Have Fun, Work Hard, Get Better

Summit Climbing gym in Dallas. Photo: Summit.
Summit Climbing gym in Dallas. Photo: Summit.
Summit Climbing gym in Dallas. Photo: Summit.

By Joseph Robinson

The Dallas-based, Team Texas has won 13 USA Climbing (USAC) Youth Team National Championships. In 2015, Team Texas placed second at the USAC Sport and Speed Youth National Championships and fourth at the USAC American Bouldering Series 16 Youth National Championships. They bested all climbing teams in Speed, and they had more climbers represented in both events combined than any other team, with a total of 64 competitors.

Internationally, Team Texas climber Grace McKeehan placed first at the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) World Youth Championships in Arco, Italy in the Overall Youth A Female category last September. Team Texas can now boast of having developed national champions and world champions, as well as a continued presence among the top five youth climbing teams in the nation at Sport, Speed and Bouldering events.

Other climbing teams have successful progams and even a few have international podium winners, but few have the staying power of Team Texas. What is the secret of Team Texas? CBJ talked to Coach Kyle Clinkscales, owner of Summit Climbing Yoga and Fitness and head coach of Team Texas, who revealed the financial and coaching strategies that have contributed to the competitive climbing team’s continued success.

Partner Pay

“I think nowadays finding coaches is harder than finding routesetters,” says Clinkscales. “It is a challenge, but one of the ways of doing that is allowing the instructor to make a living by commission.” In 1996, when Clinkscales started coaching two young climbers out of Exposure Rock Climbing gym in Carrollton, Texas, Clinkscales received compensation in the form of a revenue split between the gym and himself: 80% of team dues to himself; 20% of team dues as well as 100% of gym membership dues of team climbers to the gym.

Coach Kyle. Photo: Summit.
Coach Kyle. Photo: Summit.

Since then, Team Texas has grown to include over 100 climbers across four gyms which makes it one of the biggest youth climbing teams in the US. Clinkscales refers to this form of compensation as “Partner Pay,” and has continued the practice even after purchasing Summit Grapevine in 2009, Summit Dallas in 2012 and Summit Carrolton in 2013 (Summit Denton is due to open in 2016). The ratio of Partner Pay remains unchanged.

Commission motivated two actions by Clinkscales. First, it encouraged Clinkscales to stay put. “So many guys who are a thousand times better than me come and go because they can’t make a living doing it,” says Clinkscales. Assuming a strong correlation between experience and quality coaching, professional head coaches will be at a point in their career where they are seeking personal monetary advancement or, in Clinkscales case, simply the financial means to support a family. Partner Pay provided Clinkscales the financial means to do so. “I have two kids and a wife, and I’ve been able to make a living because of that.”

Minimum wage or low wage coaching positions do not provide financial incentives and make supporting a family difficult, and therefore professional coaches will likely only invest in a climbing team for the short run, until they obtain more lucrative positions. “Paying a kid $15 an hour, they are going to go away over time, they will have to grow up,” says Clinkscales. “If you look at the top ten climbing teams in the nation, they are all run by professional coaches.”

High wage or salary coaching positions also provide compensation levels which encourage gym loyalty by professional coaches, but they do not necessarily motivate the second action which commission strongly encouraged for Clinkscales: maximum investment into the climbing team. “My business is predicated on the success of the gym’s business. They are linked together,” says Clinkscales.

A climbing team is a business strategy. The better and larger a climbing team, the more publicity and team dues a gym receives and, thus, the larger the gym’s revenue stream. But in order for the climbing team to expand and improve, the head coach of the team must be investing much time and energy into the team, and this sacrifice becomes more probable as compensation for such increases.

Claire Buhrfeind competing at the Vail World Cup in 2015. Photo: Team Texas.

To be sure, for many head coaches the reward of investment far outweighs the cost, and thus a head coach may invest as much as possible into the climbing team for the long run regardless of income. Given the love for his climbing team participants conveyed in our interview, Clinkscales would be among them, so long as he could support his family while doing so. But commission at least increases the probability of top-tier, heart and soul investment of the Clinkscales variety by making personal financial stability of the head coach dependent upon the success of the gym’s climbing team.

“Have Fun, Work Hard, Get Better”

The way in which a head coach invests into the youth climbing team of a gym affects the output and size of that team. In order to maximize the quantity of gym climbers joining the climbing team and the quality of their climbing performance over the long run, a head coach must coach in a manner which, 1) increases the probability of young gym climbers joining the team; 2) increases the probability of team climbers climbing hard; and 3) increases the probability of team climbers climbing hard for the long run. Clinkscales accomplishes this by applying the Team Texas motto, “Have fun, work hard, get better.”

Get Better
As with many youth climbing teams, Team Texas functions as the training ground for top young gym talents who join in part to improve the competitiveness of their climbing skills. One way Clinkscales increases the probability of such is by controlling numbers. “We try to not ever have more than fourteen kids climbing at one time at a facility,” says Clinkscales.

Coach Kyle understands that this strategy helps keep large mobs of kids from roaming the gym which improves general member happiness and at the same time he and his coaching team can give each athlete the attention they deserve. Clinkscales also caps the number of climbers on a team at around 100.

Besides establishing a ceiling on team enrollment and practice attendance, Clinkscales also enforces a minimum coach-to-climber ratio. “A 1-7 ratio is what we shoot for: two coaches, fourteen kids,” says Clinkscales. The primary difference between team climbers and non-team climbers is the presence of instruction, and establishing a low ratio of coaches to climbers ensures each team climber receives quality, hands-on instruction.

Lastly, climbing improvement requires not just the presence of instruction but applicable instruction. Thus, it has been helpful for Team Texas to have a dynamic team structure which keeps climbers of similar abilities training together and receiving similar instruction. Clinkscales divides Team Texas into four different practice groups: D (ages 10 and under), B (ages 10 and up with intermediate skills), A (ages 10 and up with advanced skills) and X (elite climbers who placed in the top ten of their category at USAC Nationals).

Coach Kyle with a just a few of his team. Photo: Team Texas.

What’s more, Team Texas encompasses multiple facilities with multiple instructors. Clinkscales runs climbers out of Summit Grapevine and Summit Carrollton, while Coach Kim Puccio runs climbers out of Summit Dallas and Canyons Climbing Gym in Frisco. Clinkscales allows for movement of top climbers (about 30 out of 100) among the various facilities to ensure they are training with the appropriate instructors and climbers. “We move around the more competitive climbers to give them a different setting, different coaching and to keep it fresh and new for them,” says Clinkscales.

Work Hard
A head coach must invest in a way which motivates team climbers to not just want to get better, but to also want to work hard. Ironically, Clinkscales’ solution for increasing the probability of hard climbing by each climber has been by decreasing the emphasis on individual and climbing success. “I have a rule that you don’t have to like the person next to you, but you do have to respect them. We push that pretty hard. They need to be a part of something bigger than themselves,” says Clinkscales.

To accomplish this, Clinkscales crosses the sessions of practice groups and restricts climber movement so that all abilities regularly interact and become one unified team. While personal success is a motivating force, when young athletes feel a part of a team an additional motivating force is tapped into: team pride.

The success of Team Texas attests to the power of this force. “If we get them to care more about the person next to them than how they compete, then they are climbing not for themselves, and it is a powerful thing when a kid wants to climb not for themselves,” says Clinkscales.

In addition, when asked about his most effective coaching strategy, Clinkscales cited the sincere care of coaches in the personal development of every team climber as another motivating force for hard climbing. “They need to know how much you care. That’s been really important to establishing rapport with kids,” says Clinkscales. “They will work their butt off for you if they know you care more about them as a person than their climbing accomplishments.”

Have Fun
One way to emphasize personal development over climbing development and to enhance team unity is to host fun team activities. Climbing is a strenuous sport, and competitive climbing even more so. In order for Team Texas to not burn out on competitions and training at a young age or early in the season, Clinkscales makes having fun as a team a top priority.

For starters, Clinkscales schedules Friday fun days into the weekly training regime of power on Mondays, resistance on Tuesdays, workouts on Wednesdays and power endurance on Thursdays. The regular inclusion of a fun day gives young crushers something to look forward to throughout the week when they are crimping on hangboards to exhaustion or repeatedly falling off a frustrating project.

Team Texas at this years banquet. Photo: Team Texas.
Team Texas at this years banquet. Photo: Team Texas.

Perhaps even more significant has been the implementation of team events to increase the enjoyment, personal development and unity of Team Texas climbers. At the end of the competition climbing season, young Team Texans dress up in formal wear for a banquet at which coaches give short speeches highlighting each climber’s unique accomplishments of the season, and the graduating Seniors are given the opportunity to step up to the podium and share a short speech themselves.

At Christmas time, parents and climbers get together for a team Christmas party. After Sport Regionals, they have another small gathering where they bring in a big screen and watch a video of their summer trip from the year before to get psyched for the trip that year.

During the summer trip, the team drives hundreds of miles together to climb at multiple outdoor and indoor destinations. For example, last year they traveled to the Red River Gorge, with the final destination being USAC Youth Sport Nationals. Before the trip, a “suffer fest” comprising all-nighters, obstacle courses, a climbing test and mundane chores develops leadership qualities among junior climbers and determines who will be the junior guides that summer.

These events develop personal qualities beyond climbing and provide a fun break from regular training, but they also bond teammates together because they are demanding. “That which is hard to endure is sweet to remember,” says Clinkscales. “They have to work together or the trips break down.”

To increase the probability of hard climbing in the long run by team climbers who already climb hard, the long term success of Team Texas suggests a head coach ought to at least consider getting them in suits inside, suiting them up outside and throwing in an exhausting shenanigan or two.

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Joe Robinson has been working in the climbing industry for over a decade and currently manages CBJ editorial. He traveled the world as the IFSC’s community manager during Olympic inclusion and across the U.S. while writing for Alpinist, Climberism, DPM and CBJ. He also worked in local climbing gyms of the Pacific Northwest and West Michigan while advancing economic empowerment, educational equity, youth development and diversity programs of national nonprofit organizations.