Learning the ropes (and the boulders) with NICAS & NIBAS

Learning the ropes (and the boulders) with NICAS & NIBAS

Abbi Blakey, Membership Manager for NICAS and NIBAS, tells us all about the schemes which are great ways to consolidate and learn climbing skills. Many climbing walls offer them as part of their coaching offering or as special sessions during school holidays.

What are the National Indoor Climbing Award Schemes?
NICAS (climbing with ropes) and NIBAS (bouldering) are UK-wide schemes designed to promote climbing development and accredit individual achievement on artificial climbing structures, mainly indoor climbing walls. Each have five progressive levels of award for complete novices to expert climbers. They’re a starting point for people wishing to take up climbing and mountaineering , starting from age 7. Over 13,000 take part each year in the schemes.

The scheme promotes good practice as defined by the whole sector and has good links to further pathways so that young climbers can progress into competition, coaching, outdoor climbing or independent social climbing if they wish.

What is the purpose of a national scheme?
The overarching aim is developing climbers through quality coaching. The ethos is to teach climbing in a progressive way, demonstrating that key competencies have been achieved. A logbook is provided to participants so that all involved (child, parent, coaching staff) can keep track of progress and achievements from level 1 beginner right through to highly skilled level 5 climbers and boulderers. On completion of a level, a certificate is awarded to great excitement. Quite rightly, this provides a fantastic sense of achievement.

What would a climber expect to be able to achieve as a result?
• to develop climbing movement skills and improve levels of ability
• to learn how to use equipment appropriately
• to develop risk assessment and risk management skills in the sport
• to work as a team, communicate with, and trust others e.g. a climbing partner
• to provide a structure for development, motivation and improved performance
• to develop an understanding of the sport, its history and ethics
• to provide a record of personal achievement
• to point the way to further disciplines and challenges in climbing beyond the scheme.

© ABCTT / Andy Day

How did the scheme come about?
In 2006 the then Chief Instructor of Undercover Rock in Bristol, Guy Jarvis, saw a gap in the market for a climbing scheme to support the development of young climbers in a structured, quality assured way and took this to the ABC. With the help of 10 key ABC climbing walls, NICAS was developed and trialled over nearly three years: there was wide consultation within the industry, including an 18-month pilot which saw over 2000 youngsters go through the scheme in 10 ABC climbing centres. The scheme was also designed to complement the national Climbing Wall Award for coaches (now known as the CWI), to give them a uniform template with which to train budding climbers. The scheme is supported by the industry, the ABC, BMC and Mountain Training who have all helped to develop it. NIBAS (our bouldering scheme) came about in 2014 with the rise of bouldering-only centres, a market that continues to see fast growth.

What are the key reasons to learn to climb or boulder?
Climbing benefits the body and mind, and it is accessible to all. It’s:

• a Mental Challenge: working out the best route to climb
• an Achievement: when you make progress
• a Workout: an all-over body workout, accessible yet challenging

The structure of our schemes is all about motivating a prolonged involvement and progression – building both competence and confidence – whilst developing a resilient climbing “habit”.

Why is this scheme good for learning to climb – as opposed to doing your own thing or a local climbing club?
Well, the overarching aim of NICAS is to “develop climbers through quality coaching”. Having a scheme, which is standard, repeatable, consistent and has been reviewed and quality assured should give confidence to climbers, their parents and carers and climbing staff alike that this scheme is a good thing to take part in. Climbing is still a risk sport and as such, the fact that there is a scheme that provides a pathway to gain the necessary skills, the fact that the climber is following an established process to gain these skills and have them assessed; and the fact that over a period of time the assessor is reviewing the appropriateness of signing off skills as having been achieved; should give confidence to all involved.

© ABCTT / Patricia Novelli

What about the fact that the scheme is standardised, is it interesting to both learn, and teach?
Well yes, we believe that there are many ways to teach and coach children in order to meet the end goal, of having achieved the skills required in a progressive way that is then a skill that is retained. How the climbing coach delivers the session; we leave to their coaching know-how and individual approach whilst confident that a base level of training and induction is required. As such, what they are doing is high quality. Overall, there is a standardisation (and quality assurance) of structure, assessment standards and coaching qualifications required by the scheme, within which coaches can adapt their approach to the needs of the young people taking part.

Can parents take confidence from this being a national scheme?
A lot goes on behind the scenes of NICAS that helps to keep the scheme relevant and quality assured. Teaching staff are inducted, the content of the syllabus and accompanying handbooks is reviewed and approved, there is a defined process and set of technical/build standards for walls to operate NICAS and for levels of qualification for the staff, both those running sessions and those signing off the syllabus and awarding the certification. Alongside this, the team at NICAS has regular dialogue with relevant bodies and organisations. Good overall governance is achieved through a board of trustees, by being signed up to the Sport and Recreation Alliance’s code of Good Governance; and through governance required by Sport England in order to obtain grant funding. This ensures the team is up to speed on best practice both in governance terms and industry standards, trends and guidelines. We have a structure around delivery too – centres can be moderated by technical experts, and we also have a complaints procedure so that if a parent is not happy about NICAS delivery at a wall they can also engage with us to help. Ensuring we liaise and learn from others in the climbing industry, means continuous review and assessment of what we then deliver and from this we believe parents and children can trust in the quality of what we do.

Importantly: What does the child get from NICAS?
Quality coaching, should be fun as well as technically skilled! By requiring NICAS and NIBAS coaches to have had defined levels of relevant training, the lessons delivered should not only build skills but be enjoyable along the way. There is a huge sense of achievement from passing a level of NICAS, and it does really mean something! The team at NICAS loves to see photos of happy climbers with their certificates and are proud of the skilful climbers that the scheme has produced. Having gained the relevant skills from NICAS; climbers can be confident and competent and many go on to climb to a very high standard – NICAS graduates include World Youth Bouldering champion Hannah Slaney and rising star on the GB team, Emily Phillips.

What is next for the schemes?

In order to keep them relevant and up to date, the NICAS and NIBAS schemes are subject to ongoing review. Recently, a new Managing Director, Nick Parkin, has been appointed for the schemes. The world of climbing is an exciting one to be involved with, particularly with the upcoming Olympics in 2020. We anticipate even greater interest in learning to climb and boulder next year, and under Nick’s leadership, will be promoting the benefits of NICAS and NIBAS as fantastic and accessible options to start climbing.


Abbi Blakey
Membership Manager (NICAS and NIBAS)

For more information about NICAS/NIBAS and to find climbing walls offering this scheme, you can check out their website www.nicas.co.uk or follow them on:
Twitter: www.twitter.com/NICAS_team
Facebook: www.facebook.com/NICASTeam
Instagram: www.instagram.com/nicas_team

Photos courtesy of NICAS. Main picture © ABCTT / Patricia Novelli

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *