About This Article
A fear of falling on the lead is what stops so many people from being able to climb naturally, fluidly and to their fullest potential when they are above their last piece of protection.
There is a wealth of existing information out there and I will make the assumption that a great many people who are reading this article have already worked their way through a few useful articles or swapped tips with friends, and they have most likely tried at least a little falling practice and know that they should do more.
In it’s most simple format, falling practice involves taking as many safe falls in as many different contexts until we become familiar enough with falling so that it no longer impacts our climbing by creating additional stress, robbing us of our concentration and inhibiting our performance. This can take thousands of falls, not tens, or hundreds.
In this article I want to cover some of the untouched and unspoken areas that will help you to feel confident about falling off and letting go. This article is focusing on sport climbing and on the occasions when it is safe to fall, as opposed to on trad climbs or on particularly long run outs.
If you are at all uncertain about falling on the lead or haven’t experienced it yet then I would strongly advise that you first seek some formal lessons from a professional climbing instructor or coach. They should be able to show you the standard best practice and introduce all the good habits and experiences from the outset.
Expect to feel scared
Firstly. Apprehension about falling is perfectly natural. A famous experiment called “The visual cliff” demonstrated that we are aware of the danger of falling even at our infancy.
Secondly falling, as opposed to climbing, is often difficult for the ego to manage as the feeling of completion and perfection is so often about reaching the top or the ‘end’. Falling therefore does not give us the same satisfying sense of completion. It is also common to want others to think well of us, and falling in public can feel damaging to our reputation. See my article on climbing and social fears for more information about peer pressure and how it affects us.
Expect to experience feelings of fear and uncertainty in your journey. Everybody does. You will find that a part of you will try and convince you that you are fine with where you are already, that other people don’t get scared (everybody gets scared even the pros) or that you should just give yourself an easy time. This part of you is sneaky and still believes that fear is a weakness. Don’t let it win.
Expect to feel frustrated
The journey is always longer than you think.
At times you will imagine you’re getting worse not better. You will find (incorrect) evidence that people are progressing quicker than you. You will often find yourself wishing you were better than you currently are. You might decide that you are “back at square one”. You can see no evidence of improvement.
All of this is a fallacy. Stick with the plan, recognise that the journey is long and every effort you put in is pointing you in the right direction.
If you have decided to take the leap and begin fall practice then be sure to congratulate yourself and make sure that you are kind to yourself.
Because of our social upbringing it is hard to escape being shamed for being scared. It is common in our society for people, especially children, to be told that being fearful is a sign of weakness. “Don’t be such a baby” “Man up” “Boys don’t cry” “Coward” “Be strong” “Grow a pair” “Pussy” “Weak” “A wreck” “Stupid” “Wimp” “Girl”.
Fear is simply an emotion like happiness, sadness, surprise, boredom or trust. Fear is a signal that something is challenging you in some way. It doesn’t have to come with a judgement about who you are.
Practice self compassion. When you feel more scared than you expected, or when you hesitate or shake or retreat or feel like you’re not making progress, don’t beat yourself up about it. Don’t repeat the name calling you absorbed throughout your childhood. Be kind to yourself. Recognise you are trying and that you are experiencing a personal challenge and then treat yourself in the same way that a truly lovely friend would treat you.
I can guarantee that the journey will be longer and bumpier than you expect and you will almost certainly feel fright and frustration along the way. Eventually you will make friends with that feeling, it will become more familiar and you may begin to call it anticipation, curiosity or excitement.
A major barrier to carrying out our goals is not really starting them in the first place. Don’t hide your intent. Make yourself accountable and let a caring friend know your plan. Give yourself some simple and easy steps and attach a no-excuses number to it. Ie 20 falls. Write it on paper with a tick box if you have to. Be sure to set some short, mid and long term goals down and make them accountable. If you go off the rails halfway through then rather than give up, go back to self-compassion and then re-evaluate your goals based on your current situation.
The soft Catch
A soft catch is when the energy of the fall is absorbed into the rope and belayer, a bit like landing on a giant air bag.
The soft catch is the golden nugget of making falling pleasant. Receiving a soft catch takes the edge and violence out of any fall and can turn it into something that is surprisingly gentle. To get comfortable with falling it is essential that you know you will experience soft catches whenever they are possible.
Giving a soft catch takes more work and experience than most people give it credit for, and indeed it is often misunderstood. It is also common for people to overrate their own ability in providing one. It really is a skill that can be worked and developed over years. A belayer who will consistently give you the perfect soft catch is truly worth their weight in gold.
If you would like to learn how to give or experience a soft catch then seek out a reputable and experienced climbing instructor or coach and it will be money very well invested. The lesson alone won’t be enough to make you or your partner the guru of giving a soft catch, it is a skill just like climbing that takes constant ongoing practice and feedback to improve.
After the soft catch comes some further advanced skills such as “giving boosts” and “boinging”. If both you and your partner keep developing all of these skills, falling off becomes a much more efficient and comfortable process for everyone involved.
When it comes to taking on new skills, consider how your classroom needs to be for you to learn the best. You will need somewhere that doesn’t provide you with any unnecessary stressors as these will rob you of your attention. If you are overwhelmed by crowds or loud noises then choosing the peak time at your local climbing wall won’t be helpful. If Exposure really hits you hard then choosing a windy day at a big scary crag won’t be as useful. Bear in mind that you will also require access to suitable routes that are right for you, plan to visit when these routes are most likely to be free.
As your confidence increases and your skills improve then it will be time to add in additional stress and anxiety by practising in new and unusual environments.
It Takes Two Baby
To fall off requires two people; the climber and the belayer. It is very easy to underestimate the relationship between these two people. A healthy partnership is safe and encouraging and allows others to push their boundaries without fear, an unhealthy one can be quite the opposite.
I have worked with many climbers who have had difficult or damaging relationships with belayers in the past. If your past belayer has shouted at you, slammed you (by providing a hard catch) or not been supportive towards your goals or time on the rock, or if they believe that falling off is dangerous or reckless or a sign of failure, then it is little wonder that any sessions practising falls have been stressful. If this is all you have ever experienced then it can take quite a bit of time to recognise that it is possible to be in a climbing relationship with someone who has all the skills to allow you to flourish.
It can be even more difficult if your belay partner is also your life partner/lover as it is easy to let unresolved or unknown conflicts play out during climbing sessions and these conflicts can get in the way of clear communication.
It is easy as a climber to think that your fear of falling is entirely down to you and in many ways it is; however climbing is one of those rare examples in life where some of the attention can be shifted onto the other person. After all they are literally responsible for your life whilst you climb and this is a fact that your unconscious mind is all too aware of.
How is your partnership? Do you worry that you are wasting your partner’s time? that they don’t support your fall practice? that they’ll criticise you? that they will give you a bad catch? Do you find it difficult to voice your opinion or break from the status quo? Do both you and your partner never fall, only take tiny falls, or only the occasional ‘unexpected’ fall? If the answer is yes to any of these then perhaps your partnership needs to be reexamined.
Occasionally climbers and belayers both need some additional training to ensure that they can let go of old habits. A little like relationship counselling it can also come down to having open conversations and learning to make some requests and setting some clear boundaries. Ultimately to make a change in a partnership both people need to be open and willing to new ideas. It takes two to tango.
See also my blog on climbing partnerships to explore this subject a little bit deeper.
A little bit about the unconscious mind
The reason why there is no piece of knowledge out there that will transform your climbing instantly is because learning to not be afraid doesn’t happen by using logic and conscious thought, it happens when the unconscious mind learns that it is safe.
Our unconscious mind is a little like a bodyguard. It knows intuitively what is safe and what is dangerous. Unfortunately it’s intuitions aren’t always accurate, and some of its rule book is still based on primal instincts. It initially struggles to recognise that a rope will catch us if we fall and it has a hard time differentiating between things that are real or imagined. It can also be quite cautious about things it hasn’t experienced before.
How do we teach our unconscious mind that falling is okay? It has to have the space and time to allow it to find it out for itself. It isn’t all that interested in logical reasoning and well intended advice, it learns from symbolism, repetition experiences and imagination…..
What is your common falling fear? We all have one. Mine is flipping upside down and banging my head or body.
Visualisation is a hugely powerful technique that is used by sports professionals the world over. They use it because the imagination is a hugely powerful tool in teaching the unconscious mind some profound new lessons because it struggles to know the difference between imagination and reality. Visualising an ideal version of what we’d like to accomplish provides us with familiarity and teaches us how to achieve what we’d like.
Back to your fear. How many times have you played it? Probably countless more than you are aware. It may only be half a second long, or a snapshot complete with sound. Whatever it is, this is a visualisation that is telling your unconscious that something bad is about to happen. Considering the unconscious mind doesn’t pay much attention to the difference between imagination and reality is it any wonder that it gets highly protective before you start a climb?
Visualising something more productive requires making a conscious decision and then needs effort and practice to pull it off. This can be done simply closing by closing your eyes and imagining what you would like to experience instead. There are some really cool and powerful coaching techniques that exist to replace old visualisations and install new ones.
Here is a video I made with Psyched Climbing about preparing to get on a climb.
Take time to reflect
After falling off it is very tempting to pull straight back onto the route. Resist this temptation, this is your ego reacting out of fear, frustration or anger. The fall has already happened, accept it.
Time spent hanging in space is highly valuable as it allows your unconscious mind to process all the data of what you just experienced, and it can learn to recognise that what just happened was safe, even if it felt unpleasant, frustrating or embarrassing. It can take a little bit of time to compartmentalise the experience and take all the necessary lessons required and so don’t bombard it with new information and confusing behaviours. Give yourself 2 minutes just to breathe deeply and calm yourself down and let your unconscious mind do its job in peace.
Once you have finished, check out what is going on with your emotions and how you recognise them. Is your heart pumping? are you sweating? If 1 is totally calm and 10 is absolute panic then what number are you? And how do you recognise that? Is it something you feel in your body, or something you see or hear? If you’re higher than 6 don’t get back on the wall until you know the number is lower.
By taking your time to reflect in this way you can become more aware of your body and emotions and you can develop a literacy and understanding of what is going on. But more importantly just under the surface your unconscious is making sense of it all in its own unique way, and learning that falling is okay, even if it’s a little exhilarating.
Resist the temptation to let fear, adrenaline and your ego make you pull back on and stubbornly refuse to acknowledge what just happened. Fall off, dangle and sit with it for a while.
Climbing is an activity that toys with stress, and part of what makes it so fascinating is how we use the stress to learn and focus, and also how we use and develop tools to manage and release stress intermittently throughout our climbing.
Our emotions and our level of stress fluctuate day to day moment by moment. If we were to chart a path of our desired emotional progress in climbing we would like to see a straight line pointing upwards towards tranquillity and confidence. In reality it looks a little more like a roller coaster. Our lifestyles, diet and our consciousness mean that we are always changing.
“No man ever steps in the same river twice for he is not the same man and it is not the same river” – Heraclitus
At certain points in our lives we will carry more stress than is useful for us, and climbing or the fear of falling will put us into a state of overwhelm. When we reach this state, we will no longer be creating positive or healthy experiences for us to learn from.
Here is a video that provides a useful analogy:
Note: I would argue that we absolutely can change the size of our bucket, it is only a metaphor after all.
Recognise the signs and symptoms that you know your bucket is on the brim or spilling over, and try to avoid the trap of intellectualising about what events happened to cause the stress, this often puts us in a cycle of trying to change things that are beyond our immediate control. What strategies can you use now that can healthily release stress? Are these ones you can use even when at the climbing wall? Arriving at the wall with the least amount of stress possible allows for you to practice, train and try hard all of which are going to incrementally fill up the bucket. If you arrive and it is already full, make sure you are aware of this and adjust your goals accordingly.
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Tom Powell is a Wellbeing Coach and climbing coach. He works with people to help them to find their calm so that they can take ownership of situations and of their path through life. Tom lives in Bristol, and delivers coaching sessions in person, and also online, he also is a dedicated coach towards the mental performance of Rock Climbers.