By Steve Bechtel


It might seem funny, but my mom doesn’t really know what I do for a living. She knows we have a gym, and she knows I have written some books (she has them all, unopened), and she knows I travel around and “teach climbing.” I’m pretty sure she sees what I do as more like a climbing class instructor than a coach. It’s OK that she doesn’t get it. What’s not OK is when climbers don’t get what coaching is about. 

It’s probably background. Were you taught dance as a child? Football? Music? Martial arts? Learning to swim is a profoundly different process than learning to wrestle another human. It’s no wonder climbers get confused with all of the “coaching” going on out there.

Some people see coaches as a person standing in the gym with a climber and discussing beta with them, suggesting other beta, and figuring out the next problem they might do. And there are these coaches. It’s a sick gig: we’re already going to stand there and tell each other what to do, so why not get paid for it? These are the ones that like to make a distinction between “coaches” and “trainers,” probably because they have no concept of how actual training progression works and it’s easier to just throw beta. It’s an easy job if you can talk enough people into working with you.

Some people see coaches as someone who writes a program and sends it out for a climber to follow. These can be anything from very general programs to programs that detail out every set and rep and problem for six or eight weeks. It’s true—coaches do need to write programs, but I’ll give you a hint: good coaches write programs after meeting the athlete, not before. 

Some of us see coaching as personal training. “I will run you through a workout in person, give you a couple of tips on how to eat right until I see you later in the week, and send you out the door.” Personal training is great if it is personal, and a coach that knows how exercises work and how to teach them is essential. All good coaches need an understanding of how a training session looks for a variety of athletes. I, personally, would never hire a coach that spends more time in a coffee shop than in a gym.

And there are “coaches” who simply invite others to come do their workouts with them. “We work out on Mondays and Thursdays starting at 6pm.” Again, a pretty sweet gig until someone needs help and you’re focused on your own exercise. 

The best part is that there are climbers out there that are looking for each one of these services. Some might just need a person to talk to. Some might just need a plan. Hell, someone might just want to know how their finger strength compares to a bunch of other climbers. But I argue that most of us don’t truly know what we need. 

We just find ourselves failing to do the climbs we want, and look for help. The natural progression is to self-educate (podcast listening, reading a book, watching some videos), then ask for help from a friend, then seek out a group, and finally ask for expert help. And this is where coaching should begin. 

In in-person coaching, the goals are usually fairly first-order. This means that most of your work is in helping people lift a weight more efficiently or to send this problem right now…with the understanding that by doing these things, surely we’d see positive results down the line. It’s worse in group settings. With 30 kids in your program, you can have 28 absolute failures if you send two to nationals. You’ll look like a hero, and it’s only because those two kids would’ve gone anyway. 

I started out doing most of my coaching in-person. In the weight room or in front of a bouldering wall, you’re having a conversation and can be more reactive than proactive. As I moved into more remote coaching relationships, I noticed that I really needed to show up prepared. I needed to do a fair bit more question-asking, more thinking, and more follow-up communication. Early on, I provided OK programming, meandering conversations, and absolutely zero discussion of tactics, strategy, or movement.

It seems obvious now, but at the time I assumed that other climbers were more like me, and they were already doing a fair amount of thinking about how they planned out their crag day and where they put their feet. This is a big part of our coaching now, and many hard lessons led to us finally teaching to the whole climber.

Today, we have a team of nearly twenty coaches who regularly audit their coaching, their meeting structure, and their athlete performance. They bring these thoughts to the team managers and we rebuild and restructure our coaching frequently. The essential part of all of this is performance. Who cares if an athlete is stronger if they are not sending? Or braver but not sending? Or leaner but not sending? 

We do our best to break down the elements of performance, and to figure out where our athletes are not addressing the essentials. And you don’t need a coach if you can make this happen for yourself. Every month, you should ask:

  • Did my training produce the desired result?
  • How closely did I adhere to the plan?
  • Was the plan the appropriate difficulty and duration?
  • Did this month’s training address my short, medium, and long-term goals?
  • Did I like it?

The service industry (and coaching is part of that industry) is about trading money for time. If you have the time, you don’t need money. If you want to improve, but don’t have time, you hire an expert. Occasionally, you can do it yourself with great results. Other times, it’s hard to get it right without expert eyes on the project. 

Here is What A Coach Does

Coaches help with setting the course and correcting the course. An eight week program that was created without you in mind and is not discussed with you while you do it is not coaching. Meeting you at the gym randomly and randomly critiquing your beta is not coaching. 

It’s taken a much longer time than I like to admit, but learning to listen, learning to help athletes evoke, and then building a plan for that athlete based on solid principles is where we start. There is not one athlete that doesn’t need special considerations. 

We then communicate. We ask questions again and in a different way. We help athletes understand what it is about performance climbing that they like, and how it makes their lives better (if it does). We help them identify the pieces that are lacking in their physical, mental, and technical preparation. We then build out manageable steps to get them there.

In so many ways, if I had known it would be this hard to be a climbing coach, I would never have started. But I did. And then Charlie did. And Alex, and Chrissy, and Ken. And the whole team. 

We’re many years past the early days of the blog and the first Strength guide. I am proud of the team I am part of, and I am really excited for what’s coming next from them.

Hold Fast,



Steve is the founder of Climb Strong, and is proud to be the worst coach on the Climb Strong team. A climber for nearly 40 years, he has traveled to globe bouldering, sport climbing, and doing first ascents of some of the world's biggest walls. 

He is co-owner of Elemental Performance + Fitness, and is the author of several books on training for climbing. He lives in Lander, Wyoming, with his wife Ellen and children Sam and Anabel. He includes low-intensity training in almost everything he does these days...since it feels pretty tough.



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