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Overcome Your Fear of Falling: Part 5—Incremental Skill Building

This lesson builds on everything you've learned by outlining components for building your falling skill incrementally.

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.

Thus far, I’ve given you some history on falling, ropes, and the evolution of climbing as a sport. Unlike years ago, now you can embrace falling as a part of your climbing experience. We’ve also investigated falling as a skill, your fears, and your motivation. In this lesson, we’ll build on everything we’ve learned by outlining components for building your falling skill incrementally.

You need to lay the groundwork or foundation for how you’ll practice. This includes several components:

  • Introduce a little stress at a time: By now, this should seem reasonable to you. Learning is converting stress into comfort. You can only process a little stress at any given time.
  • Use comfort as a gauge for progressing: This may seem like a foreign concept to you. Falling is stressful, yet we use comfort as a gauge? Yes, remember point number one: Learning is converting stress to comfort, so tune into how comfortable you are while you practice.
  • Know what to pay attention to: Your mind may be pushing you to get the fall over with, thus distracting your attention from what’s actually happening during the fall. Don’t let your mind trick you this way. Rather, decide to pay attention during the fall so you can tweak the subtleties of how you’re practicing, and learn the skill well. Falling means your body is engaged, so we identify specific parts of the body we need to pay attention to: breathing, eye shift, and body position/posture.
  • Know what you can and can’t control: In a fall, there are very few things you can control and lots of things you can’t. Basically, you can only control yourself, so focus on that to gain control during the fall.

It’s important to practice on realistic terrain. I’ve contacted gyms all over the world as I’ve traveled to teach falling. I need to know if they have appropriate walls for practicing falling before scheduling clinics with them. Sometimes they’re eager to share that they have walls that are “perfect” for falling: very overhanging; you’ll just fall into space. Then I have to correct their misperceptions.

Falling into space, without dealing with the impact, doesn’t represent the angle of most rock climbs. Most climbers operate in the 5.9–5.11 range where the rock tends to be off-vertical: slightly slabby, vertical, or slightly overhanging, about 5–10 degrees from the 90-degree plane. All these off-vertical scenarios cause us to impact the wall when we fall. So, it’s important to select and use off-vertical walls to practice falling.

Begin your practice with an off-vertical wall that has no physical obstacles like ledges or gym volumes. You want to make the impact as safe as possible when you first begin to practice. Any unknowns—like obstacles—create stress and fear, distract attention, and diminish the quality of your practice.

Next, pick falls that have small obstacles, like a small ledge. You can begin by simply hanging on toprope at the ledge and practice pushing out and impacting it. Then, take short toprope falls onto the ledge. Gradually, with practice, you’ll begin to perceive the ledge as an obstacle you can actually negotiate, not one to be avoided. Other obstacle-type falls include pendulums and falling in dihedrals, on arêtes, over roofs, over large ledges, and on slabs.

So, change how you view obstacles based on how much experience you have falling in such situations. Something you may have considered a “no-fall” situation in the past may now be OK, and provoke little or no fear in terms of falling consequences.

In the next lesson, we’ll dig into skills and drills.

Go to Part 6,  Skills and Drills

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