Coaching the Next Generation of Climbers

“Climbing is about having fun,” says Shane Messer. “That’s what it’s all about. But we’re here tonight to train.”

He might have added, To train for the Nationals, but his listeners don’t need to be reminded.

What a scene. Around Messer stand some 35 boys and girls, ranging in age from nine to eighteen. From their squirmy energy, their manic chatter, you might think they were kids on the first day of summer camp. Instead, a gaggle of some of the best teenage and pre-teen climbers in New England, as well as recruits from other parts of the country, has assembled to hone their skills under the tutelage of one of the finest climbing coaches in the United States.

“Okay,” announces Messer, “Male ‘A’s go around the corner by the purple climb. Backs to the wall! You get four minutes on, four minutes off!”

We’re standing in the Central Rock Gym in Watertown, Massachusetts, an indoor climbing facility that opened last May. It’s the biggest climbing gym in the Northeast, and the best one I’ve ever cavorted in. Ambivalent for decades about gym climbing, I’d joined CRG after my first day there, and ever since, I head over to the place at least twice a week when I’m home.

In the corner by the “purple climb,” the first contingent of boys sits with their backs to the wall, so that they can’t get even a visual head-start on the five boulder problems Messer and his colleagues “set” the day before. Messer is CRG’s official Director of Route Setting, the honcho in charge of bolting polyurethane holds to the wall at just the right angles and in the right permutations to craft twelve-foot-tall routes that balance, in his words, “risky moves, tricky moves, and really challenging moves.”

“Okay,” Messer asks, “Who’s first?”

A ten-year-old boy shouts, “Me!,” waving his hand like the kid in class who knows he has the right answer to the teacher’s question.

During the next hour, I watch these young prodigies take turns staring at the problems, waving their hands in the air as they mentally rehearse the moves they’re about to make, then swarm from hold to hold. They can fall off as often as they want, but success is bounded by the clock. “Forty seconds!” Messer calls out. Then, “Time! Next climbers!” But in between, “C’mon, Sam! C’mon, dude!” And even as he’s watching the time clock, Messer pulls the landing mats into the right places to cushion the kids’ falls.

I ask Daniel Berman, a seventeen-year-old who’s one of the best climbers in the group, about Messer. “Shane’s really structured,” he says. “He has a game plan for each practice, and they’re as varied as can be. I really like having someone tell me what to do.”

Katie Lamb, a sixteen-year-old who’s already won in her age group at previous Nationals, tells me, “Shane’s a really great coach. But he’s not a scary person.”

* * *

Climbing coach—the very concept was unimaginable to my generation. Back in the 1960s and ‘70s, you taught your buddies how to climb, but you couldn’t call that coaching. Back then, of course, there were no indoor gyms and no national competitions.

Nor were there fourteen-year-olds who could climb V8, the level of difficulty (on a scale from V0 to V16) of some of the routes Messer had set for his Friday night camp. For that matter, we would have shuddered to see a fourteen-year-old on the rocks—for Christ’s sake, the sport was dangerous! But gym climbing has created an almost totally safe version of our pastime, and so it’s spawned the kind of teenage virtuosity previously reserved for gymnasts and ice skaters.

No genre of climbing has exploded in recent years like indoor gyms and the competitions they produce. According to Climbing Business Journal, there are now some 600 gyms in the United States, with new ones opening every month.

A couple of days after the soirée at CRG Wartertown, I showed two friends the boulder problems the kids had been solving. Both 24 years old, and climbing very well on longer routes, they couldn’t get off the ground on the “purple climb.”

During their four-minute waits between attacks on the boulder problems, I asked some of the kids how they’d gotten involved in this business. Nine-year-old Max said, “I came into the gym with my dad. We were looking for something to do. When I got old enough, I started to train more and more.” Old enough? You can train at nine, but not at seven?

“Is climbing the most important thing in your life, Max?”

“Umm . . . yes!”

Sixteen-year-old Solomon, from Philadelphia, looked back on his long trajectory in the sport. “I’ve been climbing since I was five,” he said. “But I really started when I was seven or eight.”

“What brings you here tonight?”

Duh. “I’m training for the Nationals.”

I guess it shouldn’t have surprised me that youngsters could be so passionate about climbing. Each of them here in the gym—or rather their parents—had forked over $550 for a three-day sleepover camp commuting between Watertown and CRG’s sister gyms in Worcester, Massachusetts, and Glastonbury, Connecticut. This evening, after climbing themselves ragged, the 35 athletes would dine on lasagna, salad, and bread served in the yoga room, play a wind-down game of dodge ball, then crash in their sleeping bags on the gym floor. Boys downstairs, girls upstairs.

If any of the kids scored high enough in the next week’s Nationals (and Messer was sure some would), then they’d get to compete in the World Championships, to be held this August in, of all places, New Caledonia, the island archipelago 750 miles east of Australia.

The catalyst for all this Friday-night frenzy was Messer, whom I’d gotten to know during my frequent trips to the gym. And as I’d learned, the 28-year-old climber, route setter, and coach is a remarkable fellow.

* * *

Messer grew up a military brat in Fayetteville, North Carolina. He’d always been a good athlete, competing in track, cross-country, and wrestling. At the age of eighteen, he was eking out a very marginal living as a semi-pro volleyball player, despite the fact that he’s only five foot eight. “I was fast,” he explained, “and I could jump.”

Not until he was about to turn nineteen, however, did Messer try climbing. And it took a life-threatening crisis to push him there.

He’d always been a clean-living kid. To this day, he’s never drunk alcohol or coffee and never touched drugs. In high school, he hung out with the hard partiers, the drinkers and the pot smokers, just because, he says, “I became the designated driver. I got to drive all the other guys’ cool cars.”

Out of the blue, at 18, one day he found it impossible to urinate—except in his sleep, when he’d wet the bed. “It was scary and humiliating,” he recalls. It turns out that Messer was suffering from a rare condition that caused the sphincter at the base of his urethra to clamp shut. (Only in unconscious sleep would it relax.) His father took Shane to the Fort Bragg emergency room. There followed a prolonged trial by antibiotics (“I got every one of the side effects”), catheter, and hospital stay. The trapped urine was overrunning and poisoning his kidneys. Untreated, he would have died a painful death.

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The three-month ordeal caused him to lose 30 pounds. Finally declared healthy, though weak and emaciated, he was determined to get back into shape. “That’s when I realized I actually hated running,” he told me. “It’s so repetitive. I tried weightlifting. Repetitive. So I took up climbing, at a gym in Fayetteville. It was the first sport I wasn’t good at. I climbed every day for six months, but it took me a week to get up my first V0.”

By now, in 2014, Messer is a nationally ranked climber. He recently succeeded on his first V13 (outdoors), putting him in rarefied company. But by his own admission, Messer calls himself “second-string, maybe third-string. I’ll never travel around the world as a sponsored climber, like Daniel Woods or Jimmy Webb.” Instead, Messer has become a master route setter—a far more complex business than it seems at first. And even more significantly, a master coach, one of two or three charged with grooming the national team. He says, in fact, “I love coaching. I’d be happy to make a career out of it.”

It quickly became clear to me why coaching and elite climbing, far from reinforcing each other, are incompatible. Shane Messer’s cardinal virtue is empathy. He really cares about his students. He wants them to succeed as badly as they themselves do. Empathy isn’t of much use for the top echelon of climbers—in fact it may get in the way. It’s not that guys like Adam Ondra and Chris Sharma are egomaniacs—it’s that they have a single-minded drive to excel. And that means climbing harder routes than anyone else. Bobby Fischer, the chess genius who loved to “crush my opponents,” would have made an elite climber, but he would have been a terrible coach.

* * *

At CRG Watertown that Friday evening, I watch Messer run the show. He doesn’t look like a climber, unless you notice the rippling muscles that most of the time he hides beneath a green down jacket. His face is vividly expressive. Short, spiky brown hair, clean-shaven cheeks and chin, blue-green eyes that light up as he teaches. At moments of particular enthusiasm, the right half of his upper lip curls upward. It would look like a sneer, except that the message he’s broadcasting is pure encouragement.

That evening Melanie, Shane’s wife of two years (they met at a North Carolina climbing camp), and their six-month-old son, Eli, are in attendance. To the delight of the teenagers, Shane tosses Eli high into the air and catches him over and over. The infant gurgles with pleasure. “He’s happiest when he’s in motion,” says Messer.

When the owners and managers of the Central Rock consortium were planning their Waterown outlet, Messer came to their attention. Says owner Joe Hardy, who hired Messer after a phone call to North Carolina. “Shane brings passion, athleticism, technical skill, and leadership to my gyms, but also to the climbing industry at large. He’s an integral part of our dynamic team, pushing CRG to new levels.” Adds general manager Kevin Pickren, “When Shane came up to interview, it took that one meeting for the owners to know that he was the one we needed. Shane’s experience with the U. S. national team and route setting experience at a national level made him a clear choice.”

What’s the reward of coaching, I ask Messer during a break. “Watching a kid succeed on something he’s trained hard for,” he answers. “When the moves I’ve told him to make with his feet, hands, hips, all work, you can see it on his face. He’s happy, and I’m happy.

“There are a lot of coaches who are really hard on their students,” he adds, “giving them punishments and constant criticism. They’ll say, ‘This is the only way to such-and-such.’ But what works for one kid is different from what works for another kid. This isn’t boot camp.”

So what’s the downside? A rare frown furrows his brow. “Honesty,” he replies. “A kid will ask me, ‘Do you think I can make it to Nationals?’ And sometimes I have to say, ‘I don’t think so.’ I’m not going to give them false hope. But I don’t want to make them feel bad about not getting there. It’s a yes-no balance, and it’s a bummer.”

I had wondered about burnout. Not only does Shane climb, coach, or route set virtually every day, but he and Melanie live across the street from CRG Watertown, and she works at the gym, too. “Are you kidding?” he retorts. “I’m never bored. Someone new comes to the gym every day. Every day, we hook someone new on climbing. I’m just happy to be part of that.”

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