A guide to fall practice that actually works

This thing ran long, far longer than I intended when I started writing; if you fail to read the whole thing, that’s fine. I mean, its 3500 4500 4700 4900 5000 words long for Pete’s sake! This article is meant to serve as a reference guide. If you only read the intro and then scroll down to the information that’s pertinent to your climbing, I won’t be offended. I tried to list things in order from least objective danger to the most objective danger, so naturally trad and bouldering are at the end, but they’re in here, I promise! Just keep scrolling.

We’re all familiar, to some degree, with the prevailing wisdom on fall practice, “whipper therapy” as some call it. We’ve all had friends say that you just need to “get over it” or “take the fall” as if that’s some magic cure to overcoming your fear. I’d be willing to bet you also know folks who have tried this and only come away more shaken and afraid. Some of you have attempted to coach your friends through fear on the wall, you send them up, they become afraid, you tell them to take the fall, they do it, it’s terrifying, and you’ve successfully reinforced the fact that the scary thing is scary to them. Nothing changed. You keep convincing them to take falls and every time they come away with greater and greater trepidation. When someone has a fear of falling, the problem often isn’t that they think it’s dangerous, the problem is that they feel like it’s dangerous. There’s a vast difference between the perceived danger and actual danger that’s present. If you’re reading this, you’ve likely been trained well and seen enough people climbing to know that, in most scenarios, the risk is low. Yet we’re still afraid. The feeling of fear is divorced from the level of danger present.

Taking long falls to conquer the fear does work for some people, but it doesn’t work for everyone. We need additional tools to work with fear and build a sense of comfort on the wall for everyone who wishes to develop mastery. You become what you practice. If you practice being afraid, you will become fearful. There is no need whatsoever for mental training to be frightening. Given everything we know about belays, the strength of gear, and various hard-skills involved with climbing, we know it’s possible to climb safely without risking injury. A phobia is defined as “a strong, irrational fear of something that poses little or no real danger.” Now, I’m no psychologist (I just have a tendency to peruse Wikipedia articles) and I’m not saying you have a phobia; however, insights from the processes of overcoming phobias can inform our practice regarding a fear of falling.

One tactic, known as flooding, involves taking the subject and exposing them directly to the source of the fear to push them through it. Imagine taking someone who is afraid of cars, throwing them in the passenger seat and driving around for hours until they calm down. It might work, or it might make them utterly hysterical. According to the Wikipedia article on Flooding: “This is a faster (yet less efficient and more traumatic) method of ridding fears when compared with systematic desensitization. In order to demonstrate the irrationality of the fear, a psychologist would put a person in a situation where they would face their phobia at its worst.” Flooding is the equivalent of the standard “whipper therapy” approach. Afraid of falling? Take some massive falls! Afraid of spiders? Let’s fill your bathtub with them and hop in!

Desensitization can be tailored to the individual, and this is what makes it so useful. You start by identifying which scenarios cause the most fear and slowly gain confidence with them one by one time using relaxation techniques, starting with the least frightening and working your way up. The methods I put forth in this article have worked the best for me and my own fear of falling, and I’ve used it to help many people overcome their fear. It’s less traumatic and much more efficient compared to “whipper therapy” and I’ve found it works for a much broader range of people whether it’s your first time wrestling with your mind or you’re simply recovering the mental game after an accident. As an added benefit, using this method will arm you with mental tools to better cope with fears on the wall in a general sense. Even better, it arms you with the ability to handle your fears in the moment as they occur instead of being overwhelmed. You simply can’t get that from whipper therapy.

The Big Idea:
The idea for my theories on mental training are simple: Isolate one variable at a time, then start with the easiest situation possible. Slowly increment the complexity or “extreme-ness” as you become comfortable until you feel relaxed in every climbing scenario in which you know your system is safe. My preferred relaxation technique is to stop what you’re doing, pause mid move (or while hanging on the rope) and just breathe. Focus on the breath as it comes in and out and feel your heart rate start to lower. Once it does, you may progress forward. Think Yoga, do climbing.

  1. Learn the systems well so you know how to make safety.
  2. Find a place to practice where you can implement a safe system.
  3. Find the most extreme scenario where you know that you are safe, and you feel comfortable.
  4. Move forward to a situation where you know you are safe and you feel just a little bit uncomfortable. Not extreme fear, not anything overwhelming, just a little bit of nervousness. Anywhere you find a place where your heart rate starts to increase due to stress is a good place to practice, as long as it hasn’t progressed to the point of outright fear.
  5. Practice trusting the safety system in this situation until it feels comfortable. If you start to get overwhelmed or genuinely scared, just stop. Don’t scream “take,” don’t jump off, don’t sprint up to finish the climb, just pause right where you are and start breathing slowly until you’ve reached a state of calm. Once you’ve regained calm, then you can make a decision to either continue or conclude practice for the day.
  6. Move a little further up, go back to step #4 and find a new and exciting place that makes you a little nervous and practice there until you feel fully comfortable.
  7. Repeat these steps until you instinctively feel comfortable in every situation where you know you are safe or feel you’ve made a good amount of progress for the day.
  8. Get out and enjoy some happy climbing!

Now that you’ve got a general idea, I’ll go step by step for growing comfortable on the wall for those of you who like an increased level of detail. We’ll start with toprope, then work to sport climbing, then trad climbing, and finally I’ll finish with a few tips for boulderers at the end. It’s important to remember that mental training should not be scary if you’re doing it right! If you feel overwhelmed, it’s usually best to ease off and back down to a place where you only feel a little nervous or uncomfortable. On the other hand, if a particular exercise is already comfortable for you, keep reading and push it up to the next step! Remember, though, we’re only working in safe terrain. One important note is to assess any risks or objective dangers from the ground and decide whether those risks are acceptable to you. Once you know what you’re in for and intellectually accept that it is safe, you’ve laid a solid foundation for your practice. Since we’re isolating one variable at a time, it’s better not to leave yourself assessing risk mid-climb.

It’s important to read from a variety of sources for climbing training
New to climbing (Top-rope Tips):
When you first start climbing, it’s normal not to trust the rope. Fear of heights is normal, and fear of falling is a sane quality to possess in most situations. Fortunately for those of us who have a psychological impediment that requires us to spend time high off the ground, engineers have designed some rather robust safety systems that can remove the need for fear in many climbing situations (though by no means all). Now, I can tell you all day that these ropes are strong enough to suspend my truck from the ceiling of Stone Summit, and it’s good to know that in your head, but it’s quite another thing to feel that safety instinctively and relax while climbing. Actually, that is an important point in its own right: If you go about it in the right way, climbing becomes a relaxing experience. The operative idea is that it’s a good idea to feel safe in all the places where you truly are safe. Fear makes climbing stressful and far less enjoyable. Imagine being able to relax on the wall as you do in a yoga practice (assuming you’ve ever done that), that’s the sort of payoff I’m talking about. For the following drills, it’s best to start practice on a vertical wall, we’ll get to the overhangs later.

First thing’s first, let’s prove the rope will hold:
The biggest fear at the beginning is fear of heights (at least, it was for me), and this becomes overwhelming when you find yourself with burning forearms 50’ above the floor. We’ll start a little closer to the ground. Find the easiest climb in the gym and start climbing. Picking something easy is important because the fear of falling is stressful enough already, adding the extra stress of increased difficulty will make the fear much harder to handle.

Once you get a few body lengths off the ground, call for a “take.” Now, take a deep breath, relax, and let go of the wall. Sit down on your gear and feel that it’s holding you. Now, if you’ve reached out and grabbed a hold from instinct, let go of the wall again. Just sit still and breathe until you feel somewhat relaxed while fully supported by your gear. Start climbing again and repeat this process until you instinctively feel confident the rope will hold you can begin to relax while calling for a “take” anywhere on the wall.

Note to belayers: “Take” is shorthand for “take my weight,” and it’s an active activity. Don’t just lock off the belay and stare at your climber. Pull in the slack, then lock off the rope, and sit down into the rope so you support your climber and absorb the stretch. Feeling that the rope is slack after saying “take” is far from confidence inspiring. Feeling that tension is essential when giving a proper “take.” In outdoor scenarios where climbers have to clean gear from bolted anchors, that tension is the only way the climber can know they are safely on belay. If you don’t feel that tension, unclipping from the anchor and trusting the rope is akin to playing Russian Roulette with a loaded revolver.

Next: Trusting the belay:
Now that you trust the rope for holding your weight, start climbing again. This time, pause and announce “falling” once you’ve climbed a few body-lengths. Belayers, don’t give your climber a “take,” this is supposed to be a small fall. If this made you nervous, sit and relax on the rope until your heart rate and breathing have returned to normal so you can relax a little. Continue climbing up the wall, periodically jumping/falling off. After you’ve grown comfortable with announced falls, the next step is to repeat the process with un-announced falls until you feel comfortable giving it your all, even on the most improbable moves!

Finally: Swing Falls
Up to this point, we’ve ben assuming you’re working on a vertical wall where the potential for swinging is rather small, but climbing terrain isn’t always so simple. Sometimes your anchors will be offset from the base of a route, or the wall can be overhung causing you to swing when you fall. Another reason to practice this skill is to learn which swings are safe. If you’re not yet sure, start small! Move a little to the left of the anchor and practice falling there, and then gradually move farther away to see how large of a swing you can get away with. Be careful, use your judgment, don’t engage in anything risky, and don’t be an idiot. This isn’t something to practice in the gym on a crowded night where you can smash into other climbers, or belayers, or entangle their ropes.

Keep in mind that your swing velocity is related to the angle that your rope has strayed from vertical. Because of this, it’s safer to take a swing offset from the anchor while you’re low down. In doing so you may swing further, but you’ll swing with a lower velocity than you would near the top of the route, and this gives you time to get your bearings and avoid swinging into something if you’ve made a mistake in your setup. This can be a good thing to practice at the climbing gym since they typically won’t hang a toprope anywhere you’re in danger, but you have to remember that it’s a shared space. Wildly swinging about can pose a hazard for others, not just yourself, be aware of your surroundings. Remember, the goal is to feel safe when you are safe, so don’t practice anywhere that seems dangerous outside. For swing falls, use common sense, make sure you’ve climbed higher than head-height, lest you swing around and kick people. It’s worth noting that a swift kick to the head is not a great way to introduce yourself to new climbers.

Sport Climbing:
Sport climbing can require at times that you take an actual free-fall instead of sagging onto the rope. This is a new level of engagement, so make sure you’re comfortable with toprope first. I’ve seen a few novice leaders that still didn’t trust the toprope system, so practicing falls on lead was counter-productive. They had to return to the basics. You should practice all of these drills on routes with safe, clean falls. Vertical or overhung walls with closely spaced bolts and routes that travel straight with no traverses are preferred. It might seem a little weird coming from your friendly neighborhood soloist, but this really is one of those safety-first situations. With training, it’s important to practice one variable at a time for the best effect. Since we’re working on your mental game, it’s important to remove as many variables that cause danger as possible. On that note, try to avoid any falls with swings until you’ve grown entirely comfortable with vertical falls.

Top-rope whippers:
Let’s start at the start, most folks feel comfortable jumping off the wall while close to the ground, just like you would while bouldering. Clip the first bolt while it’s still above your head and take a fall. If this is still too intimidating, begin by stacking crash-pads at the base of the wall until you feel okay enough to fall willingly. I was tremendously embarrassed the first time I decided to pull over crash pads in the gym for fall practice, but there was no need to feel self-conscious. We are not alone in this endeavor; people are very understanding about mental work! Fall here, below your first bolt, repeatedly until you instinctively feel that the rope will catch you. After each fall, rest on the ground for a moment to collect yourself (since you’re so close to the floor there’s little point in hanging in your harness, it’s just not terribly comfortable). Don’t repeat the exercise until you have returned to a state of calm. Once you’re comfortable falling at the first bolt, move up to the second bolt, and the third, and so on until you feel comfortable performing this exercise anywhere on the wall.

Small Falls:
Up to this point, you were essentially on top-rope since the bolts were clipped above your head, but now we’ll begin taking actual falls, albeit short ones. Climb to the third or fourth bolt (we want to be clear of any ground level obstacles, such as your belayer’s cranium), and take a fall once your knot is level with the bolt. Pause, breathe, collect yourself, and let go. After the fall, pause, breathe, collect yourself, and continue. Relax as much as you can between repetitions. Repeat the fall at each bolt until it feels comfortable and “normal,” then move up to the next bolt and so on until you feel comfortable falling anywhere on the wall. At first you may need to announce your falls to feel more secure, I know I sure did, but the key is to practice this until you feel comfortable taking those falls without any warning. Once you’ve mastered that, move on to the next step!

Whipper Therapy!
I know I’m always talking bad about taking whippers (longer falls) for mental training, decrying the practice as counter-productive, but it truly IS part of the process. The problem is that it’s a very poor place to begin the process, and some folks mistake it for being the entire process. However, now that you’ve felt successful with drills listed above, we’re ready for some rather conventional fall-practice!

Again, climb to the third or fourth bolt to be clear of any obstacles. Climb until your knot is 12 inches above the bolt, take a breath, try to stay calm, take a practice fall. As with prior drills, repeat this fall until you feel calm, and move up to the next bolt. After some time, you’ll likely become comfortable with these short falls, and you can begin moving even further above the bolt. Good benchmarks I’ve found for indoor fall practice are falling 12 inches (one foot) above your bolt, falling with the bolt at knee level, falling with the bolt at foot level, and falling with your knot near the next bolt. That last suggestion represents the “worst case scenario” at your local gym, if you can feel confident with this then you can feel comfortable anywhere on the wall!

One last note:
Now, the difference between indoor and outdoor climbing represents a sharp break for some, so it’s entirely possible that you still find yourself feeling fear outside. If that’s the case, perform a little bit of fall practice during your warm up at the crag each day to build your instincts for outdoors climbing as well! Performing these drills during the warmup has always been particularly effective because it won’t cut into your “climbing time” when you’re itching to send, and it will avoid straining too hard thus increasing the effectiveness of your warm up!

Trad is Rad!
Cams and nuts have been designed and engineered as units for fall protection. That means they have been specially created for the purpose of catching falling humans when they are used properly. Today I’m not going to tell you how to use them properly, that could be the subject of an entire book. Actually, it is the subject of an entire book. GO, READ THAT BOOK! Even if you don’t climb trad. If you climb outside in any capacity, read this book. It is an excellent primer in the fine art of not-killing-yourself. And then, once you’ve read that book, read the trad climber’s bible. Those books just might save your life, if you let them.

Trad is a touch more complicated than sport, there are no pre-placed bolts or anchors to designate your stopping points, so naturally staying safe will depend on your abilities of risk-assessment and your competency with gear placements. Again, we want to practice on a vertical or slightly overhung climb that is relatively straight with minimal traverses. You should be completely comfortable with all of the sport-climbing fall-drills before starting this section and very competent with your gear placements. If you are not competent with your gear placements, bring a friend who is. And then read “Climbing Anchors” by John Long. Actually, on second thought, read that book before you practice. Yes, I hot-linked his book four separate times, its that important.

This crap is voodoo magic, and I don’t trust it one damn bit!
I think that could be a good title for my autobiography. “This crap is voodoo magic, and I don’t trust it one damn bit: The Austin Howell Story.” Now all I have to do is go out and do something exciting that’s worth writing about! This could take a while….

I mean, just look at a cam. It looks like a death metal band’s interpretation of a mushroom. It’s not inherently obvious that it will save you from the grip of gravity. So it’s usually best to start over at the very beginning, much like the first-time climber who doesn’t trust the rope, we have to learn that a new piece of gear can be trusted. To a certain extent. When used properly. *cough* Have you read that book yet? (it’s linked five times now, you have no excuse.)

“Take!”
Once you’ve found an appropriate route, lead about half-way up placing gear with a “normal” safe spacing. If you don’t trust your gear, send your qualified friend up to build a two-piece anchor at the half-way point, or somewhere where you can fall safely, then climb up, clip the anchor, and place one piece of your own just a few inches above the mini-anchor. This is your practice station. One benefit of having a friend build your mini-anchor while you’re placing the cams for fall practice is that it will allow you to develop trust in your own placements while knowing that something solid is in the wall in case you screw up. On the other hand, if you DO trust your own judgment and are quite competent with your placements, it’s best to build your own practice station.

Now, try to relax and call for a “take.” Pull onto the wall and inspect your gear to make sure it hasn’t wiggled into a poor placement, if everything looks good call for another “take,” repeat this process until you feel comfortable letting the cam hold your weight, and you instinctively feel confident that your gear will hold. If this is too frightening, bring extra gear and start cramming pieces in the wall until it finally feels safe. I once performed this drill with a two-piece equalized anchor and six additional pieces. Eight pieces total in a 4-foot long span, with a decent sized audience since it was a busy day at the crag. Hey, everybody has to start somewhere right?

One critical point:
After every time you weight your gear you really should inspect your placements to make sure they are still solid. Trad gear tends to wiggle when weighted, repeated falls can wiggle your pieces out of the wall. This is why we have at least one backup piece, just in case. It’s better to have it and not need it than to encourage gear failure.

Fall Progression:
Return to your practice station, and practice each of these scenarios until you grow comfortable with them:

  1. Announced falls, below your highest piece. Just like “toprope whippers” in the sport climbing section.
  2. Unannounced falls, below your highest piece.
  3. Unannounced falls, 12 inches above your piece. Just like the “small falls” drill in the sport climbing section
  4. Un-announced falls, with the gear at knee level.
  5. Un-announced falls, with the gear at foot-level.

Practice each of these until you feel comfortable with the fall at this particular practice station.

The next steps:
Eventually, you want to develop enough understanding of the gear to build your own practice station, and then to build enough confidence to reduce the size of your practice station to only two or three pieces. We want to get comfortable with the knowledge that our gear will hold WITHOUT sacrificing safety by removing too many pieces from the system. How few is too few? That’s a personal judgment call, all I can say is make sure John Long would approve of your anchor system, and you’ll probably be alright. Once you’ve got a small and sleek practice station, the final step is to start practicing in other places with more exciting terrain. Experiment, keep it lively but keep it safe. You want to gain experiential knowledge of when and where it is actually safe to fall, and not split your cranium on an upward-facing guillotine flake.

Um…. this is how bouldering works, right? Photo Cred: Stephanie Harabaglia

Decking Practice Bouldering Practice:
This is tricky. Every fall while bouldering is a ground-fall, so we must be careful. If you have a particular boulder problem that you want to send, but fear is shutting you down, it is possible to carefully and systematically work on this fear. The crux of the issue is this: Are you safe?

Start at the beginning and consider what would happen if you fell off. Does it feel safe? Are you okay falling while attempting the move? Even better, look from the ground up and decide how high you’re willing to go. Once you know what will be safe, we can establish a zone for practice. Once your toes are a foot or two off the ground, jump back down to the pad. Then do the same one move higher. Now another move higher. Slowly practice inching your way higher and higher, stop as soon as you feel unsafe. The key is to feel safe falling in all the places where you are not in danger but to do that you have to familiarize yourself with falling to use proper technique. It helps to ask folks how to fall properly; it helps to practice short falls an attempt to make them as comfortable as possible. Start in the gym with a well-padded floor. Take special care if you’ve had ankle or leg injuries, you don’t’ want to make them worse.

Just like our practice sessions for the other disciplines of climbing, you want to practice each fall multiple times so that you feel comfortable with it. If you can’t get comfortable with the fall, that’s an indicator that you may be pushing too far above the ground, and you’re getting a little too close to the danger zone. For bouldering practice, I feel it’s of particular importance to have external supervision from someone you trust. Since every fall is a ground fall, it’s important to take extreme caution. Sometimes you are right to be afraid of falling. Bouldering is always an exercise in proper judgment.

Calm climbing is safe climbing:
Terrified climbing isn’t fun climbing. Terrified climbing isn’t safe climbing. When you’re frightened, it’s easy to make hasty reactionary decisions that can put you in danger. I know a climber who shouted “take” while he was above a nut placed for a downward pull. Since he was above the piece, the tension on his rope pulled the gear sideways and ripped it out of the crack. He decked from thirty feet. Luckily he only needed staples in his head and was able to walk out. I knew a climber who called take while sport climbing above his bolt, the weight of the belayer slammed him into the wall. He smashed into the wall with such force that he compound-fractured his leg. Once the doctors installed a sufficient number of screws and pins he was able to walk, but never quite could climb again. In either of these situations, the climbers would have been safe and injury-free had they just taken the fall, but fear clouded their decisions and ended their climbing day, or climbing career.

Controlling your fear is essential to being safe, and essential to having good fun on the wall. That’s why I’ve been writing these articles lately. I see a lot of climbers struggling with fears on the wall, they read books and posts on the Internet and come away scratching their head confused trying advice that’s ineffective or that makes their problems worse. All you have to do is start small and live in your discomfort zone for a little while to chip away at your fear from the sides until it’s small enough to handle!

You don’t have to take me at my word, though, try it! If it doesn’t work, you can come back, throw a drink in my face and call me a liar. What do you have to lose? All of these exercises are designed to fit in your warmup, so it’s not like you’re missing out on hard sends or time spent on your project. I’m confident in these methods because I’ve seen them work. I’ve got this idea that climbing doesn’t have to be scary; it can be comfortable and relaxing!

One thing that became apparent to me as I recovered from my injuries was the amount of habits that filled my life that I couldn’t justify. If you can’t find a reason for your habits, perhaps they aren’t doing anyone any good? And what kind of life is that? I’ve questioned why I bother to keep up this blog a few times over the past year and questioned why I would continue to do so. In the end, I decided that a post is worth writing and publishing as long as it has a chance to be helpful to someone. For me, the best things in life come from helping others to accomplish their goals and have fun. It’s all about spreading that Good Mojo! If that’s not a good reason to write, I don’t know what is, so here’s hoping this advice helps you as much as it did me! And maybe, just maybe, together we can lead a paradigm shift in the accepted methods for overcoming our fears and find peace on the wall!

Cheers, and Happy Climbing!
Austin Howell – Atlanta Climbing Coach

“Always pass on what you have learned” – Yoda

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10 thoughts on “A guide to fall practice that actually works”

  1. Thank you so much for this very informative post! Someone shared it in a Dutch climbing Facebook group and I’m sure that it is very helpful for a lot of people.

    I have struggled with falling before and have overcome it by climbing a lot and getting used to being in the wall, but I’m sure that this guide would have helped me back then.

    I’m bookmarking your post in case I can help anyone by sending it to them. So thank you!

    1. Thanks for the kind words! One of the guys who follows my Facebook page (Facebook.com/freesoloist) shared the article, amazingly I now have more views in The Netherlands than here in the US

      I’ve had to overcome the fear of falling a fair number of times due to unfortunate injuries and such, and ironically folks would come up and ask me for fall-practice advice since I’m a soloist. Friends asked me often enough how to train this aspect of mental fitness that I decided to really think hard about what is so different about my methods and word it in a way to be informative to others. I’m glad you found it useful!

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