Guest Post: Connie Lightner – Part Mom, Part Coach, All Awesome

Kai Lightner has been a fixture on the USA Climbing field for years now, and has continued to grow as a climber and representative of the youth climbing movement.  And if you’ve ever seen Kai at a climbing competition, you’ve seen his mother, Connie, camped out in her lounge chair, cheering on her son and the other competitors, making the competition more fun for everyone around her.  Connie is no stranger to competitive climbing, and takes an incredibly active role in Kai’s training: she’s his coach and biggest cheerleader, as well as his mom. Recently, Connie took the time to talk to us about her role in Kai’s life.

As Peak’s Pro Team holds its tryouts this week, we wanted to share her story with you.  After all, youth climbing teams wouldn’t exist without the parents who support the climbers, coaches, and gyms.

Connie and Kai |

Quick coaching session at a climbing competition.

When I am not working, I spend the vast majority of my time (and money) doing climbing
related activities with Kai. Although I have learned to love and enjoy the sport through Kai and his friends (over the past 8 years), I have absolutely no interest in climbing personally.

I’m often asked why I invest most of my resources in climbing, if I have no personal interest. My answer: At first climbing was simply a cool activity to keep Kai busy and tire him out by the end of the day. He was an extremely active kid. Eventually my reasons for investing in climbing became much more strategic.

From birth, parents have (technically) 18 years to teach kids everything they will need to be successful in life. While I have no interest in choosing Kai’s life path, I believe it is my job to help him learn the skills that he will need to soar in any path that he chooses. His extreme interest in climbing made it the perfect vehicle for me to use in doing my job as a parent. The skills that he has gained through climbing are invaluable and applicable to any career path he ultimately selects:

1. Setting Goals, Developing Plans to Achieve Them, and Having the Discipline to Stick to the Plans.

Starting at 7, Kai’s coach made him set goals at the beginning of each season. They would discuss the goal and then establish a program to accomplish them. Since his coach was six hours away, I had to work with him in the gym each day to implement the plan. As Kai would gripe and complain about his training program being too rigid, I would agree and suggest that he downgrade his goal so that we could ask his coach to reduce his training program. Being the stubborn kid that he was, he refused to lower his goal. Being the stubborn mom that I was, I told him that I would not continue paying for his professional coaching if he did not follow the training program designed. I constantly reminded him that he was in complete control. His goal determined the work required to reach it.

Seven years later, Kai still sets goals at the beginning of each season. He now actively participates in designing programs and competition schedules to meet his goals. I am in more of a supportive role, instead of being the enforcer.

Enjoying some downtime in Rifle, CO.

Enjoying some downtime in Rifle, CO.

2. How to Fail and Use Failure to Make You Stronger

This lesson was a rough one to teach. Anyone that trained or competed with Kai his first few years should have vivid memories of him sitting on the floor (or hanging on the rope) crying uncontrollably because he could not complete a climb. THAT BEHAVIOR DROVE ME CRAZY. Each time, I would wait for him to calm down, and then force him to walk back through what happened and helped him design a new approach. Sometimes that involved backing away from the route and practicing using the holds causing the most problems. Other times he would think through a different sequence and attempt the route again. Kai HATED the process of me making him relive (and discuss his failure) until he could develop a new plan.

Today, Kai likes to record most of his tough outdoor route attempts and competition climbs. He asks me to sit down with him each time and critique his climb. He searches for ways that he can make his climbs more efficient and fix problems he encountered. Whenever he gets comfortable at one level, he increases the challenge. He always expects to struggle initially, exposing new weaknesses, and then he works to fix them.

3. Balancing Priorities

School, training, travelling for competitions and events, handling climbing related business…….Adults often have difficulty with time management and finding the right balance for their priorities. At 14, Kai has to face this life lesson head on daily. In addition to figuring out how and when to get everything done, we both think it’s equally important to integrate fun and play time into all activities. At the end of the day, he’s a kid and it’s important that he remains a kid, even thru his adventurous journey

As parents, we all struggle to teach our kids valuable lessons (like these). It’s much easier to teach them life skills if you are able to “sneak it in” and incorporate the lessons through things they actually care about. One of the best things about climbing is the fact that everything is relative. Whether your kid climbs 5.8 or 5.14, goal setting, discipline, learning to deal with failure, and balancing priorities, are all essential pieces to progressing in the sport. The climbing community provides incredibly supportive environment for our kids to learn and grow.

Kai at Dominion RiverRock Boulder Bash, May 2014

Kai at Dominion RiverRock Boulder Bash, May 2014


About Peak Experiences

Love rock climbing? Me too. Peak is a giant box of climbing and fun, located in Midlothian Virginia, and has been around since 1998. Stronger Than Yesterday is our online resource for all things climbing, in Richmond and out in the wider world.
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