The last lead World Cups have been pretty interesting to watch. Not least because of the trend of really young, teenage female athletes fighting their way up to the world elite.

In other leanness focused sports such as gymnastics or figure skating, female athletes often peak in their teens (Byrne & McLean, 2002). The history of climbing competitions compared to gymnastics or figure skating is still really young. Now with climbing being in the Olympics, it has gained a lot of attention and popularity. Because of the Olympics, a lot more countries now have more money to foster their athletes, being able to provide better training facilities. The professional approach has increased on many levels. And last but but least, the competitiveness has amplified by a lot.

The more popular, the more competitive, the more money there is, there should also the question raised of how this will change the sport. Will female climbers, such as in gymnastics or figure skating, peak in their teens in the future? Will the trend of what we have seen in the past Lead World Cups continue? If so, what potential downsides could come along with this development? What are the benefits of being younger for your performance?

The younger you are, the lighter you are, and therefore, the less weight you have to carry up the wall. In climbing, less weight can be a benefit to performing stronger – and we are not talking about an unhealthy loss of weight. Particularly in lead climbing where body weight counteracts gravity. Compared to lead climbing, speed or bouldering requires more power, speed strength and coordination. Less weight alone do not guarantee a better performance or better results. Athletes like Miho Nonaka, Shauna Coxsey or Petra Klinger serve as perfect examples and climbing role models who are perfectly healthy, strong and muscular. But even in bouldering there is a trend to skinnier, younger female athletes being hugely successful – not least in youth world competitions (e.g. Youth World Championship in Moscow 2018).

However, in puberty and the age at menarche, the female body develops breasts and hips as well as increases in body fat percentage compared to males (Greydanus & Patel, 2002; Torstveit & Sundgot-Borgen, 2004). Young female athletes who compete at elite level or participate in leanness focused sports might engage in dieting behaviors to not gain weight which could interfere with their sport performance (Currie, 2010). If we learn from a young age onwards that we are more successful when we are lighter, we most possibly try to maintain this approach and attitude. As we become older, watching younger, smaller, lighter athletes being this successful, we might realise a pattern of the connection between less weight and a good performance – a risky analysis. In order to keep up, we might engage in dieting behaviors to not gain weight. A devil circle.

There is strong and consistent evidence that eating disorders are prevalent in sport and especially in weight sensitive sports such as, among others, endurance sports (Sundgot-Borgen, 1993). The typical age of onset of eating disorders is between 14 and 25 years. They are not only common diseases but lead to significant physical and psychological morbidity and impaired performances. An athlete with an eating disorder can expect to be more prone to injury, and to have a shorter sports career that is troubled by inconsistent performances (Currie & Morse, 2005).

It’s an interesting, but thoroughly risky trend. Not to mention that with this development, other important questions need to be raised such as: Can the psychological needs of a teen going through puberty be met if they are already following a professional athlete’s schedule at such a young age, traveling all year around, potentially not being able to go to school anymore? What do they miss out on? How do they compensate for this stressful schedule? Who are they as a person, who are they if they are not an athlete anymore? How will they deal with injuries?

Coaches, parents and sport psychologists will be challenged to thoroughly support their athletes, strengthen their self-esteem and personality development, being aware of the risk as well as how to intervene early.