How Does Climbing Fit the Definition of ‘Lifestyle Sport’?

a person climbing on an orange climbing wall

Lifestyle sports are often interchangeably called extreme sports. Take a look at the Wikipedia page for ‘extreme sport’ – you’ll see that ‘lifestyle sport’ redirects there. In Sport and Society by Barrie Houlihan and Dominic Malcolm, they state that the extreme narrative is “media driven”, for example through ESPN’s X-Games, helping to market lifestyle sports as “ exciting, adrenaline-fueled and youthful activities”. However, some lifestyle sports such as skateboarding are regularly viewed as a “youth subculture“.

So where does climbing fit in? Speaking to climbers, you get a different impression to the “extreme” narrative sometimes held by the media. Bill Geary, founder of the Grumpy Old Men Climbing Club, a club for older climbers, stated that “for a lot of climbers, it is their principal activity and to lose it would be horrendous. I don’t know of very many people who actually give up climbing. Once you get into it it’s a lifelong thing and while you’re still capable of doing it you want to do it”. 

This sentiment is echoed by Ella Russell, a coach for Lattice Training, who states that “lots of us want to be climbers for life”, and that at Lattice it’s important to work towards improving knowledge to prioritise injury prevention and helping people to climb long term. 

the wikipedia definition of extreme sport and lifestyle sport
Wikipedia defines lifestyle sport and extreme sport as the same.

The long term outlook held by many climbers and climbing coaches holds true when looking at statistics of the age of climbers in the UK – the most common age range for climbers is 25-34, but plenty are still climbing beyond 65, pushing away from the “adrenaline-fueled and youthful” activities some may view lifestyle sports as.

Bill actually views the sport as a way of getting away from other worries and as a way to decompress, somewhat contrasting with an “adrenaline-fueled” experience, comparing climbing and other lifestyle sports to mindfulness techniques. “You’ve got to be completely engaged,” he says. “I can imagine with something like surfing, when you’re on that massive wave, you haven’t got the mental space, so you’re completely focused on that one thing right now.”

Climbing and identity

Climbing, however, does fit the lifestyle sport definition when it comes to the sport forming part of your identity. Oli Grounsell, also a climbing coach for Lattice Training, says, “I think in your teenage years if you’ve been into climbing a long time you can get quite wrapped up in climbing forming your identity. I think that kind of thing definitely stays with all climbers probably forever”. He states that now he’s in his twenties he still sees climbing as “a massive part” of his identity, though now no longer feels the need to prove himself through climbing hard to feel assured of said identity.

This is echoed by Brett Ffitch and Sophie Cheng, aka The Climbing Nomads, a duo who climb and travel for a living in a mobile home.

“I think climbing, certainly for me, it’s what my entire life revolves around,” says Brett. “All of my work is based around climbing. My social time, nearly all of my time are based from climbing so it kind of I guess provides for me that central part of my identity or focus.”

woman climbing on an overhanging wall at a climbing gym
Woman climbing on an overhanging wall. Photo by yns plt on Unsplash.

Sophie agrees, stating that she now identifies herself as a climber.

“I used to climb. I used to do instructing and worked towards instructorship but I didn’t necessarily identify as a climber. I suppose now we both do because it’s quite all consuming. You climb for a living, you climb for a hobby and when you’re not doing either of those you’re still climbing or training for climbing.”

Climbing and diversity

Climbing in the UK also fits the lifestyle sport definition through being predominantly male and predominantly white. However, signs are beginning to maybe suggest the start of a shift.

Oli, when comparing older and newer climbing walls that have started to open through climbing’s book over the last five years, said: “If you go to the Depot, which is a much more modern facility, it’s a got a nice coffee bar and sofas to sit on, it’s the kind of place you could just go and meet your mates. Whereas you wouldn’t really go to the Foundry and just hang around.”

It shows a shift in climbing walls and how they’re perceived. They’re now more welcoming and, as a result, a place people are more likely to visit. No longer are they a place just for the hardcore, and this increased accessibility may be helping a greater diversity of people get involved with the sport.

“I think there’s a group that want to be able to go somewhere, do their fitness and go home, so there’s a generation that’s using it as fitness which wasn’t done in the past,” says Emily Pitts, founder of WomenClimb, a women’s rock climbing community. From 2017 to 2019, the percentage of female climbers in the UK has crept up from 29% to 33%.

“It’s really hard to find a connection with something you can’t see,” says British climber Molly Thompson-Smith in Gymshark’s Roundtable Podcast. “I didn’t realise how much it affected me over the last fifteen years until I went climbing with a group called Clmbxr -they’re a community for black and ethnic minorities to start climbing. I had to pick my jaw off the floor when I saw five black climbers in a climbing wall.”

Statistics on the ethnicity of climbers in the UK are pretty hard to come by, but the BMC’s equity survey found that of those polled, 98% of respondents were white. The growth of groups like Clmbxr, which founder Rotimi Odukoya says grew “organically” to over 100 members in a year and a half, may help to begin to shift the demographics of the sport. When doing a takeover on ex-GB climber Louis Parkinson’s Instagram account, Rotimi found that he had people messaging him saying: “I never knew there was a community like yours, I’d love to come down”. His plans for the future are to continue growing the community.

Carmen McIlveen is the founder of Project One Climbing, a group that is dedicated to the inclusion of BAME people within UK climbing. From the beginning of 2020 she was having discussions with people in the climbing industry about the lack of diversity and how to approach it.

Project One has partnered with Yonder, a climbing wall in London.

“Then George Floyd was murdered and the Black Lives Matter movement was reignited and I realised there’s no better time than now to get Project One off the ground,” says Carmen.

The Black Lives Matter movement has sparked a nationwide conversation in climbing surrounding the lack of diversity and inclusivity. Yonder in London is now working with Project One to “create better access, and in turn, greater representation of BAME people in climbing”. Clmbxr has also partnered with Yonder, along with the LCC climbing walls in London. As more walls begin to tackle diversity issues, hopefully, over time, the demographics of climbers can begin to more accurately represent the nation as a whole.

So while climbing certainly fits the lifestyle sport definition when it comes to it’s shaping its participants’ identity, it’s clear that it doesn’t necessarily fit in the youth-led, youth-populated interpretation. And, with the growth of the sport over the past few years, there are slight suggestions that it may start becoming a more diverse sport – shedding the white, male labels of many lifestyle sports.

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