Athletes in almost every sport fall to the ground at some point. This ranges from the spectacular fail witnessed in the BMX and skateboard parks at the Olympics to the 1500m runner tripped when working their way through the pack. You can fall and hurt yourself and watch your dreams fade away. Or you can pick yourself up and get yourself back into contention as Sifan Hassan did in her 1500m qualifying race in the Olympics.
Learning to fall appropriately reduces the chances of you getting hurt badly. It also teaches you to get up from the floor and back into the game.
Reduce The Force
Falling means hitting the ground with anything other than your feet. Lower limb injuries occur when athletes land awkwardly, such as twisting on an opponent’s foot, slipping on a wet surface, or with a straight leg from a height.
The first principle to understand is that if you fall on one joint, all the impact force goes into that one joint. Whether that is an ankle, wrist, or shoulder, it is not designed to bear the full impact of you falling. 100% of your landing force into one joint equals trouble.
If you jump up in the air and land with your legs straight, you will the force of impact judder up your spine. If you land with your legs bending, you will feel a lot less impact: the force has been spread over your ankles, knees, and hips. 100% of your landing into 6 joints (3 each leg) equals safety,
The same principle applies to falling on other joints. Athletes will rarely be able to land on both hands and bend their wrists, elbows, and shoulders to reduce the impact (gymnasts excepted). It is far more common for athletes to fall and roll out of trouble. The force is dissipated across the back or buttocks. Instead of using a sequence of joints like springs to cushion the landing, the roll spreads the force over a wide surface area.
Those athletes unable to roll often get hurt.
You can see the difference here in the two 1500m runners.
The lead runner trips and lands heavily, spread-eagled and trodden upon. Sifan Hassan falls, rolls across her back into a seated dancer roll and then gets up to running: all in one movement. Hassan’s spatial awareness allowed her to keep her orientation. No doubt she had scrapes and bruises from falling on that track, but she didn’t suffer any broken bones.
The impact of the fall was spread by her movement: she never stops and can use her momentum to get back into the race.
Tuck And Roll: How To Practice
Now you understand the principle of reducing force, you can simplify that into two words: tuck and roll. You will have a split second to adjust your body as you fall. You need to tuck your chin to protect your neck and head. If you are falling forward, you should tuck your chin to look away from where you are failing. i.e., If your right arm is outstretched, then you should look at your left shoulder. You can practice this in a four-point kneeling position. On your hands and knees, look at your left shoulder and lie down on your right side. Repeat on the other side.
Sometimes you will be falling backward, and keeping your chin tucked in allows you to roll back over one shoulder.
Thinking ‘roll’ when you fall helps your body organize itself. Momentum will carry you through the roll and possibly to your feet again. You can practice this from four-point kneeling again. If you will roll to the right, put your chin on your left shoulder and then slowly bend the right elbow until it touches the ground to the right of your wrist. Your right hip will have lowered too, so place that next on the ground. You can then either bend your elbow further to put your right shoulder on the ground and roll across your back or stay in a more seated position and roll across your buttocks. Repeat on the other side.
You won’t benefit from momentum practicing this way, but you will build confidence, strength, and coordination into your fall and roll pattern.
Always practice on a soft surface such as long grass, sand or a mat to start. You can then take your knees off the floor and start in a press-up position. This exercise can be done as part of your warm-up for your sports training or after a gym session. The key is to practice it frequently so that your body becomes familiar with the movement.
When tripped up in a race or hit in mid-air when reaching for an overhead pass you won’t have time to think about all the individual movements before you hit the ground. But if you think, ‘tuck and roll’ you will have a better chance of falling safely,