How to Manage the Fear of Falling

Sports psychologist and climber Madeleine Eppensteiner shares her tips for overcoming the fear of falling on sport climbs.

Sport climbing is the joy of reaching highpoints, getting to know our boundaries, then training and finally crossing our boundaries. Yet it's also a very mentally demanding activity. Our mind decides whether we reach our goals or not: whether we climb higher or give up.

Jim Pope on - and off - Kaabah 8c+  © Dark Sky Media
Jim Pope on - and off - Kaabah 8c+
© Dark Sky Media

The biggest mental irritation that I bet nearly every one of us has already experienced in the past when sport climbing – no matter whether you're a beginner, hobby climber or pro – is the fear of falling. Some of us can naturally deal better with this fear, others have mentally trained for years to improve it.

Being afraid of falling is a primal human instinct. Since the dawn of the human race, our brain has stored the information that an uncontrolled and insecure fall can lead to serious injuries or even death. It's a safety mechanism to which our body reacts in different ways: stress hormones are distributed, our breathing becomes flat, our stomach and intestines tighten up or we start sweating. Some of us might even experience complete black-outs due to panic attacks. However, these biological reactions and mental boundaries save numerous mountaineers, hikers, or alpinists every year because our fear of falling is a natural safety mechanism.

So what can we do to better deal with this natural, inherent fear so it doesn't impair our performance?

First of all, we have to become aware that sport climbing is a very safe activity if proper equipment is used and safety advice followed. To increase this awareness and at the same time decrease irrational fears of being unsafe, a gear check before we go climbing can be useful. Is everything in good condition? Does something need to be changed? Second of all, we have to trust our climbing partner. Ask yourself the questions: what does your partner need to do to make you feel safer? Why do you feel safe with him/ her – why not? How can you improve your climbing relationship?

What can you do as a belayer to make your climbing partner feel more secure?

Always do a partner check. Reassure your climbing partner that you're familiar with the belaying device in use and that they're safe. When you go climbing with beginners who are afraid of falling, let them get used to falling step-by-step. Let them sit onto the rope already at the first quick draw to show them that nothing can happen and that you have them secured.

This also works well for top-roping (you don't have to be lead climbing to be afraid of falling!). As a further step, let them sit back into the rope as you leave more slack in the rope (a bit further up – but only as high as they still feel secure). They will fall a bit further but it's still manageable. Then you try the same in lead climbing – let the climber climb up a bit further each time. If you know your climbing partner likes it, you can also tell them 'I've got you', or 'You're safe'. Good communication is key!

So your partner can help you, but what can you do yourself?

Wiz Fineron airborne after letting go of Mind Control at 49.5 of 50m
© Rob Greenwood - UKClimbing, Feb 2015

· Train to fall as often as possible!

To be able to handle your fear of falling better, you have to get used to falling. We cannot learn something when we never try it and train it. Falling needs to be trained, too. If possible, try to implement little falls in every climbing session. They can be conscious little falls where you tell your belayer that you'll fall – but also unplanned, spontaneous falls once you get more experienced. Afterwards, try to reflect! Reflecting your own thoughts and emotions is very important to learn and improve your ability for handling stressful situations. How did it feel in the moment you let go? What happened afterwards? What was good about it and what can still be improved? You might find out that the falling itself wasn't that bad after all. That nothing actually happened. That maybe, in the second of letting go with your hands, you were actually relieved because your arms and fingers were so tired. Maybe you feel excited and proud after having let go because you overcame your fear. Maybe you feel an adrenaline rush. The most important thing is to become aware of what your thoughts and feelings are in order to keep working on them.

· Work on your focus!

Our concentration influences our climbing performance when we're afraid of falling. Think of this situation: you're lead climbing a route when you come to a crux move, slightly above the quickdraw. Within seconds, your head decides what to focus on – on moving on and giving your best or on the quickdraw underneath you and the increased possibility of falling due to these hard moves coming up. However, as soon as we shift our focus and concentration towards the possibility of falling we don't concentrate on the actual moves and climbing anymore, which actually makes falling more of a possibility. In psychology, we call this a 'self-fulfilling prophecy', which means we work towards our own expectations. So next time you climb, try to climb with the motto in the back of your head of giving your best and always focussing on the next moves that are coming. To be able to 'not think of falling' we have to think of something else instead – like e.g. giving your best or focussing on the upcoming moves (try to find your own mottos!).

· Increase your self-efficacy!

We can also overcome fear by improving our self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the knowledge we have of our own capabilities and how we can transform them onto the wall - we know what to expect of ourselves. It is important though that we don't overestimate ourselves by being either irrationally positive or negative. Instead, we should learn to get a realistic self-concept of ourselves. The better we learn to classify our capabilities the less chance we have of being "surprised" on the route and the better we can recall our capabilities. This is important, as fear is often created because of new, unknown situations that we don't know how to handle. Knowing what to expect of ourselves can really help.

· Do breathing exercises!

Last but not least, another tool that can also really help to deal with stressful situations is – as simple as it sounds – breathing. Breathing calmly can lower our heart rate and make us judge a situation more rationally. We should be aware that our fear of falling is mostly very irrational – we are considerably more likely to be injured or killed in a car accident than when we're sport climbing! Doing breathing exercises outside of climbing can prepare us for when we get into tricky situations and the chance of falling is high. It helps us to recall our breathing techniques and in turn, help us judge these situations more sensibly.

Find some online exercise examples here.

Watch a guided breathing exercise video.

Madeleine Eppensteiner  © Peter Crane
About the Author

Madeleine Eppensteiner is a sport psychologist based in Dornbirn, Austria.

Throughout the past decade she has travelled the world representing Austria at youth climbing competitions and later on in one or two Bouldering World Cups – having done a Masters degree in Psychology along the way. She specialises in sport psychology and is fascinated by psychological effects on sports performance. Even though Madeleine's personal backround lies in climbing, she supports athletes and teams from all kinds of sports.

Visit Madeleine's website and blog for more climbing-related psychology.

Visit Madeleine's Facebook Page.

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