Unsolicited Advice: The Toxic Effects of Beta-spray
By Dr. Jonathan Lackman & Dr. Sara Campbell
“The best teachers show us where to look, but not what to see.”
—Alexandra K. Trenfor
It’s practice, and I’ve got an athlete on the wall trying to puzzle out a movement they can make to unlock this particular climb (spoiler alert, it’s slide the right foot up). They keep trying to move their left hand. It’s not working. They’re getting tired, angry even. As their coach, I’m dying. Every part of me wants to yell, “right foot!” I want to relieve them of their frustration. I want to teach them the right way. So, I do. They finish the move, power their way up the rest of the climb, and come over for a palm-stinging high-five. They feel like a good athlete, and I feel like a good coach.
As coaches, we like to think we know a few things. So, when we see an athlete doing something the wrong way, we want to swoop in and help them. In the rock-climbing world, we refer to this as beta spray. The word beta is climber-speak for the right way to do something, and beta spray represents the offering of unsolicited advice. While almost always well intended, there are consequences to consider before one deploys beta spray.
First, I thought I helped that athlete by yelling, “right foot!” but really, I let them down. I robbed them of a rep just as surely as if I’d stepped in to do their last pull-up for them. Next month, when they’re competing and stuck on a move, if I shout out the answer, we’ll both be ejected. In addition, I’ve implicitly told them that I didn’t believe they could do it on their own. Therefore, they won’t have the problem-solving skills or confidence needed to get themselves out of a jam.
When I see a climber struggling with a certain move, instead of telling them what to do, I try to prescribe a drill that will implicitly nudge them to explore all the different ways of performing that movement. I try to show them where to look but not what to see. For example, in the scenario above, I could have asked the athlete, “Is there something you could be doing differently with your feet?” This strategy takes more time, but when they hit on the method that works for them, they won’t forget.
Homogenizing Climbers and Climbs
Second, there is a deeply rooted, widespread presumption that climbs (and sports generally) have one right solution, and the pursuit of that solution is every athlete’s goal. However, the solutions that seem right to us could be wrong for the athlete we are working with. The athlete might be short, double-jointed, or have a long femur. Perhaps they are recovering from an injury or nervous about a friend watching them. Restrictive clothing, lack of sleep, or improper nutrition may also impact how they can climb that day. In short, our solutions may not apply to them.
When we deploy beta spray, we inadvertently flatten and homogenize climbs and climbers. This, in turn, counters a culture of individuality, creativity, and diversity of movement. An alternative option could be to keep a video camera running. When you see an athlete, or an entire team, louse something up, don’t just tell them what they should have done differently. Show them the video and encourage them to find an opportunity for improvement. Then restart the practice from that point and see if they can incorporate what they’ve learned.
Last, it’s important to consider who is on the giving and receiving end of beta spray. Based on my personal experience, beta sprayers are typically men who are excited to show off how much they know. The receivers of beta spray, on the other hand, are often women, children, or those who have been stereotyped as novice based on their body type. When we consider social structures such as these, we begin to recognize how beta spray can manifest as microaggressions that reproduce social inequities in sport. Moreover, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s not just coaches spraying beta, it’s also the athletes’ teammates, friends, or parents. Reoccurring microaggressions such as these hinder diversity, equity, and inclusion in the climbing world, and thus should be taken seriously.
To counter these harmful practices, I give my athletes a few polite words to use when they feel beta coming their way. For example, “Thanks, but if you don’t mind, I’d like to figure this one out for myself,” or “Thanks, but I'm trying to see if there are alternative solutions,” or “Thanks, but I’m intentionally doing it this way to develop other movement patterns.” Unfortunately, these comments are often met with offensive responses such as, “I was just trying to help!” or “Fine, do it your own way!” This exemplifies why beta-sprayers themselves must consider how they might inadvertently be reinforcing harmful social structures. Don’t be that guy. It's condescending to assume your beta is welcome.
Where to Look
I acknowledge that instruction is a key component of coaching. There will be times when we need to step in and offer direct feedback to our athletes. However, I’m troubled by the fact that beta spray has become the default for many coaches. I’m suggesting that instead of always spraying beta, we can give pause and consider potential consequences and viable alternatives. Next time you see something weird, try to understand why it’s happening rather than just write it off as incorrect. As Ted Lasso says, "Be curious, not judgmental!"
About the Authors
Jon Lackman, PhD, CSCS, is a climbing coach, journalist, historian, and student in the Master of Arts in Sport Coaching program at the University of Denver. He’s completed a bachelor’s degree in physics at Amherst College and a PhD in art history at NYU and has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Wired, and other publications.
Sara Campbell, PhD, CSCS, is an assistant professor at University of Denver where she teaches courses in the undergraduate program in Kinesiology and Sport Studies and in the Master of Arts in Sport Coaching. Her research interests are in coach education, program evaluation, and philosophy. Sara is currently a coach developer for US Soccer and has 15 years of experience as a soccer coach.