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Overcome Your Fear of Falling: Part 2—Falling is a Skill

When we practice falling, we’re practicing a physical skill, but we’re also addressing fear and how the mind uses attention, which are mental-training issues.

Get hands-on learning straight from Arno Ilgner in Climbing’s online video-course series Overcome Your Fear of Falling. Being afraid to fall is hardwired into every climber, but in this comprehensive course Ilgner gives specific drills to push past this evolutionary limitation.  Sign up now, learn from home, and climb your level best.

Falling is a skill you can learn. Do you agree? If so, why? Or do you disagree, and feel more that when you fall you can’t do anything to influence the situation—and thus there’s nothing to practice? This is an important point to clarify. Your practice will not be effective until you decide that you have agency in the falling process.

When we practice falling, we’re practicing a physical skill, but we’re also addressing fear and how the mind uses attention, which are mental-training issues. The mind thinks and then the body acts. Thus, we need to be very wary of how the mind thinks so we can engage the body well and fall skillfully, diminishing the chances of injury. It’s just like any other skill in climbing that needs to be practiced and learned.

For example, it makes sense to us as climbers to focus on regimented drills and the quality of effort when doing hang-board or campus-board training. For such physical drills, we approach them systematically, break them down into smaller parts, and pay attention to the quality of our efforts. We practice each part and then slowly build them back together into a unified whole. The focus while training has little to do with actual climbing. Instead, it’s to dig deeper into the skill, to its essential elements, in order to improve them and be ready to put them back together again into something that can then be applied in actual climbing situations.

This is what we do with falling. We look for the constituent parts, including what we’re doing with the body, such as our breath, body posture, and eye focus. By knowing the specifics of what we do with each part, we can pay attention to and refine each part in order to unite them later into a streamlined whole—that is, falling skillfully.

Another important aspect of practicing falling is the belayer. Years ago, I was teaching two young girls from Canada at the Red River Gorge in Kentucky. They were both about 15 years old, and did great together, falling and catching each other’s falls. Then they went back home to Toronto, excited to continue their practice. However, one girl partnered with another climber, fell, and broke her ankle. Her belayer was heavier and didn’t give her the necessary amount of cushion to ease her impact into the wall. This accident happened because she focused only on what she was doing to fall well, and had failed to consider just how critical the belayer’s role is.

Climbing is a team effort. Especially in falling, we practice as a team and learn together. Learning how to train your belayer is critically important for keeping you safe during falling practice and during climbing itself. You’ll be climbing with a number of partners, and it’ll be important to train each one of them before trusting that they know what they’re doing. Don’t feel guilty if you don’t trust them. They hold your life in their hands. Test them and train them, then trust them.

Go to Part 3,  Understand Your Fear

These lessons are taken from the recent online course I did with Climbing Magazine: Overcome Your Fear of Falling Here’s the outline for this series of lessons:

  1. Introduction and history
  2. Falling is a skill
  3. Understand your fear
  4. Know your motivation
  5. Incremental skill-building
  6. Skills and drills
  7. Conclusion and ongoing practice