I’m watching this kid size up the wall in front of her.
She’s about 8 years old, four feet tall, and rising up in front of her is one of the craziest, weirdest, maybe even scariest things she’s ever seen.
But it’s also one of the coolest.
She cranes her neck to see what’s at the top – the mismatched, misshapen rows of colored “rocks” rise up on the climbing wall in front of her.
As she waits her turn, older kids are already scrambling up the rock face.
“Nervous?” her instructor asks.
“No,” she says stubbornly.
Still…I can see that look on her face, thinking “What if I fall? What if I can’t make it to the top?”
This isn’t like the tree in the backyard – it’s her first climb here at the gym on one of these crazy, confetti-covered walls.
But here’s what I know, after a lifetime of climbing myself – when this kid reaches the top of that wall, she’s going to be on top of the world.
Her instructor calls out to her – “Ready?”
She nods, replying, “On belay.” She doesn’t really know what it means yet, but her instructor told her that’s what climbers say.
“Belay on,” he replies.
Her instructor points out a good starting point — a thick, blue “rock” bolted into the wall. She puts her foot, clad in a chalk-covered climbing shoe, on the rock and starts to climb, every once in a while pausing to look up at the top, still so far away.
But that look of uncertainty she had when she first approached the wall? It’s been replaced by a look of fierce, 8-year-old determination.
She’s got her game face on – this kid is all in.
It takes her several tries, but when she finally makes it to the top, we see her face crack into a huge smile, as the other kids waiting at the bottom cheer her on.
Her Dad turns to me and says “We sure don’t get that reaction at soccer.”
Some Kids Are Just Born to Blaze Their Own Trail
They might be sensitive, empathetic, and quiet. Maybe they’re independent, impatient, and a tad impulsive. Or maybe they’re the methodical type who likes to figure things out for themselves.
Here’s the simple truth: Not all kids need to be “team players.” There will be plenty of school projects for them to learn to work together and problem-solve as a group.
But team player or not, the physical and mental habits they develop as kids will set the foundation for how they approach bigger challenges in adulthood.
It’s a time-honored tradition: using team sports to develop kids’ confidence – and learn the lessons of grit, determination, and perseverance.
For kids, sports are more than just “getting the wiggles out.”
It’s about cultivating the skills and outlooks that they’ll rely on for their whole lives.
But what if your kid just isn’t into team sports?
A lot of parents put their child in softball early – they start soccer tryouts at the age of four – they get them into basketball in the fall.
But what if your child just doesn’t like team sports?
So many of the sports offerings at school swing to one of two extremes:
So generic, the kids aren’t interested… Or so competitive that the majority of kids feel left out.
While making it on a team can do wonders for your child’s confidence, being left out can bring their little universe crashing down faster than that Cheerio tower they made at breakfast this morning.
And if your child isn’t “traditionally athletic” – you know, one of those kids who just LIVES to run everywhere they go – they may shy away from regular school sports because they worry about “being good enough” and being made fun of if they aren’t.
Others might find a particular sport too challenging to even try.
As a parent, you know your kids better than anyone else. You know their personalities, strengths and soft areas.
But what should you do about it if your kids don’t like team sports?
Are your only options to force them into “sticking it out” … Or sacrifice the deep lessons and rites of passage we want for our kids, and give into never-ending screen time?
Your child might just be wired to shine brightest during solo endeavors.
For my money, climbing is one of the best things you can do for a kid who doesn’t thrive in the “traditional” sports environment (and even for some who do!).
I’ve seen climbing transform kids from all walks of life…
- Building confidence in the cripplingly shy…
- Breaking introverts out of their shell…
- Developing focus in those wild and crazy extroverts…
On the wall, I’ve seen kids with autism flourish with an athletic endeavor that leverages their problem solving skills…
I’ve seen kids who were one detention from getting kicked out of school find purpose and value (and get their butts out of trouble)…
I’ve seen the cocky super-jocks find humility in solving problems that can’t just be muscled through..
What is it About That Wall?
When you first look at the wall, it looks like confetti, with its scattered rainbow of grips, stretching top to bottom. But there’s nothing random about it. Each of those colors represents a specific “route,” stretching up the wall, and posing its own challenges. Each one has their own “big problem” to solve.
Dexterity, grip, stamina, body positioning, movement: the skills take only a little time to learn, but years to master.
On the wall there are half a dozen routes you can take that are clearly marked; an infinite number if you want to make your own. To each route there are consequences. To each route there are benefits. Each one presents problems, challenges, and rewards. And each can be conquered if you have skills, knowledge, and persistence.
There’s never just one way to climb.
But there IS only one goal: To reach the top.
Sometimes, you’ll work on a problem for a week, just trying to find the right path, the right technique – because not all problems can be solved in a session. Once you get tired the problem doesn’t get any easier.
Every time you fall off you have to get back up and start again.
And it’s just like in life.
The problem is always the problem. It doesn’t care what you’re feeling, or how your day was. It doesn’t care if you’re tired. The problem is just the problem.
So you keep working, you refine those skills. And once you’ve overcome some of the challenges, you start looking for new ones; how can you do it faster, better… more creatively?
Can you do it backwards like spiderman?
Can you take on the hardest routes?
And if not, what’s holding you back?
For young kids, tackling a seemingly impassable obstacle – studying it, training for it, and finally figuring out a way to conquer it – can be one of the most powerful, positive, and life-changing experiences.
Unlike team sports, you don’t have teammates to share the “blame” when something goes wrong; all the responsibility is on the climber. And for many kids, that is liberating… and character-building.
When I look at the wall, I don’t just see a confetti of rainbow holds – I see the potential and greatness in these kids, shining back at them, and inviting them to come tap into it.
Rock Climbing Might Be a Solo Sport… But Nobody Climbs Alone
Climbing is one of those sports: It’s exciting, exhilarating, and a little overwhelming. The same things that make it so character-building for kids, can make it equally daunting.
But here’s the secret: While climbing may be a “solo sport” – nobody climbs alone.
Behind every climber, there is a community of peers and coaches building them up, encouraging, them, showing them the ropes, and supporting them.
In climbing gyms, across the country, there’s a sense of camaraderie.
On a youth “climbing team” even more so.
Everyone is doing the same warm ups, all following the same exercises, and listening to the same coaches.
The kids cheer each other on, belay one another, offer support, advice, and friendship.
Even if each one of them ultimately tackles the wall on their own, they learn that they have a support network of friends and teammates to help them confront challenges, overcome obstacles.
I’ve seen it time and again over the decade I’ve been doing this – the wallflowers, the quiet ones, the “wild” ones, the “cocky” ones…
These kids come together, dig deep, and find the greatness that’s always been inside them.
When I see these kids – including my own son – week after week, discovering what they are capable of, I know: They don’t need to be working towards state finals, they don’t need to score the winning goal on the soccer field, they don’t need to tough it out in a sport they hate to build character…
They just need to find a reason to believe in themselves.
About the Author: Matt Treadway is the Managing Director at the Texas Rock Gym in Houston, Texas. After starting at the gym as an employee over 10 years ago, Matt became a partner in the business, where he’s had the privilege of watching climbers, young and old, find their sense of self on the climbing wall. Matt can often be found coaching the youth climbing team or [hiking] around Houston with his son.