Climber traversing left from belay ledge
Climbers on Valkyrie (VS 4c), Peak District, UK.
©Duncan Skelton/Offwidth Images, 2010

What I think about when I think about coaching

What is coaching? How does it work? What happens?

My answer has many words, and many more feelings.

Let me show you a singular image. One to convey the essence of coaching. One that immediately connects me to partnership, exploration, aliveness and audacious goals.

So what is coaching? For me, coaching is this

Climber traversing left from belay ledge
Climber leading the 2nd pitch of Valkyrie (VS 4c), Peak District, UK
©Duncan Skelton/Offwidth Images, 2010

What stories do you make up as you look at that picture?

So much of what fulfils most is right there. Looking at that photograph, I feel it in my body. I feel the sharp crystals in the rock under my fingertips, and the friction of my feet on the gritstone.

“We don’t see things how they are, we see them as we are”

     (Rich, by Marillion)

Let me tell you about coaching by telling you about climbing. Because I am first and foremost a climber.

I’ll point to more images in the telling, and show you partnership, alliance, exposure, fear, rehearsal, big audacious goals, and ripples.

On partnership…

There you see Paul, in red, traversing out left, above the roof. I’m on the ledge belaying him (holding his ropes). This is the halfway point of the climb.

Earlier that morning Paul was looking for a partner to climb with. He already knew he wanted to climb this specific route. He’d wanted it for a while. Today was the day and I was excited to share a few routes with him. We were well matched.

On designing the alliance…

Standing at the bottom of the route I flake the rope out so it runs smoothly.

“Let me know what you need”. I pass the end of the rope to Paul to tie into. 

“Sure. Keep me tight, just not too tight.”. He shows me the knot he’s tied to double-check. Protocol.

I know he’ll ask for more slack in the rope when he’s placing protection along the route, and he’ll let me know when to take up that slack and keep the rope tighter. He’ll give me feedback as he goes, asking for what he needs. 

“You are on belay. Climb when ready”.

“OK. Climbing”.

 And with that he simply steps up and begins. Exploration. Together we deal with everything that turns up on this climb.

On holding your ropes…

Climber traversing left from belay ledge

A hanging belay on Eroica (E4 6a), Pentire Head, Cornwall, UK.
©Duncan Skelton/Offwidth Images, 2006

Holding your ropes is a privilege.

I am witness to your experience. I climb with you. For sure, it’s you on the sharp end. You are doing the hard work. And for the duration, while we’re connected by the rope, you trust me to see you – authentic, unfiltered, in all your brilliance and messiness.

While you live your experience on lead, I hold you on belay. From my zoomed-out perspective I voice my support. I reflect what I see and hear – offering feedback on what might be in the blind spot of your awareness.

I shout acknowledgements and, when the moves get hairy, I champion your efforts . If you become stuck I help generate options for further exploration. Maybe I even call bullshit on your excuses and procrastination, in service of your climb. And for sure, we’ll laugh along the way, and celebrate.

On feeling exposed…

Climber traversing left from belay ledge
The East Face Route (51 5b) on The Old Man of Hoy, Orkney
©Duncan Skelton/Offwidth Images, 2007

Climbing frequently generates a heightened sense of exposure and varying levels of discomfort, both physical and psychological. There are magnificently exposed positions to be had depending on the choice of route, technique or technical difficulty. That sense of exposure manifests differently for each of us.

You will find yourself in unique and thrilling positions, almost certainly outside of your comfort zone.

To consciously choose these places is to first and foremost commit to your goal. Then there’s trust and belief in the connection with your climbing partner. And then there’s self-belief, to trust in yourself and to be accepting of the possibilities. (And then there’s working knowledge of the tools, and technique, and strategy, and field craft. The particles.)

Then, just as your position feels most tenuous and the self-doubt sets in, you get a choice.

The difference between climbing and falling comes down to the smallest change. A subtle shift of balance, a breath out, a conscious relaxation of grip, a choice to hold a new perspective.

Sometimes the right choice is the counter-intuitive choice; to make one more move, to find a better hold, a rest position to shake out and recover for a few moments. To take a risk. It may give you just enough.

There is reward and aliveness after being out there, exposed, uncomfortable, and self-managing your way through it. And while that sense of exposure likely doesn’t diminish, your tolerance and appreciation for it increases. A form of desensitisation training.

On learning to fall…

One thing in climbing, more than anything else, that will scupper your attempts to reach your goal, is the fear of falling. Bruce Lee names it, writing poetically about flow

“The consciousness of self is the greatest hindrance to the proper execution of all physical action.”
     – Bruce Lee

Climber traversing left from belay ledge
A leader fall. Millstone Edge, Peak District, UK.
©Duncan Skelton/Offwidth Images, 2007.

 And the sports-coach-turned-leadership-coach Tim Gallwey captured the same flow-limiting idea in his performance formula…

Performance (P) = potential (p) – interference (i)

The fear of falling, the fear of failure, is a primary source of Gallwey’s interference that limits performance.

When you push your grade, climb at the edge of your capabilities, the likelihood of failure is high. All the while you try to hold competing tensions – acknowledging fall potential (by adequately protecting your climb), and focusing completely on the successful execution of moves that will unlock your route.

And when you do fall (and you will fall), there is learning.

Climber traversing left from belay ledge
A climber reflects on a fall. Stanage Edge, Peak District, UK.
©Duncan Skelton/Offwidth Images, 2007.

 On failing fast…

One strategy to tackle something difficult is simply to begin. To try. If the challenge is significant enough you will fail a number of times before you finally send the problem.

Failing generates learning – how not to do it. And in the process of attempting it you induce a training effect,  grow stronger through recovery and are ready to push further on the next attempt.

Knowing that someone is spotting you, trusting that someone has got your back, creates the space to commit to your best effort.

Climber traversing left from belay ledge

Bouldering in Fontainebleau, France.
©Duncan Skelton/Offwidth Images, 2012

Working the moves, solving the current problem, unlocking the next sequence, is safer when you practice the moves in isolation or closer to the ground. You fail faster, adapt, and go again, with lower cost.

Failing fast means learning fast, succeeding better, with more information.

Confidence is the result of action, not a prerequisite.


On ripples…

The experience, resilience and skills, (physical and mental), you develop through roped climbing cannot help but show up outside of the climbing partnership. Why? Because you become changed, expanded. And these expanded capabilities and beliefs inevitably serve elsewhere in life.

Climbing is a deeply rich and multifaceted undertaking. It is a physical,  technical, emotional activity that demands self-regulation. 

Climber and belayer. Two very different, intensely personal realities each internalised. And one powerful shared experience formed through connection and presence.

This is climbing. This is what I think about when I think about coaching.

Where do you want to climb today?

Let me hold your ropes.

Climber traversing left from belay ledgeA moonlit El Capitan star trail in Yosemite National Park, USA..
©Duncan Skelton/Offwidth Images, 2012