The Teaching Conundrum Revisited

Recently i wrote and published an article on the whether you should teach youngsters/beginners to climb down from the top of boulder problems or jump down. It has turned out to be one of the most read articles, posts or pages ever on ChedelaBloc and has thrown up some debate.

As is common, i may not have expressed myself very well the first time and so, in response to the comments on the original post, i have decided to revisit this and look at it in a little more depth. I welcome criticism and will stand by (or retract where needed) my comments, so if you disagree, please do let me know.

Right then, onto the matter in hand. The original question: “do you teach children to jump from the top of the wall or to climb down carefully?”

My Original Points

Let’s just recap on some of the points i raised in my original article. If you want to read the whole thing, it’s here. I’d also like to point out that i am often guilty of expressing myself poorly, so if i’ve mis-spoken, i apologise and will attempt to clarify.

In short my original points were:

  • We are only discussing children, not adults
  • Climbing down reduces liability
  • You should be falling off
  • Falls will happen
  • First sessions set the scene for your climbing career
  • Gradual height gain is important
  • Learn to spot properly
  • Boulderers should teach bouldering

One area that i did express my opinion poorly was in the whole “encourage kids to jump from the top”. In hindsight, this is probably a poorly worded sentiment. I would now correct that to say: while not encouraging jumping, do not discourage but we’ll come back to that later.

The Counter Arguement

I posted the article on Facebook and received some in depth responses from climbers and coaches alike. All good natured, there were some very valid points that were raised in response. Those that responded (in the most part) are very experienced, one of which runs a climbing wall, so to sniff at their points would be to give them undue disrespect. I’ve managed to condense their points into bullet point form:

  1. Liability – teaching jumping
  2. Knees! Medical issues of repeated impact
  3. Climbing down gives extra training
  4. Spotters don’t reduce impact forces
  5. Third party liability when spotting
  6. Mats don’t guarantee a safe landing
  7. Participate in other sports to learn the skills
  8. Know where the edge of the mat is

As i say, all of these are valid points and it’s these points i’d like to look at now. I’d also like to say, once again, that this is an opinion, not given as fact and you are well within your rights to disagree with me. All i hope is that if you do, it’s made you think about it a little more to back up your own opinion with your own sound judgment.

My Response

Let’s look at them individually, starting with liability and actively teaching jumping. Now, in my original article, as pointed out above, climbing down reduces liability. I am not a legal expert, i’m not a lawyer and this next point is very important: if you are employed by a centre, follow their protocol and policy. I disagree enough to write two articles on the subject and if i was employed by a centre, i would follow their policy. As I said before, we’re looking at teaching our own individual children here.

The difference though is subtle: it is between encouraging and allowing. This is highlighted beautifully by one of the comments:

As kids get more confident and experienced I find they naturally start jumping and learning how to fall off and we can show them how best to do this

And, i think, that is exactly right. What i really don’t like to see is instructors screaming at kids that jumping AT ALL is bad and shouldn’t be done. In my opinion, this instills fear of falling and goes back to that point earlier about these being the building blocks of their climbing career – something just as relevant for adult beginners as for children.

Knees! and other medical issues

One major difference between adults and children that was highlighted was the impact on their knees. There was even some maths done on one comment (i haven’t checked it though) which can be seen here:

Fullscreen capture 12102015 203025.bmp

Well, as soon as this was brought up, i conceded it’s not something i’d thought of and that, yes, i agree, the continual impact on the knees will not do them any good at all. The same can be said for other body parts.

The one thing i would say in response to that is if the impact forces are unacceptable for jumping off, surely they are the same for falls. The ground doesn’t really know any different – if it hurts jumping, it’ll hurt just as much in a fall. And as we said, falls happen any time.

If the height is the issue, reduce where you define “the top”. Put simply, if you’re not willing to jump from that high, you shouldn’t BE that high.

However, there is one other crucial element to this argument: the regularity it is performed. I stand by my statement that you should be able to leap from your highest point but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should do this every time. I climb down a few moves each time when bouldering at the start of my session or on those occasions i’m feeling a little less confident. There is no shame in this, as long as you’re capable of making the plummet when the need arises.

And yes it does give extra training and i do use it as part of my warm up. Again, the important thing to stress here is when you present it as this. I’ll climb down most problems at the start of the session and drop from most later on. It’s important not to get into the habit of doing one or the other. So in this respect, i admit i may have been wrong at the start; if i were to correct myself, i’d say you need to teach both.


Now when i mentioned the reduction in force by a spotter, i was dismissed by that old bug-bear of a word: “catch”. The actual quote is here:

spotters don’t really reduce force. You’d struggle to catch 5kg dropped from 2m, so 70kg would crush you

This comes back to our point at the bottom of the original article; one which lasted several paragraphs and i thought was worth revisiting. Spotters aren’t trying to catch a climber. They are there to redirect some of the force, to make sure the climber lands in a better position, the right way up, so on and so forth. By redirecting or slowing a climber slightly, they’ll alleviate a proportion of this force but they are not trying to catch someone. Believe me when i say i have seen big strong spotters try and literally catch a small climber in the air. It resulted in two cuts in the spotters head and a two-inch gash on the climbers chin. If this is what you’re trying to do with spotting, please revisit this and get more advice.

The topic of third-party liability did come up with regard to spotting and again, i’m going to hide behind the point earlier that i am not a law expert. I’ve no idea about this other than to suggest to spot only in circumstances where not would be negligent. Again, follow the centre policy.

Mats Don’t Guarantee Safety

A friend made the excellent point that i would like to reiterate: mats don’t guarantee a safe landing. I wholeheartedly agree and i’m sure we’ve all seen injuries on excellent indoor facilities. What they do allow is that level of experimentation and a touch more comfort. I’m sure Mikey would agree that they need respect, as with climbing protection in trad and sport climbing and with that respect, will allow a climber to push their limits that bit more.

Another comment stated that it’s important to know where the mats end and while he was referring to outdoors, i’ve been to walls where this is a concern indoors as well. This reiterates the importance of respecting your surroundings, learning from experience and potentially employing a good spotter.

Cross Training?

Finally, i’d like to have a word on utilising other sports to learn how to fall correctly. It was suggested more than once to consider sports like judo or gymnastics. While i’m not against this in principle, i would suggest this is a rather drastic method of learning to fall for bouldering. Yes the principles will cross over wonderfully and if it is of interest to either you, your novice or whoever then great, i’m in total support! But if you’re only doing it to improve with climbing, i’d say it’s a very time- and money-sapping method of doing so.

What may be preferable would be to study and learn from these sports – and this will go for all of us. So i’ll end on this note, important reading for parents, instructors, wall managers and general climbers alike: we as climbers are often guilty of thinking our little niche sport sits alone in the great list of sports and it doesn’t. Yes it’s unique but there are so many areas in which we can learn. They must teach falling correctly in the martial arts, warming up the right way in athletics, i’ve learned the purpose of a warm up from swimming no less!

Never stop thinking and questioning for the moment that you think you have all the answers is the moment the ground will come right up from below you and hit you with something you really did not expect.


If you missed the original article, it can be seen here. If you have any thoughts or comments on either article, i would be very pleased to hear them. Many thanks for thinking. 

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