Jackie Pettitt has been coaching for the past 12 years and specializes in climbing movement, technique, and mental toughness training. Over the years, she has helped athletes reach Nationals, Youth Worlds and other championship events. She also mentors head coaches, helping them become great leaders and establish well-rounded programs. In this episode, Pettitt brought her knowledge of the industry to the table, covering her career as a climbing coach, her thoughts on coaching education, tips on hiring a coaching team, and much more.
00:00 – Intro
01:53 – Jackie’s coaching career
03:25 – Training camps vs. team practices
04:41 – Challenges of coaching at camps
05:41 – Knowing coaches at the camps
06:36 – Coaching style and current position
07:50 – Developing a youth program
09:13 – Encouraging buy-in from members
10:01 – Role in adult programming
10:49 – Differentiating youth vs. adult programs
12:01 – The coaching staff for the adult team
12:45 – Team tiers for all ages and levels
14:42 – Keeping youth climbers psyched
18:01 – Challenges faced in coaching career
21:27 – Proactive measures taken by coaches
22:38 – Vision for future coaching education
24:09 – Advice for getting hired as a coach
25:55 – Tips for managers hiring coaches
27:42 – Closing
LEIBOVITCH: So I know you’ve worked with a broad spectrum of climbing levels. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience, from coaching recreational teams to working with the U.S. team?
PETTITT: I started climbing and coaching at Metro Rock [Everett] in Boston, which is where I met you. I felt like I had a pretty good mentorship opportunity there. I worked with Josh Larson and Dave Wetmore, who are unbelievable coaches and setters. So I feel like I really got a good base there, learning how to work with competitive rock climbers and understanding a lot more of the technical aspects of climbing. We also did recreational and adult programming there; I ran an all-women’s climbing program which was really cool. Then I moved out to Stone Summit, which is in Atlanta. That was really where I started to understand coaching at a high, elite level, working with a lot of the athletes who are competing at Worlds, the Olympic Trials and events like that. I feel really blessed to have been able to assist coaches like Claudiu Vidulescu and Jacky Godoffe at countless training camps out there…
Can you tell me a little bit about the training camps and how they differed from regular team practices?
We would run a pre-world camp and then a pre-national youth camp. And those honestly were some of the biggest joys of coaching because it’s basically all the highest-level coaches, in my opinion, and athletes coming together and trying to really be strategic in the way that we’re helping them. Because we only have them for a week or two and we’re not trying to get them stronger, we’re trying to get them to be more mentally tough, to be more efficient, and be more strategic in their comp climbing. So it promotes different types of challenges in coaching, which is really, really cool. And then we set really specific boulders, routes, that will mimic what they’ll be seeing at those bigger events…
What are some challenges that you incurred as a coach at those camps that maybe you hadn’t faced before or that you hadn’t anticipated?
I think one of the big things that can be a challenge is you get a lot of these kids that come in that you haven’t worked with before, or adults even, and you have a very limited window to get to know the athletes and make them feel comfortable to accept your feedback and feel value. I would say that you have to be pretty skilled in understanding and adapting your coaching styles so that you can give the kids or those adults what they need so that they walk away feeling ready for their event. And of course, working with different coaches and learning how to work with people you haven’t worked with before. So it’s definitely an interesting, fast-paced environment where you have to kind of put all your skills to test.
If you had to identify a few contributions you’ve been making to Mesa Rim Reno to help grow and develop that program, what would those be?
I think that there hasn’t been a lot of coaching education for the gym, and so I’ve been just providing a lot of consulting for a lot of the head coaches, for all of the Mesa gyms, on how to go about doing things, how to structure things, how to make sure that your coaching staff and your athletes and parents know what your vision is…As far as my team goes, I think because it has been such a new team, it’s definitely been, “How do I get the parents and the gym to have more buy-in toward the world of competition climbing?” Because comp climbing is obviously so different than commercial setting.
What are some of the ways you encourage youth program buy-in from members?
Something that we’ve been doing during drills and onsiting—those can be big areas where members can be really irritated when the children are around. So we’ll do an announcement and allow the members to join in or participate in whatever training activity we’re doing, if they’d like to; or if we’re doing a technique session, they can join in. And that’s been really helpful in creating this buy-in from the members…so it’s not “them” and “us.”
Obviously you’ve been in the industry for a while and I’m sure it hasn’t all been rainbows and sparkles. So I’m curious if you can point to a time that was super challenging for you as a coach, either from a managerial standpoint—some difficulties managing a team you’ve had—or with the USA Climbing coaching system, or even just with your own coaching?
I would say being a female in the coaching industry is a little bit challenging on being heard by your peers. I would say that that was a pretty big challenge for me in my past coaching jobs, and it can make you feel unconfident in what you’re doing if you’re not really being respected that way…
The next thing would be that there’s not really any climbing education. I feel like we put people in positions of coaching, it’s like, “Oh, you’ve been climbing for a while? You’ll probably be good at coaching.” Which doesn’t really translate. I’ve had plenty of coaches who are excellent who don’t climb really hard, and I’ve had plenty of coaches who climb really hard who are terrible coaches…
And then going along with the education, there’s not really any resources for coaches to become good mentors or managers of youth programming…There could be a lot more information out there, or resources, to give coaches what they need to be successful…
What are some proactive measures some of your coaches have taken that have been a huge help to you?
I would say that creating an open dialogue between your coaches and the head coach, making sure that that’s available. Because even if you aren’t a hundred percent sure what you’re doing wrong, if the coaches feel like they can trust you and come to you when there are issues, then that can start to help navigate what needs to change, what needs to be better.
I would say also a big piece would be that you might know the vision of what you want your team to look like, but maybe no one else does… So getting really clear on what your vision is, what you want it to look like, and then making sure you have the follow through to do the things that will create that vision to be a reality.
Can you speak about some of your ideas for how you think the industry could facilitate education for coaches?
I’m working on creating a consulting LLC essentially for kind of what we’re talking about, with the end goal of hopefully, potentially, working with USA Climbing and creating an education system similar to what the setters’ looks like…And I think this overall is going to make the climbing industry better and then also make the coaches become better paid. Because right now, yeah you can go apply for this head coaching job, but what are the kinds of things you’ve done besides experience-based things that make you certified in this job? There’s not really anything like that out there, so I’d really like to try to make something happen, so that coaches can get what they need financially and educationally.
Any tips you’d give to managers who are looking to hire a coaching team?
I would say that once you’ve figured out what you want your program to look like—how many participants, what your goal is for each of those programs—that’ll help you figure out how many employees that you need and also the caliber of coach….
I think recreational coaching can be kind of overlooked as, “Oh, you’re just doing the rec programming.” But it actually takes a lot of skill to manage young children and wild children who are not necessarily focused on competitive climbing. So hiring the right people, and being willing to pay people well to go into those roles.
I would say another helpful tip would be hiring a recreational supervisor…someone you oversee who deals with your recreational teams, your recreational programming, and then your recreational camps. Someone to offload that to, who has passion in that direction—so that you can focus on the overall program and then the more competitive side—will give you so much more freedom to do your job well.
Zoe Leibovitch has been a climbing competitor on the national and international level since 2006. She has traveled the world competing in IFSC events, has been on the Evolv athlete team since 2014, and continues to spread her passion for climbing as a guest setter and coach. She has written for Climbing Magazine and works at The Spot Bouldering Gym coordinating their events and marketing. In addition to climbing, Zoe enjoys snowboarding, surfing, and all things adrenaline-pumping.