Womxn Coaching Womxn

Climbing has changed my life for the better, and I have been super lucky to have an amazing group of friends who have helped me to grow in the sport. So, when I was offered a coaching position, I jumped at the opportunity to get more involved with the community.

By Jael van Eck

Coaching young climbers to reach their potential and fulfil their dreams is my passion. I have coached all age groups from ages 5 to 17 years old, and saying it’s been an adventure would be an understatement. I coach all genders, but I would like to reflect on the amazing young women I have been able to meet and what it has been like to coach them… 

But first, a little bit about me…

Climbing has changed my life for the better, and I have been super lucky to have an amazing group of friends who have helped me to grow in the sport. So, when I was offered a coaching position, I jumped at the opportunity to get more involved with the community. James Barnes is the very man leading our athletes in Tokyo this week – he is a wonderful coach who taught me how to teach the sport, and I have always strived to be as good of a coach as he is. 

Historically, climbing – like most other sports – has been male dominated, with the exception of the odd Lynn Hill or Catherine Destivelle coming through the cracks. It has been amazing to be a part of the shift into a more female-friendly environment. 

The coaching ‘coaster

I’ll start out by saying that coaching young women is a wonderful thing. But, my goodness, is it a rollercoaster! There will be moments where you can’t believe that this child in front of you could be so strong and fearless, and yet so fragile and scared at the same time.

A very important part of my coaching style has been creating a safe space where my girls can feel like they belong. I want to be able to help them as much as I can in all aspects of their lives. When dealing with young people, you have to be prepared to deal with a lot of emotions, fear and stress.

Offering just five minutes of personal time to talk and vent can reveal a lot about what is going on with a young woman’s life and mind. Trying to relate and genuinely empathise with these young climbers is one of the major ways I connect with them. I can usually tell them about a similar situation that I have experienced, and I make sure that I never come across as if I just want to brush them aside. My kids call this a “Jay speech”, and they will even ask for one during tough times – a little goes a long way!

Saying simple things like “It’s okay to be too upset or scared,” and “I am here for you and to listen to you,” can make a huge difference to a situation. I make sure not to dismiss their emotions by saying things that may be traditionally expected from a sports coach, like “Get over it” or “Brush it off” (although, these are applicable when volumes need to be mantled or holds need to be brushed…). Compassion trumps coldness, every time. 

Each girl – and each climber, for that matter – requires a different approach or treatment, and that’s something you just have to learn over time. Being a positive female role model, by just being there for them and letting them express themselves, can make the biggest difference. This can change a young woman’s view of both themselves and the world around them, and that can change a life. 

Womxn-specific challenges 

Growing up is a scary experience; one in which we rarely know which way to turn. Taking on a sport like climbing – and, particularly, enrolling in a coaching programme – can help to make these young girls feel less alone when they need it most. I was once told “I feel like any man can be a climber no matter what he climbs, but women have to be doing out-of-this-world grades or moves to even be considered a real climber”. 

Society has come a long way, but there still exist biases, prejudices, and stereotypes that can ruin sport for young women. Even in climbing, I constantly hear comments like “stop climbing like a girl” when someone is struggling. If a girl is upset, they get told to “have a teaspoon of cement”. Young women are subjected to this from all angles, from a very early age, and it can be very discouraging and degrading – feeling like you have to fight or work ten times harder just to get a bit of recognition. There are so many wonderful men and boys who offer womxn climbers the respect they deserve, but long-held patterns are hard to dismantle.

Seeing such behaviour every day, it can be hard to watch my girls go through this and learn the ways of the world. I try to teach them to handle it as best as they can, to never forget their intrinsic value, and to teach my male students how harmful these kinds of actions or words can be. I feel that climbing has so much to offer womxn. It is a wonderful way to feel empowered and connect with like-minded people, and it really is a sport in which any and all genders can excel. Climbing teaches girls that they are in control of their minds, bodies and power – one of the most important lessons they will ever learn.

My hope is that more and more womxn and girls can be exposed to climbing, and that they can find in it the same confidence, courage and community that I have found. I look forward to continuing to work with such amazing young womxn, and I can’t wait to see them change the face of climbing. Furthermore, I hope we can see a growth in sensitivity, kindness and understanding, to create a more inclusive climbing community for all.