This weekend my nine-year-old, Leif, did what seems on the surface to be a very non-geeky thing: He competed in the Divisional round of the “bouldering” portion of the youth rock climbing championships in Ogden, Utah. However, I propose that, in addition to fencing and competitive cup stacking, climbing is one of the few sports amenable to and largely dominated by geeks. The strongest competitors are frequently absent from the podium – it’s the ability to stand on the ground and problem-solve a path through an assortment of oddly-shaped and fiendishly-placed plastic holds that matters most.
The young woman poised to dominate the sport, Megan Mascarenas, has been dubbed “The Logician,” has a 4.7 GPA, is planning for med school, and expertly solves a Rubik’s Cube while waiting for her turn to climb. Last week’s New Yorker profile of the 14-year-old climbing prodigy, Ashima Shiraishi, closes with the description of her second attempt at a problem during a competition in Boston in which she “devised an unforeseen solution” that not even the person who had placed the holds on the wall had considered. On the men’s side, 14-year-old recent national champion Kai Lightner says, “I really like math, just like my mother. I’m good with numbers so I might like to be an accountant.”
The sport also favors those with extreme emotional resilience – you will fail and fall, and the competitors who win are the ones who can approach the wall again and again with the real intention to succeed (see Shiraishi, above…).
These competitions put kids as young as 8 years old in high-stress situations that demand high performance. At this weekend’s competition in Salt Lake City, at least a third of youth competitors were crying as they exited the event through what my wife aptly named the “Tunnel of Tears” where parents met to console and clean up their young athletes. After a few years, some kids choose to never climb again. And into this mix, my wife and I willingly send our humble, kind, and easy-going 9-year-old son. What the hell are we thinking?
I imagine that like most sports parents, our son’s sport has been part of our own lives – my wife and I have both climbed for many years, though neither of us is very strong. I’m drawn to the sport for that feeling of being high up on a granite wall watching swallows ride a morning updraft as the sun creeps closer across the rock. Competition? Climbing indoors on plastic while sucking chalk dust? Comparing my ascents to the achievements of others? All a big Meh.
But we live in Boulder, Colorado, where these things are done. In this liberal college town, the City of Boulder is widely condemned for poisoning its citizens with water fluoridation but in reality what is being pumped into the water supply are chemicals to increase finger tendon strength and decrease fear of heights. The cute little kids’ climbing gym with the unintimidating name “ABC” where we plunked the offspring as a fun after-school activity turns out to be the epicenter of youth climbing in the United States. And now Leif’s mind and that of his younger sister are corrupted by visions of youth national champions hucking through the air from one minuscule, sloping piece of plastic to the next while the gym’s speakers play music describing non-accurate animal noises including foxes that, apparently, say ding-a-ling-ling or something like that.
As parents, are our minds corrupted as well? Is it unkind of us to expose Leif to this pressure? Should we protect him from his own expectations? Should we rend him back from these coaches who push him so hard?
It’s not just sports: Leif is good friends with last year’s youngest competitor at the Scripps National Spelling Bee – Cameron Keith describes another high-stakes, high-pressure, high-performance situation that forces young competitors to confront the possibility (even certainty) of their own failure. And what about tryouts for a community theater production, or a piano recital, or a game of chess? Should we keep our kids from the possibility of being overwhelmed by their activities?
In some situations, I think the answer is an emphatic YES. Imagine the parents who push their child into a sport with a chance of brain injury or the gym that spits out all but the top-echelon athletes like used-up greyhounds. Imagine the parents who forces their own dreams onto their child. Or the child who sees the ugly side of competition through her parents’ sideline screams. Or the coach who coerces a child’s success through bullying. Or the child who feels trapped by his parents’ goals. (I told Leif before competing this weekend that he needed to win in order to earn his mother’s love, but I’m pretty sure he knew that I was joking.)
But now imagine a sport that allows a child to explore deep within their own psyche. Like Luke entering the cave on Dagobah where he must face his own darkness, this sport of climbing (and I assume other sports as well) forces young competitors to confront parts of themselves that would otherwise fester.
Earlier in the season, Leif had a terrible competition. He couldn’t get off the ground on a climb that younger kids completed easily. With each try, you could see him get more fatalistically resigned to his failure and with each try he was further and further from success. By the end of his 5-minute window, his confidence was shot and he continued through the remaining climbs of the competition with jelly arms and without taking the time to pre-solve a climb in a way that could possibly guide him to the top.
This weekend, he was the youngest competitor in his age group to make the ten-person finals. Seven competitors would move on to the ABS Youth National Championships being held in February in Madison, Wisconsin. Leif had qualified for the finals in a tie for 7th position. As a climber, you aren’t supposed to know how the competitors ahead of and behind you are doing. But when the crowd cheers or a climber sits down next to you with time remaining in their window, you know it’s gone well. Leif knew the climbers ahead of him had succeeded quickly on the first problem.
It must have surprised him when he fell. And surprised him more when he fell again. And again. You could see him get nervous. You could see him start to doubt. On his fourth attempt, Leif stood in a position of relative rest halfway through the climb and you could see the panic starting to set in as he looked at the next hold, still impossibly far away. And then he inched to his right and reached out his arm. Slowly, slowly he extended his fingers toward the hold as his balance threatened to tip him away from the wall. His coaches cheered. Other kids, older kids, kids from other teams, parents of kids from other teams, all cheered. You could see the instant at which he decided to try. He had decided to reach with all his passion and intention. He was an inch away.
Did Leif reach this next hold? Did he go on to finish the climb? Did he go on to complete problems two, three and four? Did he manage to grab one of those top-seven spots that moved on to Nationals in Madison?
The results are completely irrelevant. They’re so irrelevant that it’s not even worth describing what happened. What mattered is what went on inside his head. I’m so proud of him and so grateful for the coaches, the gym and the sport that made these terrifying, stressful, doubt-filled, and ultimately transformative six seconds possible.