Photo by Loic Leray

Fear of falling

Remember that regardless of whether you are toproping, lead climbing or bouldering, the basic psychology for dealing with the fear of falling is the same. Exposure is one of the most effective methods, but mental imaging and positive self-talk can also really help. All 3 methods are described below in the context of climbing.

Before getting into it, it's good to understand that fear is very useful. In fact, animals who did not have the ability to feel fear have all gone extinct. Therefore it is good to always take a moment and listen to fear. However, fear evolved over many millions of years, so there are many dangerous situations that may not elicit fear (and vice versa). As a result, we must analyse the situation and then decide what to do; either we decide that our fear system is right and we should take extra measures to better protect ourselves, or we decide that the level of danger is acceptable and we start using the techniques below to deal with fear. 

Update: Turns out the 'Hard is Easy' YouTube channel has made a couple of excellent video's on this topic. I highly advise checking out this video to learn what a good routine for fall practise looks like!


Table of contents:


This method has been applied successfully for all kinds of fear related disorders and translates very well for the fear of falling in climbing. Whether you experience a crippling fear, or a mild fear that still prevents you from performing at your best, the steps below should help you to manage fear over time:

  • First, learn the proper falling technique while staying well within your comfort zone. In bouldering, this is usually from a standing position on the mat or sometimes even a squatting position. In sport climbing, resist the urge to grab something on the way down and be ready to use your feet to 'land' on the wall. The important part of this step is to learn the correct response in the event of a fall.
  • After you've learned the proper falling technique, it is time to build it up and slowly getting out of your comfort zone. Ideally, you will experience a minor amount of fear, then fall and apply a correct falling technique. This way, you will learn to manage your fear and over time you will teach your brain that it is OK to fall. 
  • As you practise this, also take a moment to really think about what is causing your fear. You might learn that your fear of falling is actually a consequence of not trusting the gear, or your partner.... Knowing the cause of your fear can help when trying to manage it.
  • For an even more effective approach, try to make it a rewarding experience. So don't just mindlessly follow the process of stepping out of your comfort zone, falling, and then applying the correct falling techniques. Also take a moment to reflect and feel proud of what you just did! It wasn't easy, but you did it. Hell, many of you will discover that, in a way, falling is kind of fun!
  • It is very important that you do not stay within your comfort zone forever. If you do this, your brain will learn to stay within the comfort zone and it will get harder to get out of it.
  • On the other side, do not push yourself too much. If the amount of fear you experience is no longer manageable then you are not teaching your brain to deal with it!
  • If the amount of fear is crippling, then this feeling may be so awful that you also develop a fear of experiencing the fear of falling. If this is the case, you may want to start with mental imaging techniques first (see below).
  • Fear directly impacts climbing performance; a small amount can be good as it will cause your body to focus and be ready to make big, powerful moves... but too much of it will cause a decline in motor skills, cognitive ability, or flat out ruin your day. It is rare for climbers to have too little fear for optimal performance, and pretty much everyone will benefit from a calmer state of mind.
  • Remember: this is a process. Even professional athletes spend time learning how to deal with fear. It's perfectly normal, and don't make things more difficult for yourself by having unrealistic expectations. Exposure works when done correctly - so be ready to spend the time.

Mental imaging:

This technique is commonly known as visualization, and it's very powerful as it can cause your brain to form new neural networks! It's been proven effective for dealing with fear, but also for learning new skills. All of this makes it a very useful technique to master!

  • To apply mental imaging, first take the time to calm down. Take a minute to slow down your breathing and feel at ease.
  • During the whole process, make sure you ingrain the right things into your brain! You have to imagine yourself performing every technique 100% correctly. And when you imagine taking a (voluntary) fall, make sure you imagine taking a safe fall while staying calm and collected.
  • Many people get sweaty palms during the process, this is fine. However if you feel you're getting scared, then take some time to calm down first before continuing. Again, we want to ingrain the right thing into your brain!
  • It helps to think of a script before you start. Like a movie script, it includes a beginning and an end. Example script: imagine a specific boulder in your bouldering gym. You grab the start holds, and start climbing your way up. You apply a correct climbing technique every step of the way. After you've succesfully reached the end hold, you decide to drop down to practise falling. You let go, put your arms in a T-Rex position, slightly bend your legs upon impact and then roll onto your back. You get up with a smile because you finished your project, then get off the mat and take off your shoes. 
  • Usually, it's best to imagine everything in first person. If you want to use mental imaging for improving your climbing technique, then you have to imagine everything in first person. However, if you have an extreme fear of falling you may want to start off seeing yourself in third person. Seeing yourself fall from a distance (as if you're watching a video of yourself falling) can make it less daunting.
  • Mental imaging is very mentally demanding, 5 minutes a day is more than enough!
  • Not everybody has the ability to visualise, but mental imaging involves all senses and is therefore something everybody can do. You're not just visualising, you're also trying to hear and feel. Imagine doing everything from start to finish as realistically and perfectly as possible, and your brain will connect the dots. If you stay calm while imagining a falling situation, then over time you will be more calm in real life as well.



Comments that others make can help you perform better, or make you perform worse. The right piece of advice at the right time, or some encouraging words when you feel exhausted can make a difference. Learning how to coach yourself can be a great way to improve your performance, and to help you deal with the fear of falling. 

  • First, take some time to analyse what you tell yourself while climbing. If you can't remember, then start climbing and really take notice.
  • So now that you know what you're telling yourself, reflect and analyse whether these words are helpful or not. If they're not useful, can you think of anything else you could be telling yourself, that would be useful? Words that help you stay calm for instance? Or words that help you accept that it's ok to fall? Maybe you would prefer to focus on technique and footwork? The choice is yours, choose what you believe to be most helpful.
  • Now start climbing, and apply self-talk. Keep telling yourself the words you decided were helpful. Do not allow yourself to fall back into the old routine of unhelpful, or even harmful self-talk. Stay in control of the head game, and tell yourself what you need to hear!
  • Over time, this will become a habit and you will continuously apply self-talk to keep yourself calm and improve your performance. As it becomes a habit, you may no longer consciously realise you are still applying self-talk. This is totally fine! You're in a flow, enjoy it! However, you may still want to reflect from time to time to check and be sure that your self-talk is still helpful. If not, then you may want to restart the whole process.