The one about the Top 5 Things I have been repeating to Trainee Instructors…

So here i am to do my part, it took awhile to get off my butt, but here i am. Perhaps let me start the inaugural post here by sharing the “Top 5 Things I have been repeating to Trainee Instructors (TI)”

#1 Always have a plan.
It’s amazing how often TI’s show up for a class without planning out their lessons. For most it’s not a matter of laziness when i hear from them but they thought with all their experience climbing they could easily talk about the topic at hand. When that happens, a very interesting phenomenon happens. You will see the TIs talking confidently about the few points they have and then comes the abrupt stop. A stop so abrupt that the silence is almost deafening. Because at this point, the TIs will realise that whatever they knew was only enough for 1min at most. They will then try to add in bits and pieces of information they remembered which only serves to confuse the participants more. In a matter of minutes, they will be looking at me with pleading eyes asking for help to salvage the silence. More often than not, when you sit them down at the end of the day they will share that their greatest regret was not planning for the session beforehand although most if not all will say that they thought they knew enough about the topic.

It’s simple. Plan your portion of the lesson before hand. And as you get more experienced, you might even have different lesson plans for the different learner profiles you might encounter. When you plan out the lesson, you start to see the linkages between the knowledge you are imparting. You start to see gaps forming and you might think of ideas or activities to cover these gaps. Spend the time to plan. Even after teaching for so many years, i still sit down the night before a class to review my lesson plans for the next day.

A cautionary note here : I am not bothered about the content here, you can easily pick up content from a book or a website. In fact, most participants nowadays come even more knowledgable than me from their online subscriptions of Rock & Ice… What you do with the content is the important part as an Instructor. How you organise the information? How you deconstruct it to easily digestable pieces? How you make an otherwise dry topic (think Fall Factor) into a interactive hands on activity? Content is never the issue. If I give you ten years of experience you will definitely know more, but it still doesn’t automatically mean you can teach. Enuf said…

#2 Put yourself in their shoes.

Some TI’s whom I have met are just trying to impress the participants with the depth and breadth of knowledge that they have, conveniently forgetting that the sole reason why the participants are here is exactly because they do not have that much knowledge in the first place. Thankfully i have yet to meet one with a condescending tone yet but most of the time the TI’s get frustrated when the participants are not able to understand what they are trying to teach.

Sometimes all we need to do is to take a step back and put ourselves in their shoes when we first started climbing. What do we want to learn? I’m quite sure it wasn’t about the difference between a keylock carabiner or an autolock carabiner…. rather, i just wanted to climb climb climb! Why then do we expect our participants to want to listen to us when we teach? I believe an instructor must know how to find a balance between what must be taught and what is “good to know”. No one can tell you where the line is drawn, i think everyone has to sit down and decide for themselves where that line is to be drawn, at least until the Instructor Community gets around to standardising what we teach. (Some would hope that day never come…)

But yeah, put yourselves in their shoes. Give the participants a chance to learn and grow.

#3 Direct their attention.

I remember attending a coaching class once where the lecturer showed us a video of this discus thrower in action. The guy held the discus in his hand, leaned back a bit and then took two big turns, arms extended and at the right point, he released the discus flinging it a great distance.

Then the lecturer looked up and asked the class, “So, which leg did he use to take his first step on that throw?”

The class was silent. The lecturer made a very impactful point that day at least to me. A good instructor must know how to direct the participants’ attention to what he is teaching.

Many a times i have observed TI’s and instructors alike who do this in their 5-step belaying class:
“Ok class, this is how we do the 5 steps belay. One-two-three-four-five. Ok? I repeat again watch huh, One-two-three-four-five. Ok? Get it? Now all of you try and follow me.”

I do mine a bit differently…

“Ok class, watch whilst i demonstrate the 5 steps belay. One-two-three-four-five.”
“Now i want you to watch my right hand as i do the five steps again, and then tell me what do you notice about it? Here we go…. Watch my hands…One-Two-Three-Four-Five.”

When you overload the participants with so many things to look at, they become like the class i described above, they do not know what to look at and they are constantly trying to remember every detail….including every unimportant detail. They are not sure what to focus on what to pay attention to, so they end up absorbing nothing. With some clear direction from the instructor, the participants will be able to pick up the important point that the instructor is trying to  make.

Give it a try next time. Direct their attention to what you are trying to show.

#4 Make a list at critical checkpoints.

When teaching hard skills, try to list down what you have just taught so that it is easier for the participants to internalise what they just learnt into bite sized chunks. From their point of view, they have just learned a new skill and they are struggling to master the skill, when we make checklists, it chunks down the information for them and it aids in their memory retention. You can constantly take out this checklist again throughout the day to remind them of the important points and the repetition makes it into a habit eventually.

Case in point. When i teach how to tie a Fig. 8 Follow Through Knot (yes…that’s its full name…not Figure 8…), after they have mastered it, i will usually get them to list down what are the safety checks i have just verbally explained to them. So the participants will repeat throughout the day when they check their knots that the knots have to be :

  1. Knot is tightened.
  2. The loop through their harness should be smaller than a fist.
  3. Tail must be longer than 15cm
  4. Check for 5 parallel lines.

Throughout the day, i will repeat to them, “So what are the 4 things we look out for when checking our knots?” and count them off on my fingers as they share with me what they remember.

#5 Use the same equipment as your participants when you teach.

As simple as this sounds, many TI’s often miss out on this and again come to an abrupt halt when they are teaching their participants how to tie in to the rope, only to realise that their belay loops are different from what the participants have. This makes for a very confusing, disjointed lesson on tying in, when the TI has to digress to explain about the different types of harness and why we need to tie in through both loops but when using a carabiner we use one…. Do you see where this is heading? The further you detour, the harder it is to bring the participants mentally back to the lesson at hand.

So the short answer will be to always do your preparation and planning. Get an extra set of gym gear for yourself to teach in throughout the day and leave behind your fancy belay devices or safety slings that mark you out as an experienced climber in the gym. I usually spend half the day teaching with the gym gear so that the participants can emulate me when they practice and they have a visual reference in me when they are confused. Only when they practice do i switch to my personal gear which frankly speaking is much more comfortable for me. An added side effect is the conversations and curiosity it generates when your pax comes up to you and ask why is your harness so different from theirs and what is that “thin flat strap” attached to your harness for? This is self-directed learning and that is where they really learn. Yup, back to basics helps.

Alrighty, so there you go, my “Top 5 Things I have been repeating to Trainee Instructors”. I mean no disrespect to any of the TI’s who have OJT-ed under me. It was a pleasure to share with each and everyone of you and many of you have given me very valuable feedback on my teaching style as well as my mentoring style as well. I sincerely hope new TI’s can take the time to plan and come prepared for their OJT’s so that the session can be beneficial for both the participants and the TI. After all you are already not getting paid so you might as well learn something for the day and not just clock another OJT for the sake of it. Just my thoughts.

Peaceful Vibes!

The one about the beginning number 1…

BlogPost #1 Numero Uno.


I guess it would be most appropriate to share the raison d’etre. I have been teaching climbing for close to ten years now and i have had numerous Trainee Instructors being attached to me for their mandatory OJT before assessments (nowadays i hear they can do the OJT after the assessment which befuddles me… it’s like studying only after the exam is over). At the end of each attachment, i always try and find time to sit down and review the day with the trainee instructor, and after every session, i find myself going through the same points again and again with the trainees.

This started to get me thinking, are we doing enough to prepare new instructors to teach? What went wrong? Why can’t they instruct a class properly? Were they taught the basic MOI beyond the 30mins slideshow on how to teach in the ITC course? Again and again, i found myself repeating the same points to different trainee instructors, and every one of them were taken aback with how much they didn’t know. I went away with one take away, our new instructors are not prepared to teach. They are good climbers, but instructors? Not all.

So as with all things, idle hands are the Devil’s playthings. I started to think how i can help in this aspect in my day-dream-space-out-brainfart daily free time. I was reminded of something said by a very experienced instructor once,

“We can all sit around and grumble and do nothing, or we can chip in and help to make things better.” ~J. Soo

So here we are. The raison d’etre. To improve the way we teach, the way we instruct, the way we coach. So that one day, a climbing instructor can be an professional instructor in every sense of the word. Join me in this mad capped journey if you dare read on…
Peaceful Vibes!