Fine-tune your Falling Technique
The climbing gym is a great place to work on your technique since you usually have a huge, padded floor at your disposal. If you’re falling from a short distance, head height or less, then it usually feels comfortable to simply land on your feet and stick the landing. If, however, you’re falling from higher up, then you’ll want to use a different technique: Land on your feet with knees bent, and then as soon as your feet hit the mat buckle your knees and roll onto your butt. This rolling technique will help disperse the force of the fall and reduce the risk of injury to the ankles and knees, and it will also help ensure that you don’t face plant or slam your face into your knees! Resist the urge to catch yourself with your hands: keep your arms and hands in front of you and out of the way of your body to prevent finger, hand, wrist, or arm injuries. Finally, do your best to relax! If you do land in a weird position, you’re much more likely to sustain an injury if your body is tense or stiff. Feeling comfortable and prepared to fall will help you stay relaxed.
It’s important to practice this technique whenever you go bouldering, even if you’re in the gym. Sometimes it can be tempting to fall recklessly at the gym since the padding is often very forgiving, but practicing good technique every time will help turn proper falling technique into second nature. That way, when you go outside you’ll be thinking less about falling and can dedicate more of your mental energy to the climbing itself, improving your climbing and ensuring your safety at the same time.
Use the Right Equipment
The most important piece of protective equipment for bouldering is the crash pad, and it’s also more or less the only piece of safety equipment boulderers use. Because of this, you should use a high-quality crash pad and be diligent in arranging your pads to ensure that the landing zone is properly protected. When purchasing a crash pad, you should think about how much bouldering and what kind of bouldering you plan to do. If you don’t plan to use your crash pad very often, just for the occasional weekend outing, then you can probably get away with buying a cheap pad. Most of these cheaper pads perform fairly well, they are just less expensive because the foam isn’t as high quality and therefore won’t last as long. If you’re going to be bouldering a lot, however, then you might want to invest in a more expensive pad that will hold up better to lots of falls. You want the foam to be soft enough to cushion a fall but stiff enough that it doesn’t bottom out when you land on it. Be careful buying a used crash pad: Old, soft foam might make a good sleeping pad but it won’t protect you from the ground in a big fall.
When choosing your crash pad, you’ll also want to consider how the pad hinges or folds. Most of the pads out there are bi-fold pads that fold down the middle. If you’re climbing small to medium-sized boulders with relatively flat landing zones, then these bi-fold pads are probably perfect for you. Even if you’re climbing tall boulders, these bi-fold pads can work really well if you arrange them carefully, ensuring that the hinges are on flat ground and preferably not right under the crux. If you’re planning to climb in an area with lots of obstacles in the landing areas, though, then you may want to consider a baffle-style crash pad, like the Mad Rock R3, which is made up of eight padded baffles and rolls up like a burrito rather than folding in half. The baffle-style pad allows you to cover up obstacles like rocks or gaps that would be hard to protect with a folding pad. If you’re planning to climb a lot of highball boulders or you’re worried about spraining an ankle by landing in the hinge of the pad, then you also might consider a hingeless pad that folds up like a taco. These pads are less common than folding pads and the center of the foam tends to wear out a little faster than the rest of the pad, but they are a good option if you like to climb alone and don’t want to worry about landing in the wrong part of the pad.
Climb with your Friends!
You may not need a belayer to boulder, but having a few dedicated spotters can make a huge difference in your ability to fall safely. The spotter’s goal is not to catch the climber but to make sure that they fall safely. This means moving pads around as necessary to protect the landing zone and redirecting the climber if it looks like they are taking a weird or unsafe fall. If the climber starts to fall head first, with the arms outstretched, or at an odd angle, it’s the spotters’ job to redirect them so that they fall onto their feet or butt, either by grabbing the hips and turning the climber or by pushing the climber upright from the back or shoulders. Spotters should use cupped hands (think spoons not forks) when spotting: spread fingers are an invitation for disaster as the spotter could catch a finger on the climber’s clothes or jam a finger when trying to redirect the climber. There are tons of videos and articles out there about how to become a better spotter, and I’d recommend watching a few and practicing those techniques on smaller boulders or in the gym so you’ll know what to do when your buddy takes a weird fall.
Plan your Falls
As professional climber Nina Williams says, “You fall more than you send.” Rather than dreading a fall, you should plan to fall and accept that a fall is likely before you start a climb. This will help your mental game, since you won’t be thinking about falling as much or dreading a fall if you’ve already planned for it. It can also help you fall safely because if you do come off you’ll already have a plan for what to do. Plan ahead by removing all lose objects from your pockets, like keys or a cell phone, and clearing your landing zone. As you visualize or plan out your climbing, take note of the fall trajectory from each section of the climb and talk to your spotters about any concerns like pad placement or landing zone obstacles.
Commit to the Climb
Once you’ve assessed the fall potential of the whole climb, including the top out, determine whether or not you think you’ll be able to fall safely from each part of the climb. If there are any “no fall zones” on the climb, then you’ll have to make a judgment call. Are you sure you won’t fall in the no fall zone? If you’re willing to take the risk, then commit to the climb and try to focus on the climbing rather than falling. If you are constantly thinking about falling then you’re probably going to fall, but you’ve taken all the steps to prepare for a safe fall, so now you can shift your attention entirely to climbing. Put your entire effort into the climb, knowing that if you do fall your body will know how to react and your spotters will be there to support you. It takes time to master the mental aspect of climbing, but just like your falling technique, your mental game will improve with practice. Establishing a routine really helped me break through some mental barriers and get over my fear of falling: I start by assessing the moves on the climb and then assessing the fall trajectory. Then I decide whether I want to commit to the climb and if so, I talk to my spotters about where I think I might fall and what I expect from them. Then I try to completely forget about the possibility of falling. I take a few deep breaths, visualize myself climbing the problem without a fall, and then start the climb.
The most important thing to remember about falling is that it’s something you have to practice if you want to improve. For more tips on improving the mental aspect of your climbing, check out The Rock Warrior’s Way by Arno Ilgner.0