Learning to relax: a short guide to fall practice for climbers

I’ve been coaching climbers for about a year now in my capacities as Mojo Personal Training, but I’ve been coaching folks in how to fall for much, much longer than that. I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty of why these methods work today, that’ll come next time! At the moment,  I want to give you a short, concise guide for implementing drills to overcome your fears on the wall and have more fun while you’re climbing!

Falling

Getting Started
This is a drill to be practiced in safety. After all, it would be completely right and natural to feel afraid if you were in physical danger. So the first and most important thing is to pick a climb where you know all of the possible falls are safe.

One note: when I taught lead-climbing at my university gym, we taught that the first three bolts were essentially the “no fall” zone. If you fall on the way to the first bolt, you will hit the ground. If you fall on the way to the second bolt, you will risk hitting your belayer in a fall. If you fell while trying to clip the second bolt, you risk hitting the ground… and finally, if you fall while clipping the third bolt, there’s a chance that you’d hit your belayer.

These are the kinds of things you want to think about when selecting a practice climb, you want to think about the “what ifs” for falling at each bolt, and when you’re clipping the next bolt. Because of that “no fall zone” it’s usually not a very good idea to practice falling when you are low on a route. It wouldn’t be comfortable anyhow, because there isn’t much rope in the system to absorb your fall force.

Whoops!

Scout the route from the ground, assess what can happen if you fall off the various positions on the climb, and make sure you have a range where you can practice falling safely. It’s usually possible to do this for most climbs from the ground, and that takes a lot of pressure off of you during the climb. If you’ve decided that you are safe while your feet were on the ground, you don’t have to worry about it on the way up.

How to practice falls

  1. Climb to a zone on your route that you have identified as “safe.”
  2. Prepare to fall, and note your anxiety level on a scale of 1-10
  3. If your anxiety is above a 4, then down-climb a move or two until it is only a 4/10
  4. If your anxiety over the thought of falling is only a 3 or lower, climb a move or two higher!
  5. Once you’ve found the sweet spot where your fear is at a manageable level of a 4/10, go ahead and take the fall

    *Note: at one point in my climbing career, I was so frightened that I had to downclimb below my clip and take a fall on pseudo top-rope to control my fear. Everybody starts somewhere, don’t force it too hard!

  6. Once the fall is completed, take a moment to relax until your anxiety reaches a 1 or 2/10.
  7. Climb back to the same place you fell before, and take the fall again.
  8. If your anxiety level for that fall is still moderately high at a 3 or 4/10, then repeat that fall until both your pre-fall and post-fall anxiety levels drop to only a 1 or 2
  9. Once you’ve mastered your mind on falling from this position, try climbing a move or two higher and repeating the drill.
  10. Only practice between 3-6 falls per attempt. Your mind needs time to relax and assimilate what it has learned.
  11. I’ll usually only perform one or two rounds of fall practice on a given day, which means between 3-12 falls. Anything beyond that seems to have diminishing returns. If you keep going for too long, it just tires out your brain and isn’t as beneficial, so you’d be better off getting some proper climbing done instead of additional practice!

Through repeated practice sessions, you’ll find yourself moving a few inches or a few feet higher every day. In the future, if you have a project which has a fall that is scary, you can repeat the same process to grow accustomed to falling where it no longer causes anxiety. If you do this even just once every session during your warm up, you’ll find yourself overcoming your fears rapidly.

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For Trad Climbers:
You can perform the same drill, but if your anxiety is high (as mine was when I started), you might need to build an anchor in the middle of the route, and then take pseudo toprope falls below that anchor before moving to fall practice. Personal note: I was so afraid at first, that simply calling for a *take* on my own gear was enough to bring me to a 5/10 anxiety level and I had to practice there for my first session.

I started small but eventually was able to move on to taking proper lengthy whippers on my gear, and even grew comfortable with falling on try-hard onsight attempts. It just takes a little time, and if you do this on your daily warmup, then you’ll still have a full day of real climbing ahead of you, and now you’ll be more productive due to lowered anxiety!

Final Notes:
Brains are amazing, they learn very well, and climbing does not have to be terrifying. If you practice it right, climbing can become a path to peace that helps you relax and handle the stress of your daily life. But the first step is to build trust in your belay system. Knowing that you are safe is one thing, but I want you to feel it, deep down inside at an instinctive level.

Happy Climbing my friends!

This thing is hard.... why am I up here?
This thing is hard…. why am I up here?
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3 thoughts on “Learning to relax: a short guide to fall practice for climbers”

  1. Good evening! This is kind of off subject but I would like some guidance from a recognised blog. Is this tough to put together your personal blog? I’m not so techincal but I’m able to figure issues out pretty quick. I’m thinking of setting up my own, personal but I’m unclear how to start. Do you might have any ideas or tips? Thanks

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