I recently had an experience as a student that, while stressful and fairly traumatic, was useful in that it reminded me of what our aerial beginners go through when learning scary new tricks, and reinforced my belief in structured progressions.  It’s often tempting to skip the first steps in learning something new — whether you’re a confident, capable student, or an instructor with a confident, capable student — but here’s a great example of why you should avoid that temptation.

My partner and I have been taking a lead-climbing class at a local climbing gym.  The final class of the series was all about falling and catching falls, which I know is a necessary part of lead climbing but nonetheless, I had some serious trepidations about the whole situation (true confession:  I am afraid of heights).  I thought I made it pretty clear that I was a little freaked out, but in retrospect, I should have been more explicit about that.

The class started with a lecture about the types of catches (hard vs soft) and how you do them and when you would do them, and then we were instructed as to what we were supposed to do as climber or as belayer (catcher).  There was no demo.  The instructor asked my partner and me to go first and sent the other pair off to practice other skills.  I did the falling part first, which entailed climbing up about 20′, clipping into the carabiners set up along the way, and then when you reach the designated spot…you just fall.  Jump off a perfectly good wall.  And then climb up a little higher and do it again.  A few more times.  I went first, with Shawn (my partner) catching me.

That part went reasonably well, but some of the falls were pretty big and I was feeling a lot of adrenaline when I came down.  But instead of getting a break to recover, we immediately swapped roles and they had me catch Shawn.  Now, he outweighs me by about 40%.  In the lecture, they said 30% was the rule of thumb, after which you consider adding a sandbag or something to add weight to the belayer.  But they didn’t want me to use one yet.  So basically, right out of the gate, never having caught a fall before on this type of belay device, I tried to catch my much-larger partner.  This involved essentially just letting the force pull me into the wall while attempting to pull hard on the tail of the rope.  It did not go well.  And my nervous system got more agitated, which meant all the feedback they were trying to give me just made me confused and stressed.  We tried a few more times, with little progress that I could discern, after which I said I was done.  I was either going to punch someone or start crying or both.

So.  How could this have gone better for me?

First off, a demo of the skills would have been super helpful.  I didn’t even know I needed it until afterwards, but it would have gone a long way to complement the lecture.  Not everyone is a visual learner, but I am and should have asked to see what I was about to do.  Or I should have asked the other pair to go first so I could observe.

Second and more importantly, having me start with the most difficult version of the skill was a recipe for failure.  My guess is that the instructor saw that I was competent and strong and just figured that I could skip the easier steps (even, say, just catching someone smaller than I am).  This is the trap we need to avoid, as both students and teachers.  Even the most capable students can be challenged by new skills, have stress reactions, or be freaked out by something that might seem easy.  This is why we teach the angel drop with the “training bra” extra wrap the first few times, and why we drill students on how to unwrap the figure-8 wrap so many times before they do their first salto.  The adrenaline of even simple drops can cause the best students to get confused or overloaded.

Lastly, having me go straight from falling to catching gave my nervous system no time to recover from one stressful thing before going to another.  Learning new skills – especially dynamic, scary ones – involves not just your muscles but your brain and your whole nervous system.  This is why we don’t necessarily go through the whole progression in one lesson, or why we walk away from a new skill after the first few tries to give the body and mind some time to integrate and recover.

I have since had some very constructive discussions with the instructor about how they could create a progression to use in this scenario, and he’s been really receptive and grateful for the feedback.  He’s a good teacher who made a bad call in this situation.

So please, all of you:  if you’re a teacher, follow the progressions, and be attentive to your students’ stress levels and fears.  And students, don’t hesitate to tell your instructor if you’re nervous about something, or feeling stressed about a skill.  Ask for a simpler version if you feel like you’re skipping past your comfort zone.  And if you’re asked to do something that seems overly easy to you, humor your instructor; remember that we’re trying to keep you safe while teaching your body to defy gravity.