Friday, March 27, 2015

10 Tips for Creating a Successful Collegiate Climbing Team

Around this time of year 3 years ago, I went through the most nerve-racking, exhilarating, intense, emotional roller coaster of a ride imaginable. Nope, not talking about a climbing competition. I’m talking about college decisions. Alright, it wasn’t actually all that bad. But at the time, waiting to hear back from the universities I’d applied to by anxiously checking my email every three minutes seemed like a pretty big deal to me.
Still waiting for this letter.
When selecting colleges I wanted to apply to, I focused on schools that could offer a good mixture of what I was interested in: strong academic programs, high student involvement, opportunities to learn beyond the classroom, a beautiful campus, and of course a solid climbing community. Now that I’m nearly finished with my third year at Northeastern University, I can definitely say that attending college in the heart of Boston was one of the best decisions of my life. I’ve found unique ways to incorporate these factors into my life here, all while pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering, competing in as many competitions as possible, and sport climbing at Rumney in the fall.
Livin' Astro 5.14c, Rumney, NH. Photo: Ian MacLellan
However, one of my biggest goals prior to embarking on my college career was to try to start a new climbing team to train with and compete in the USA Climbing Collegiate Climbing Series (CCS). At the time, few climbers that had graduated out of the youth competition scene had gone to compete in CCS, and it surprised me that there was such a severe drop-off after entering college. However, I think if enough youth climbers realize the benefits of continuing to climb at the university level, the sport will grow exponentially with these climbers stepping into leadership roles at their respective schools.
“I personally felt really grateful to be able to continue competing once I got to college, and I would like to see more youth competitors enter into CCS and have that same experience.”
-Will Butcher
Of the three levels of team sports available in most US universities, (intramural, club, or NCAA) competitive climbing is right in the middle as a club sport since it’s more competitive than intramurals, but not yet officially recognized by the NCAA. Before I arrived at Northeastern, there was no club sports climbing team in place, but I knew there were a lot of strong climbers who might be interested in forming a team.

Based on my experiences creating a climbing club in high school, I knew there would be a lot of unforeseen obstacles and pitfalls that come with the beginnings of any organization, but that it would all be worth it in the end. One of the biggest challenges right off the bat was overcoming the fact that Northeastern did not have a climbing wall on campus. On top of that, it was necessary to consider recruiting, fundraising, transportation to and from practices, catering to a wide range of abilities, eating and sleeping schedules, club hierarchy, sustainability, and balancing schoolwork and training schedules.
Fremont High School Bouldering Club at the 2011 Planet Granite Bloc Party Championships
Juggling all of these questions, myself and a couple other motivated climbers put together a proposal to Northeastern Club Sports and founded the Northeastern Climbing Team in the spring of 2014. We hosted tryouts and worked out a training schedule for a 12-person team at Central Rock Watertown. After a couple months of intense training, we won the New England Regional Championships and traveled to Florida to compete at the National Championships.

The competition itself was a blast; we got to compete in all three disciplines in qualifiers, meet a bunch of other climbers going to college all over the country, hang out on the beach, and even see a SpaceX launch off Cape Canaveral. When all was said and done, Northeastern placed 2nd! It felt great to see our hard work pay off with success, but the biggest takeaway was that it was the first time I’d ever really felt I was part of a real team since we all lived in the same place, trained and studied together, and encouraged one another in every aspect of our lives.
Northeastern Climbing team on the beach in Melbourne, Florida
After seeing what a positive effect creating a team had on my teammates, our student body, and myself, I realized that the community I’d helped develop was of far greater value than my own personal career. That being said, the process of getting the team off the ground and functioning was extremely challenging to say the least, and if I didn’t have the support of other friends and team members I have no doubt the club would have failed.

The Northeastern Climbing Team is just one of dozens of college teams across the country. In order to understand how other clubs with different approaches in organization function successfully, I reached out to some of the other top climbers at Collegiate Nationals and asked them to share experiences on creating a team as well as any advice they had for the process in general. Here are the athletes and the top 10 tips they came up with:
Will Butcher
UT Austin '14
Team National Champions, 2014 CCS Nationals
National Champion in Sport Climbing, 2014 CCS Nationals
Photo: Sapna Desai
Danny Aleksovski
UT Austin '14
Team National Champions, 2014 CCS Nationals
4th Place in Bouldering, 2014 CCS Nationals
Photo: Cole Alcock
Julian Barker
West Point '16
Finalist in Bouldering, 2014 CCS Nationals

Photo: Cole Alcock
Evan Goldfinger
Northeastern University '18
2nd Place Team, 2014 CCS Nationals
Finalist in Speed Climbing, 2014 CCS Nationals

Photo: Valery Notaro
Francesca Metcalf
Georgia Tech '15
National Champion in Bouldering, 2014 CCS Nationals

Photo: Cole Alcock
Andy Lamb
Stanford University '16
National Champion in Bouldering, 2014 CCS Nationals
Photo: Cole Alcock
Owen Graham
Colorado State University '14
3rd Place Team, 2014 CCS Nationals
2nd Place in Sport Climbing, 2014 CCS Nationals
Photo: Cole Alcock

1) Recruit early with freshmen, club fairs, & tryouts:

“Recruiting freshmen has been easiest, because when they arrive on campus they want to join an organization and get involved in something right away. Finding strong climbers is more difficult, but as the team starts to get more mature and more competitive, we have more interest from strong climbers and we can be more selective in admitting people to the team.”

“We found that hosting a tryout got people really psyched and motivated but it requires already having a decent amount of interest. Getting the word out at student organization fairs helped a lot for that.”

“People aren't necessarily drawn to a page on a bulletin board that says, "Come join the team, it's fun!" They’re much more drawn to actual events. Something like a sort of tryout for the team, or a competition hosted in the campus wall if there is a wall is great to start.”

Northeastern Climbing Team's booth at the 2014 Club Sports Fair
2) Work with your university to organize your club’s structure:

“I feel like starting the team went very smoothly for us. The biggest help was approaching club sports with an organized proposal and budget and explaining to them rock climbing as a whole, collegiate climbing, and the path of where competition climbing is going.”

“We try to maintain a good relationship with the university. We became a sponsored sport club three years ago and now get a small amount of funding, advice on running our club, and get to represent the university. The director of the outdoor center at UT has also been a really big supporter of the team and has been our club's faculty advisor since we started. He also sets up cool events like Reel Rock screenings and athlete visits to campus.”

“As we started to try to expand the club, the first thing we realized is that people don't want what you would expect. Not all climbers want to go outside, some don't want to compete or train, some hate bouldering, some just want to hang out indoors with friends. Balancing this is a challenge, but you really just have to be flexible and open to new ideas and don't make the purpose of your club too well defined (i.e. “this club is for people who want to compete and nothing else”).”

Day 1 of Northeastern Climbing Team tryouts
3) Know your audience to retain student involvement:

“We always get a lot of people interested in the club at the beginning of the year, but participation tends to drop off really rapidly. It's a problem we're still trying to solve, but the main solution we've found is to get the new people involved immediately.”

“For me one of the biggest challenges is finding the right level of intensity. We only got started last year, and have never had tryouts. I guess the main reason is we didn't want to scare people away, especially before we actually had anyone committed to the team, and because we have a reasonably big gym on campus space wasn't too much of an issue.”

“A huge step for us was knowing a lot of the school's climbing community already. We only started a month before nationals so getting immediate interest in the team was crucial.”

Stanford Climbing Club social event on campus
4) Designate a solid leader or coach:

“Having a respectable coach and flexible practice times seems to be very important in college. Students are really busy so we host practices five days a week and have a minimum requirement for attendance.”

“We have been really lucky to have [Collegiate Climbing Series Founder] John Myrick as our coach. Having a dedicated coach provides structure and cohesion and helps motivate people. A coach provides training instruction and people will listen to a coach more than they will to a peer. Having a coach who will stay with the team for several years is also really beneficial as it provides continuity for the club over time.”

“Once you have a solid group of people, you can work on things like recognition and funding by your school, and trying to find a "coach". This person can be a climbing instructor, or a teacher who likes to climb, or just someone who's interested in being an adult sponsor for the team. This can make logistics easier, especially for something like Nationals, where it's expensive to rent a car if you're under 21.”

Coach John Myrick (front left) leading UT Austin to a 3rd-straight National Championship and tower-lighting ceremony

5) Find a place to train either on or off campus:

“Having a climbing wall on campus was also a crucial aspect in the formation of the team, although we don't use the wall often because it is way too small for our team (we go off campus to climb at gyms in Austin). The wall on campus created a community of climbers for the club to start from and ensure that there was already a close group of climbers to build a team around and help us attract new members. Everyone walks by the wall during their first week at UT and tons of people ask about the team when they see our banners in the gym.

“We soon realized that the rec center could not hold the number of climbers and it really was not challenging enough. We decided to move to a local gym where we worked a deal to let the team members in for $5 during practice time.”

“In terms of actually running the team, I think that flexibility and structure are imperative. Having one or two days a week of mandatory practices, and then one or two more that are optional worked well.”

“I've noticed having a wall on campus is a blessing and a curse: it's great to have practices be so easy to get to and not cost us money, but I think it prevents people from going to a real gym, which really limits their climbing.”
Georgia Tech Climbing Club hosting a climbing competition on campus
6) Be creative with fundraising:

“Funding has actually gone pretty well for us. We're basically treated as a normal student group, so we need to make a budget and request the money. We're supposed to do "stewardship" hours for our funding, which is pretty easy work: writing postcards to alums, staffing Admit Weekend, taking pictures of the team practicing, etc. We also made some money staffing events at the climbing wall, which isn't too bad and pays well.”

“As for making it an official university club, we made it a student organization after jumping through a few hoops, but we have got no funding. Large public universities are usually reluctant to pay out in the first few years. Smaller colleges have had better success with this. Our personal funding comes through annual student dues.”

Colorado State University team photo
7) Plan transportation in advance:

“A definite recommendation is to start planning as far back as you can. As a team in the northeast, finding cheaper flights to nationals, especially on a college student budget, allows people to plan their expenses which hopefully leads to the whole team being able to go.”

“If you want to attend nationals, you will make it happen. That was always my goal. We got to Nationals after a 30-hour drive in a 15-passenger van. It was not pretty, but we would not take it back for a second.”

Northeastern Climbing Team's van at Rumney
8) Delegate out club responsibilities to ensure sustainability:

“Our club has nine officers who manage all club activities, plan competitions and volunteer events, collect dues, organize fundraisers, and do everything related to running the club. Having leadership roles on the team helps maintain structure and keeps a core group very involved in club activities, and they act as role models for the team. It gives officers good leadership experience and makes their time on the team more valuable.”

“I really have been working on is building the club to last. I have recruited new coaches to take over as I graduate this year. We also have built a reputation and name. Those things go far, because it is easy to start, but tough to keep alive.”

“Some form of leadership over the team, like a captain, could be helpful. This person serves as a mentor for the rest of the team, someone other people on the team can talk to. He/she also tries to keep attendance at practices as high as he can, and acts as a liaison for planning between the team and the school, or the school and USA Climbing, and would deal with a lot of the funding issues and planning for trips. Assigning people jobs or roles on the team gives people a sense of responsibility and worth, and can make the captain's job easier as well.”

UT Austin winning the 2013 CCS National Championships
9) Climb outdoors:

“We also made sure to do a few outdoor trips during the beginning of the semester when people aren't as busy or still aren't sure if they want to join the club. It makes them feel included and like they already have a group of friends they can climb with.”
Andy Lamb on the final move of Roses & Bluejays (V13), Great Barrington, Massachusetts
10) Build a strong community:

“Our team is extremely diverse, from beginners to climbers that have been in it for over 10 years. We also have every type of climber from boulderers to alpinists. You just have to embrace this as everybody can look to improve and find a community. The main goal of the team has always been to get climbers together and build a college community around it.”

“One of the things my team does really well is that we're super tight knit. My team is far and away my closest group of friends, and we go out together, climb outside, party, play frisbee and volleyball, pretty much anything. That's definitely something that keeps the team running.”

“Keeping people psyched is really important. We try to climb outdoors whenever we can. We try to make competing fun. There is tight knit community of climbers and we hang out, have parties, and have a banquet at the end of the year.”

Northeastern Climbing Team's 2014 Banquet

Hopefully these tips will serve as valuable guidelines for anyone looking to start up their own collegiate climbing team. One other idea that has proved helpful in the past was to reach out to other club sport teams similar to climbing such as swimming, biking, or triathlon to see what advice they have. This college development kit by USA Ultimate is an excellent resource that offers general recommendations for club startups of any sport. In addition, you can check out USA Climbing’s club sports proposal template here.

The future potential for climbing teams at the collegiate level is huge. If the sport grows enough, climbing has the possibility to become an NCAA sport, which would revolutionize the competition scene at every level. Competitive climbers graduating the youth circuit would be recruited at the National Championships by the top universities in the country with athletic scholarships, and would have access to some of the best athletic and academic facilities in the world.

This in turn would promote pursuing academic career paths in addition to a passion for climbing, as I believe climbers are some of the brightest and innovative athletes of any sport. If you think about it, climbing itself teaches independence, problem solving, critical thinking, and collaboration to achieve goals. We have the skills necessary to approach a formidable project in any field, analyze it quickly, develop potential solutions, and execute with confidence. If these talents are put to good use, we have the ability to tackle the world’s most difficult challenges.

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