Fall practice is a tricky area in climbing. Apart from being neglected or completely overlooked, it’s often done badly. There are common misconceptions about fall practice and a few conventions in the climbing world that lead climbers against the principles we can learn from science. Not only is a bad fall practice less effective, it’s more dangerous, can often ingrain fear and perpetuates the idea that we can’t or shouldn't train our minds for climbing (or falling!).
Here we’re going to bust a few myths and establish some important principles for safe and effective fall practice.
So where do people commonly go wrong when practising falling?
1. Don’t do it enough
Climbers often avoid falling altogether, or do very little falling whilst still hoping they will become more comfortable with falling. No one would expect their fingers to get stronger from hanging off a fingerboard once or twice – we need regular training for a sustained period to see results. The same goes for training our minds; we need to build falling into our climbing lives as a habit before we can see the results we want.
2. Take falls they’re not ready for
Many climbers feel that if they take a big fall, they will immediately become more comfortable with big falls. It’s not an uncommon intuition to have, but it’s like assuming that if you hang from a 10mm edge with 20kg added to you, you will immediately have stronger fingers, whereas most climbers are more likely to get injured. Similarly to physical training, mental training is much about getting the load and intensity right. Many people try to take falls they are not ready for and instead of growing more comfortable with falling they actually become less comfortable because they have stressful experiences and they ingrain fear. We’ve coached so many climbers who have forced themselves to take a fall they are not ready for and the consequences of a micro trauma can be more disastrous for your climbing than a pulley tear.
3. Rush the fall
Many people can fall off so long as they do it so quickly that they don’t have time to be scared. The moments before the fall are the most uncomfortable and if we don’t take a few moments (ideally a few deep breaths) before the fall we never learn to be comfortable with that apprehension. Would you expect to get over your fear of spiders by quickly prodding a spider and calling it good? This apprehension of a fall often affects our climbing more than the fall itself, as we spend far more time anticipating a fall, whether we end up falling or not.
4. Fall tense
Your body never lies. If you fall with your eyes closed, arms tense, clutching the rope like a lifeline, then you exhibit a stress response. So long as you keep falling with these body signals, you’ll continue to ingrain fear. We need to re-write our response to be a relaxed response. Breathing out when we fall, taking deep breaths before the fall, arms open and relaxed, eyes soft and open to spot your landing; these are ways of bringing that stress response down. If you find these things impossible to do, then you’re trying a fall that is too stressful for you and you need to bring the challenge level down. It’s important to understand that falling tense is much more dangerous – we are far more likely to injure ourselves if we fall stiff as a board than if we fall relaxed but alert, bending our knees as we land.
5. Don’t understand the importance of soft catches in roped climbing
Many climbers have a hard time with falling because their belayer continually gives them what is called a ‘hard catch’. This is where there is not enough ‘stretch’ or movement in the system and the climber arcs into the wall at a higher speed than they would do with more of a cushioned fall. A hard catch is both less comfortable and more dangerous than having a soft catch. You can’t make much progress with falling on lead until you have a competent belayer who knows how to give you a soft catch.
6. Don’t integrate falling into ‘normal climbing’
Many climbers can do fall practice all day long but because they don’t try routes that are hard for them, they never learn to fall off ‘organically’. There are a few things you can do to bridge the gap between practice falls and natural falls. The first is you can practise falling in positions that are more natural to fall in, such as with a high foot about to go for a rock over. You can also add a movement to a fall, so you can reach up for a part of the wall before you fall. You can even create a move that you’re pretty sure you won’t do, perhaps because the hold is out of reach or the foot hold is too poor, and fall off in this way. The best thing you can do, once you’re ready, is find a really hard but otherwise comfortable route to try. Perhaps a well-bolted but physically difficult route for you. You can bring the challenge level down by clipping awkward bolts, putting the draws in first and perhaps creating more clipping points by extending some bolts with slings.
7. Make falling a chore rather than a fun endeavour
Even if you’re scared of fall practice it’s possible to make falling fun, you just need to get the challenge level right. Try to find the falls exciting if not relaxing. A really nice way to add fun is to find someone who is motivated to do the falling and have fun with it. We’ve heard of people shouting silly words like ‘dildo’ as they fall. If you can be smiling during and after a fall then you’re definitely going to unlearn that fear response.