In this installment of FA Community Voices, climber, mom, and FA Team booster Jerry Steele reflects on the challenges of parenting a competitive climber. Her son, FA Team crusher Vincent Lee, took home 1st place in Sport and Speed at Divisionals this season and is on his way to Nationals in July with 12 other FA Team kids.
I’m strugglebussisng my way up this funky conglomerate rock on a hot-as-hell day in Montserrat, Spain. I’m thankful for the helmet I’m wearing as a goat above has loosened rock that bounces off my head and crashes below toward the covered cabezas of my belayer and my 12 year old son waiting his turn on something more challenging.
“Find it – the balance,” Toti Vales, well known Spanish climber and our guide for the day, yells up to me as I shift my feet and wonder where the “better” holds are.
This advice would be shouted vertically the entire trip, to me as well as to Vincent as he attempted hard routes in the Pyrenees.
Two years since that amazing experience and Toti’s words ring in my head even though I’ve never really believed in life “balance”. Life is more fluid than that. Tides rise while other recede and we are constantly course-correcting, running in and out of the waves.
As a parent of a competitive climber, finding the balance between support and pressure has been one of my trickier juggling acts. Especially as I lug my childhood baggage of being an invisible 6th of seven kids to the crag and gym with my only. Will planning an outdoor trip to Red Rocks be seen as pressure? Will showing up at comps, volunteering, being involved be stage mothery…or is it welcomed?
Am I leading, or following? Does spending money on shoes, comps, a garage woody, and climbing trips create unsaid expectations?
I’ve always tried to take my cues from Vin and prop up versus push his passion. He threw down the gauntlet at seven after his first regionals where he missed the bid to divisionals. When he secured a pass-down invite, he declared, “I want to quit baseball and everything else, I want to train with Hidden Peak, I don’t want to do anything but climb.”
And with each victory and defeat he’s doubled down – sometimes asking to hit a local climbing gym on the 5-hour drive home from a weekend of competition. But I still worry that the planner in me gets ahead of myself, and more importantly him, sometimes.
After that trip, being inspired by Toti and the simple way of life in Catalonia, I don’t wonder if my actions push. I simply ask. Vincent is mature enough now to sort and articulate what he wants without real fear of what mom and dad think. With each big, and sometimes small, decision I check in with a tactic borrowed from the doctor’s office pain chart, “How are you feeling about this on a scale of 1 to 10.” I’m not overtly asking if the proposition feels supportive or pushy, I’m sussing out his visceral level of psych to guide the decision and what’s next.
We’ve been around this competitive climbing circuit for a while now. Every climber is different, every parent’s approach unique. I was asked this past weekend if a young climber should “move up” to training three times a week. I inquired about what else she’s involved in and her dad listed a slew of commitments. I told him to really be good at any one thing, she’d likely have to commit. But what I should have told him was to get her involved in exploring her feelings by drawing a small, medium, or big smiley face next to the activities she does so he could see what makes her happy. It’s an exercise in listening that’s great for parents, but for all of us to take stock in what puts a smile on our face and props us up instead drags us down. And maybe the balance between support and pressure is running in and out of the waves, hand in hand. Balance is the middle ground of leading by listening and exploring the journey together.
By: Jerry Steele
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