Bouldering: Conquer Your Fear of Falling with this Method


The fear of falling when bouldering can be embarrassing for some people, but it can also be the only thing holding them back from reaching the next level. I have struggled from the fear of falling myself, and still do on particularly high or daunting climbs. I took steps to overcome my fear by reading up on the psychology behind the fear of falling (aka basophobia) and the fear of heights (aka acrophobia). I also read up on what I should do to improve my confidence on the climbing wall.

When I was at the climbing gym yesterday something happened which spurred me on to write this article. I was standing on a very busy bouldering mat while resting from my last climb. I watched as a group of college students in their early 20s were looking on at their friend who was climbing on a particular part of the wall. At around 2 meters up the girl climbing didn’t want to climb any higher, but a couple of seconds later she also realised she didn’t know how to get down, nor did she want to jump because she was too afraid. Some people thought this was funny, but I didn’t. You can imagine this exact scenario happening in a bad dream: being half way up a bouldering wall as your supposed friends laugh at you because you fear the drop below. The fear of falling is normal for many people, but if you want to start climbing you’re going to have to learn to conquer that fear. There are some people who I know that STARTED climbing to conquer their fear of falling.

So, how do you overcome the fear of falling when you’re bouldering? It’s a cliché but to overcome a phobia, you have put yourself in the situation you fear. If you fear being too high up, you need to experience that feeling and learn how to fall (and how not to fall) from that high up onto a climbing mat. You should, however, do this in baby steps, don’t climb as high as possible straight away. You will never grow as a climber if you don’t become comfortable in uncomfortable situations. The higher you climb and fall, the more confident you will be about climbing higher and higher.

Read on for more detailed information and steps to overcome your fear of falling from a climbing wall, and to help your confidence grow as you climb up a bouldering wall.

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Method to Overcome Your Fear of Falling when Bouldering

In your mind you’re going to want to stay away from that climbing wall as much as possible if it means you might you’re going to be on average around 3 meters higher than the floor. But that’s not what you should do! According to the best psychologists, introducing yourself into the presence of your phobia is the best thing to do, however they also say this should be done in baby steps. It can actually be a hindrance on your phobia if you go too hard too soon. The method I’ve used may or may not work for you – it may not totally rid you of your fear but may help in some way.

So the way I got through my fear was by using a method that introduced me into the environment in small steps. You can overcome the fear of falling when bouldering by following these steps:

  • Learn how to fall off a climbing wall from one of the sub-headings below. You should try to practice the method of “How to Fall Off a Climbing Wall” below many times before you attempt to conquer your fear of falling with the method mentioned here.
  • Climb up the wall until the first point that you feel that you’re slightly afraid. It should be below 3 meters.
  • Fall from that height using the fall method in one of the sub-headings below (don’t forget to read to keep reading after that as well for a sub-heading that includes what you shouldn’t do when falling).
  • Hopefully you’ll feel a bit better about falling from that height. Repeat this process again and if you still become afraid in the same spot you were afraid of before, keep falling from there until you feel more confident.
  • Keep doing this until you reach a maximum of around 3 meters. You don’t really want to fall from a height above that over and over again.
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Using this method you should be able to acquire this amount of confidence, because you’ll slowly establish a subconscious connection with yourself that falling from a certain height onto a climbing mat isn’t actually that bad.

The Psychology Behind the Fear of Falling

It’s perfectly normal for a human being to be scared of falling from a large height. It’s instinct to be afraid of falling due to the risk it imposes on our bodies, however it’s quite obvious that compared to falling from a great height onto concrete that falling from a climbing wall onto a soft mat isn’t that dangerous. But still there are people (including myself at one point) that have an internal battle about how safe it is to be 4 meters above ground on a climbing wall. This is usually due to two things: lack of confidence, or an experience that’s happened in the past to do with heights. For me it was a lack of confidence. Although there were padded mats underneath, I felt quite scared of the fall below.

Some people can get panic attacks just thinking about being at a certain height off a wall because they have an extreme fear of heights that is quite irrational in reality. If this is you, you might have the right idea by trying out bouldering because it could be the perfect thing to help you overcome this problem. Panic attacks, sweating, heart rate increase, shortness of breath, shaking and cottonmouth can all happen if you’re afraid of being high up the climbing wall and you’re about to start climbing. This is due to your fight or flight response which is a reaction cause by your sympathetic nervous system. The best way to overcome this is to prove to your mind that there’s nothing to worry about.

How to Fall Off a Climbing Wall

Falling off a climbing wall can be dangerous and cause injuries if you don’t fall off it in a correct fashion to protect yourself. Beginners are usually the biggest culprits for this because they haven’t fallen enough to get an experience of how to land and fall. When you fall there are certain things that you should do to lower the possibility of an injury. You should try to practice the method of “How to Fall Off a Climbing Wall” below many times before you attempt to conquer your fear of falling with the method mentioned above.

Push yourself away from the wall

If you’re on a vertical climb or a slab, you don’t want to pull yourself in when you fall because you might hit your arms, legs, body or even head onto the wall and cause yourself an injury. It’s rare you hit yourself in the head, but I’ve definitely hit my elbow or knee from falling on the climb wall as I drop. By pushing yourself away slightly as you fall, you decrease the chance of this.

Look down

You need to know what you’re going to land on to see if there’s anything you can possibly avoid if you can move as you fall. This also improves the control of yourself as you fall because you are focused on landing, not on falling.

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Engage your neck muscles

By tucking your chin into your chest, you engage your neck muscles which means you are less likely to receive whiplash from your fall. Again this is uncommon, but we are trying to decrease the possibility of any injury.

Bend your knees and roll back

When you fall you should try to land on your feet, bend your knees and elbows, retract your arms and absorb the impact with your legs. Then you should roll back and tuck the chin.

Break fall

 When I used to do Brazilian Jiu Jitsu we used to learn a technique called a break fall, which took the impact of the fall into your arms and hands instead of your spine. To do this you need to slap your arms backwards while cupping your hands to make an air pocket. Slap your arms at around a 45 degree angle from your body as you land on your back after rolling backwards.

Falling from a horizontal overhang

If you’re on an overhang that’s almost horizontal, you should keep your hands up as you fall from the wall and use the break fall method in the previous section to take most of the impact on your back instead of on your feet, knees or arms.

How NOT to Fall Off a Climbing Wall

Of course when you’re falling there is a method of what to do, and what not to do when you fall. When you’re falling you might actually CAUSE yourself an injury because of something you’ve done as you drop. There are several things you should stop yourself from doing at once.

Don’t stick the landing

We’re not winning any gymnast points by sticking the landing – bend the knees and roll backwards to decrease impact. Don’t land with straight or stiff legs because you’re fighting the momentum of the fall which isn’t in your best interests.

Don’t roll forwards if possible

At the end of your landing, you’ll want to roll backwards whenever possible instead of forwards. By doing this you avoid a face plant.

Don’t try to stop yourself with outstretched arms or hands

This seems quite obvious but if you try to decrease the impact of the fall by stretching out your arms to take the fall, you might be looking at a broken arm, maybe a sprained wrist, something like that. Avoid this by using the method in the previous sub-heading.

Don’t land on your heels, toes or the side of your foot

Land squarely on the bottom of your feet before you roll backwards unless you want a twisted ankle, or broken toe.

Common Injuries Caused by Falling Off a Climbing Wall When Bouldering

If you’ve used the method to fall when bouldering incorrectly, you may experience an injury. You may even experience one if you’ve used the method correctly and you’re just unlucky. There are a few more common injuries we experience when we fall off the climbing wall onto the mat below.

Sprain or Broken Ankle

If you land on the side of your foot or onto the heel of your foot then you may experience a sprain or broken ankle. You should be landing with your feet square to avoid your foot moving in a weird way that may cause injury.

Grade 1 ankle sprains take 5-14 days to heal and 4-6 weeks for grade 2 ankle sprains. They can be quite painful; mild sprains can usually be walked on however more severe sprains may need crutches. Sprains are torn or stretched ligaments in a particular area.

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Broken ankles typically take at least 6 weeks to fully heal the bones. Usually the doctor would advise for you to walk with crutches to take weight off the injury. At this time you will most probably wear a cast or splint.

Broken Toe

Broken toes can be caused by landing on your toes after falling rather than landing squarely on your feet. This can happen due to a large amount of impact on the floor immediately after falling or by repetitive force on the toes over time. This can be because the climber is landing on their toes the majority of times when they fall.

The heal time for a broken toe is around six weeks. If the injury is still a problem at 6 weeks, a doctor will usually re-examine and may advise an X-ray. Treatment for a broken toe can be done by “buddy taping”. Buddy taping is when you tape the injured toe with the toe next to it which creates a splint. Using ice wrapped in a thin towel will help manage with pain and recovery. Painkillers can also be taken.

Twisted Knee/Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) Injury

If you land on your feet without using the correct falling method, you can twist your knee and cause an injury such as an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury. By landing with square feet and bent knees and then rolling back you will decrease the risk of this. Usually, if you land with a straight leg you can cause an ACL or damage other ligaments by twisting the knee.

ACL injuries typically take 2-6 months to heal after surgery. Surgery is usually required for the best outcome. The whole rehabilitation generally takes 6-9 months depending on age, other circumstances etc.

Whiplash

Whiplash is often caused by falling without tensing your neck muscles. When your neck muscles are loose in a collision they are prone to damage. Tensing your neck muscles by tucking your chin allows your muscles to withstand impact.

It usually takes three months to heal fully from whiplash, and long-term complications are rare. Only use a neck brace if your doctor recommends it. Sometimes neck braces actually make neck injuries worse than better due to the fact it makes them stiff. Go to the doctor and get a diagnosis before using a neck brace. Using ice on a whiplash injury will reduce the swelling and numb pain. Over the counter painkillers such as paracetamol can help. Do as your doctor recommends.

Sprain or Broken Wrist

Sprained and broken wrists can occur when a climber puts their arms out onto the mat to stop a fall and the impact bends back or forward their wrists. Never land on the mat with your arms straight out when falling from the climbing wall. If you’re landing forward try to roll out of the fall, or fold into a ball.

Sprained wrists may take up to 3 months to heal fully, but major symptoms will usually improve in two to three days. Use ice to treat the injury and a cast or splint if the doctor recommends.

The time it takes for broken wrists to heal can be up to 8 weeks, but it might take up to 6 months with more severe injuries. A cast or splint can be worn to help restrict the movement in the wrist and promote proper healing.

Grazes and Bruises

Bruising and grazing yourself on holds is quite common when climbing, it’s probably the most common injury. Cuts on your hands, and grazes/bruises generally on your knees and elbows. This can happen by falling without pushing yourself away from the wall after you first drop. By pushing yourself away from the wall initially as you drop, you decrease the possibility of a body part hitting a hold on the way down. Treat them both with ice and they should be as good as gold after a few days or up to a week depending on how bad the injury is.

What is the technical name for the fear of falling? Basophobia or basiphobia is the technical name for the fear of falling.

What is the technical name for the fear of heights? Acrophobia is the term given to those with an irrational fear of heights.

What is the average height of a bouldering wall? The average height of a bouldering wall is about 10 feet (or 3 meters).

What is the maximum height of a bouldering wall? The maximum height of a bouldering wall is 15 feet. Anything above 15 feet (or 4.572 meters) is classed as highballing. Anything above 40 feet (or 12.192 meters) is classed as free-soloing.

Paul

I'm the owner of Rock Climbing Central and I fell in love with climbing about 5 years ago as soon as my feet touched the wall. Since then all I've pretty much done is research about climbing and climb whenever possible.

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