego should and can never exist in the same plane. In the spirit of mentorship and seeing these kids succeed, I have stepped back from chasing ratings to help this next generation chase their dreams. I have several kids that are serious about making it to the Olympics someday and their ability has surpassed mine. I believe that my job is to bring out the best in these young athletes, not be the best. I’m pretty sure that Michael Phelps is swimming faster than his coach, too.

Team Charleston Robert Lavarnway Misty Mountain Ambassador Reviewing Footage
Reviewing footage of a climb with an athlete.

What is neat to see is how the mentorship thing has really come full circle. Since Team Charleston started, 5 members have come back to work at the wall, most taking on coaching roles with our younger kids. I have passed the torch to them, and in turn they are passing it on to a new generation. Someday when I’ve retired from coaching and climbing, I can rest well knowing that the future of our sport is in good hands.

Team Charleston Elite Team 2018 Misty Mountain Ambassador Robert Lavarnway
Team Charleston 2018 Elite Team.