Friday, February 22, 2013

Free...Free Falling

It’s not whether you get knocked down; it’s whether you get back up”

If you fall seven times, get back up eight”

Or from the ever wise, mini Buddha esque, Chumbawamba

I get knocked down, but I get up again, you’re never gonna keep me down!”

Oh the 90’s, what a great time to grow up, but back to my point…

We continually hear about how falling is not important, but rather making sure you get back up. But I’m here to flip the switch and stress the importance of falling.

First let’s clarify; this isn’t about failure or defeat like these quotes underline, but rather what this article is about learning to fall and land properly.

Why Would I Need to Learn to Fall?

Why should you practice falling or landing? Well why do we crawl before we walk, and walk before we run? Because it is a safe and natural progression to teach our bodies to learn our limits and give us feedback on many athletic qualities.  Also learning to fall will help when you see Rachel McAdams at the bar, and don't tear your ACL when you fall head over heels.

Oh Rachel, you don't have to be
thinking of me all day

Watch little kids on a playground and you’ll see them jumping off different objects, testing the limits of how high they can land and fall from. It is a form of learning the stresses our body can handle safely, and gives our CNS a tool for reference.

While I don’t have an exact number, I would be willing to bet that over half of athletic injuries occur during landing after a jump, trying to break a fall, or stops and/or changes of directions.

What do all of these have in common?

They are types of landing, falling, decelerating movements. Athletes don’t get taught how to land, stop, fall, or tumble. We get caught up in developing vertical leaps, sprinting speed, power, and strength; but often lose sight of the importance of learning stop or decelerate these movements.

Recently Dan John wrote a great article, here, on T-Nation , and in it he stated,

28,000 Americans in the 50+ age range die yearly from fall related injuries.”

Are you kidding me, 28,000! If this doesn’t give a case for learning to fall and land, then I don’t know what does.

So I’m going to break down the remaining parts of the article into two parts, landing (on your feet), and falling to the ground (tumbling).


We often see athletes jumping onto 60” boxes, doing crazy dunks, or exhibiting other great feats of athleticism, and we say, “I want to do that”. So what does somebody do? They start doing intense plyometrics, jumping on and off high ass boxes, and try to copy these athletic movements.

What we tend to forget is how these athletes got to where they are. We need to take a step back, and learn the basics of landing before we try these jumping feats.

Athletes need to learn they can only produce as much force, as they can safely absorb.

Dynamic movements like jumping, sprinting, bounding, etc involve our body taking in high amounts of eccentric forces and then returning concentric forces back out. The amount of force we return back out, depends on how effectively and safely we take force in.

Our body is not dumb, and it is not going to allow us to jump 30 inches high if we can not safely land from 30 inches. Whether you leans towards, or away, from the whole ancestral thing, our body does not want to put itself in a situation where it might be injured.

So whether our paleo past is still very present in our brain and nervous system, where injury meant being an easy meal for a saber tooth, or whether you believe we are different - evolved beings, it does not matter,

Injury = Bad!

Our body is going to do whatever it takes to prevent injury. It has a whole mess of protective mechanisms and it knows what its limits are. So thinking you can go jump 40 inches is not going to happen if your body hasn’t learned that it can safely land from that high.

So for athletic performance, learning to land is very important. Altitude landings, depth drops, and box landings have been around a long time in terms of athletic development. It is nothing new to train with those methods to elicit high eccentric and braking forces, in attempts to develop higher power and speed outputs.

Adding in landing drills to a regular progression in the weight room will enhance an athlete’s eccentric strength, proprioception, education of dealing with high forces, and develop proper body positioning and mechanics.

More than increasing athletic potential, learning to land has very high injury prevention benefits. Landing drills have made a big push into ACL prevention programs, as many ACL injuries occur from landing and stopping actions.

Stepping off a box and landing correctly is a key quality we need our athletes to exhibit. If an athlete cannot land without knee valgus, proper foot – knee – hip tracking, or a smooth, efficient, and quiet landing, then that athlete is lacking in certain qualities. Jumping right into an intensive program will put this person in harms way, and will be promoting dysfunctional movement patterns.

It is important to make sure athletes can land in various situations – double leg, single leg, lateral, and backwards. These are all movements that will be stressed in sports, and learning how to absorb forces at these angles is extremely important.

Here is a whole series of landing exercise progressions that will develop proper landing mechanics, positioning, and eccentric loading.

The goal with each of these exercises is to stick the landing quick and quietly. That is a main coaching cue for us, but of course we are looking for other signs during the landing.

Do the knees track over the foot or do they track inside (knee valgus). Are the athletes able to stick the landing, or are they adding in extra little hops, or shifts in body weight. If so, the height or distance may be too much for them to handle.

Are they initiating the landing with the balls/forefoot, or is their heel slamming into the ground. Again this is a sign that the eccentric force is too much for the athlete.

Finally we want the athlete to absorb the force quickly. This means we want them to stick the landing as fast as they can. We want them to stabilize and control the landing ASAP! The more time, bending, or movement it takes to land means the athlete is losing eccentric forces through this extra movement or time. Again this is preparing the athlete for the extremely high demands and short contact times of plyometrics and athletic movements.


Piggy backing everything discussed in learning to land, is learning how to fall. Learning to fall or training this skill, in my book, is essentially tumbling. Somersaults, reverse somersaults, shoulder rolls, reverse shoulder rolls, handstands, and side rolls.

I know what you’re thinking; you won’t catch me dead doing those girly things. I’m gonna get my ass back in the squat rack!

Well if you play in any team sport or coach team sports, then you should definitely reconsider.

How does tumbling help in team sports?

It put athletes in a position of falling, and teaches the body how to contort, twist, and position itself when faced with similar situations during a game. In sports like football, basketball, volleyball, soccer, and rugby, athletes face many instances where they are falling or being taken to the ground, and not knowing how to deal with the situations leads to injury.

Tumbling is an easy and safe way to learn the skills of falling. These tumbling drills involve a great deal of mobility, stability, spatial awareness, body coordination, timing, and rhythm. These are all very valuable qualities that will help athletes, not only fall safely, but will also carryover to other aspects of athletics.

Going back to Dan John (can’t reference him enough!), tumbling is also a great way to build “armor”.

He’s talked about how athletes, during the off-season tend to get “soft” and un-prepared for the poundings a sport will put on them.

These ground collisions during tumbling mimic body contact, collisions, and the physical tolls an athlete takes during games. It is a great way to “toughen” up and prepare the athletes body for competition.

Despite it being comical to watch some athletes try these drills, it really isn’t all that funny that we have athletes that cannot perform simple, basic exercises that 4 and 5 year olds can do with ease.

As a coach, you will quickly see that your best athletes are the best at these tumbling moves. I have observed that the best athletes I work with tumble with the greatest grace, control, efficiency, and are overall quiet and light during these movements.

Finally I like tumbling movements because not only do they teach my athletes how to safely fall and land, but also how to get back up! Like the quotes at the beginning of this article, it is essential for athletes to get back onto their feet after being on the ground.

You hear it all the time during games

Get Up!”

Stay on Your Feet!”

Whether it’s a linebacker being cut blocked, a volleyball player going down to dig a kill, or a basketball player getting knocked down going to the rim. These athletes need to get back up and get back involved in the play. You see it all the time, an athlete is slow to get up, and his or her team ends up paying the consequences.

So we get the best of both worlds, we learn skills to stay on our feet, but if we do happen to go to the ground, we learn how to do so safely and then how to transition back onto our feet.

These are essential athletic skills that are typically overlooked. Great benefits will be had to youth, high school, college, and elite athletes, but also the regular, everyday person. It will help tremendously in athletics, but also as people age, how not to become part of that staggering 28,000 statistic.

In the video below is a series of the different tumbling drills you can use with your athletes. I highly recommend using a nice big gymnastic type mat (much bigger than the one in the video) or using grass, turf, or a gymnastics surface for these drills.

Look for proper movement and sequencing from the athletes. The movements should be efficient, smooth, and quiet. Loud thuds mean the athlete is not moving through the landings efficiency and lack in stability, mobility, and body control.

Finally look for smooth transitions back to their feet. Like we touched on, this is also a drill to develop getting back on ones feet. Cue each tumbling movement to be smooth, quiet, and to get back on their feet as quick as possible.

Ground Floor

If you coach young athletes, these skills and drills really do need to be in your program. They are essential for proper development and skills that will benefit them later on. When coaching youth athletes, I like drills that don’t require much equipment, and teach valuable qualities/skills naturally, without the athlete having to think much. These drill kill many birds with one stone, and are fun and challenging.

If you coach high school to elite athletes, I still feel that these skills would bear some great benefits. They might seem silly or weird, but get over it, they work. A couple drills during a warm-up or finisher are more than enough to progress in this area.

So feel free to take some advice from the great Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and start working on,

Free, Free Falling!”

And as always Go Get 'Em!

Like, Dislike, Agree, Disagree, WORLD CHANGING, or a big turd; whatever you feel, leave a comment below and let me know!

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