On the Line: Succeeding in 4-Way
Part 1 of 6—Understanding Your Game and Selecting Your Team - (Exclusive Online Content - The Goal of Personal and Team Best)
There are many definitions for the mental approach or mental state we are in when we perform at the top of our game. Athletes refer to it as “flow,” “the zone” or the “ideal performance state.” It is a place where our minds are calm, undistracted and focused in the moment … when we let our instincts take over. It happens almost effortlessly when we allow it to.
The phrase “on the line” defines this state perfectly for skydiving. When we are on the line, we are flying as aggressively as possible while still maintaining total control of the jump. “Under the line” refers to when we are being too passive or cautious and not flying as aggressively as we can. “Over the line” is when we are being too reckless and flying more aggressively than the team can control.
A slalom skier can only go down a hill as quickly as he can control. If he tries to go faster, he will be less efficient in his handling of the course and will lose time or fall on his face and be out of the race. On the other hand, if he is led by the fear of falling, his priority becomes not to fall rather than to go as quickly as he can control. This approach will prevent him from pushing himself to the fastest speed of which he is truly capable.
The same is true for skydiving teams. Many skydivers are capable of individually moving quickly. But to score the most points possible in formation skydiving, we go as quickly as we can while making the smallest, most efficient moves possible, keeping the entire team perfectly synchronized.
When a group of recreational jumpers forms a team, their skills have not yet developed. They may have the ability to move quickly but not the experience and training to control it. In order to keep control of the jumps, they may be able to fly at only 30 percent of their full speed. With time and training, they become more consistent. This consistency provides more control and with it the confidence to fly faster.
Though the percentage of max speed the team is capable of evolves, the mental process of flying on the line stays the same. The skill of flying on the line is the same skill at 30 percent, 50 percent or 100 percent power. When we are on the line, we are at our best. We trust our instincts, and we naturally perform up to our full potential.
But if our instincts are to be overly passive or overly aggressive, then trusting our instincts will not lead to our best performances. We will tend to favor one side of the line or the other. We need to retrain ourselves to be instinctively on the line. Though it may be difficult to change who we are, it is not impossible. We are certainly able to change who we are in the limited context of athletic performance.
When we review and evaluate our performance, it is not enough to ask whether it was technically correct. We want to lock in our natural performance so that we train it to be right on the line. We need to ask these questions: “Was that our best?” “Were we on the line?” “Did we have more in us?” “Could we have been more aggressive?” “Were we too aggressive, almost out of control?” “Do we need to calm down more?”
In order to be right on the line, give yourself conscious reminders during your preparation, when visualizing and during the actual performance. If you are someone who tends to be too passive, you will need to tell yourself things like, “Go!” “Push it!” or, “Gun it!” If you are someone who tends to be too aggressive, you’ll need to tell yourself something along the lines of, “Stay calm,” “Stay cool,” or, “One at a time.”
At any level, flying on the line defines your best. You are flying at the maximum speed you can control. The mental process and feeling of being on the line stays the same as your skill and abilities advance. Your abilities change, but the skill of performing up to the full potential of your abilities doesn’t change. You must learn this skill at the beginning of your training and continue to practice it as your skills evolve. Engaging in competition will be just another step in this process.
Understanding Your Game
Four-way formation skydiving (FS) is the most popular discipline in competitive skydiving. Though formation skydivers train to be lean, strong and flexible, skydiving differs from other sports in that there is no particular physical size or shape that has an inherent advantage. Sure, if a team wants to achieve its ideal fall rate, each member will have a specific ideal weight he needs to maintain, but there is no one body size that is essential to excel in the sport. You can’t be a 125-pound female and play professional football or weigh 200 pounds and be an Olympic gymnast, but people of both these sizes have won skydiving championships. Athletes of all shapes, sizes and genders can compete head-to-head on an even playing field.
What really sets skydiving apart from other sports are the unique mental challenges its teams face. Athletes such as ice skaters or gymnasts have practiced their exact performances hundreds of times before competing; skiers and golfers practice on the same run or course prior to an event. In contrast, formation skydiving teams have one chance to perform a sequence of moves against the clock, a sequence that they have probably never practiced before. This sequence involves a number of specific moves performed at a pace that may be more than one formation per second. The mental skills involved are every bit as critical to performance as physical flying skills. It is a challenge like no other, and that is probably one of the keys to its popularity.
The Playing Field
During a 4-way competition, each team competes in 10 rounds. On each jump, the four flyers must perform a sequence of five or six freefall formations as many times as they can in 35 seconds while the team’s camera flyer records all of the moves for judging. Each formation is worth one point. The meet organizers draw the particular five- or six-point sequence of jumps for each round (four- or five-point sequences for the intermediate category) from a 60-formation dive pool at the beginning of the meet.
They draw the moves from two formation categories: randoms and blocks. Random formations are single points without a requirement for how the team must transition from one random to the next. Blocks consist of two formations (or points) and a particular way the team has to transition from the first to the second formation in the block. This transition is called the “inter.” In order for the team to score a point for each formation, it must perform the inter correctly, and the team members must all have their pre-defined grips on one another at the exact same time.
Each block is completely unique and requires the flyers to perform technically different moves. On some blocks, the team breaks into two pairs of two flyers and turns the separate groups (known as “pieces”) 180, 360 or 540 degrees before re-forming (i.e., re-docking) to build the next formation. Other blocks require the team to break completely and for each individual to turn 360 or 540 degrees before completing the next formation. Still other blocks have transitions that include a three-flyer piece and an individual, or a two-flyer piece and two individuals.
The top 4-way teams average more than 20 points in 35 seconds of working time. On a jump that consists of five randoms, it is common for these teams to score more than 35 points in 35 seconds. The world record, set by both the French and Russian national teams at the 2010 World Championships, is 56—that’s one formation every 0.62 seconds! Flying with this level of timing and synchronicity requires a team to develop a high degree of freefall awareness and communication skill. To achieve these scores, each teammate’s hands must be on and off the correct grips with nearly perfect timing. During all transitions other than inters, the team must show a complete break between formations, meaning that every teammate’s hands are off grips at the same moment. In order to stay in
Although a team will have rehearsed all of the possible blocks and randoms individually, the fact that each draw will assemble these formations into different sequences complicates the challenge. With the seemingly infinite number of combinations, it is unlikely that the team will have rehearsed the exact sequence it will need to perform. Some blocks will cause the team members to switch positions with one another (this type of jump is known as a “slot-switcher”). On a slot-switcher, the teammates must remember 10 or 12 points rather than five or six.
Never having done the exact sequence before, it’s also not uncommon for someone to get lost and forget the next formation. Team members must train to avoid these brainlocks and figure out how they will handle them and other errors when they do happen. Time is of the essence—4-way formation skydiving is basically a race. You get no points for looking graceful, pretty or artistic. There is no subjective judging. You either built the formations by the rules or you didn’t.
And if all that isn’t enough, the camera flyer, an essential part of the team, must capture the performance at the correct distance and angle for the judges.
Developing a Team and Defining Your Goal
For a new team to succeed in formation skydiving, the members must develop a training plan. The training plan is about getting down to business. It is great to have a vision and a dream. But it is the training plan that will help you see that dream to fruition. The training plan is the physical embodiment of the pursuit of your dream. It clearly defines exactly what level of commitment and sacrifice will be necessary.
First, your team will need to clearly define a goal. Don’t assume that everyone on the team is on the same page. State specifically what the ultimate goal is that your team is aiming for. Once the team agrees on the goal, you must evaluate where the team is starting from and the performance level you are aiming for. Are you there to have fun and learn, to be the best you can be, to be the best in the world or all of the above? The training plan and strategy you structure will be a step-by-step map of how to get from where you are to where you’re going.
Here are some things you’ll want to discuss and define with your team:
- Exactly what the team is trying to achieve. What is the specific goal? What does winning mean to you?
- The type of team you want to be a part of and the competitors and teammates you want to become.
- The training plan that will be necessary to accomplish your goal. Commit to the plan.
Qualities and Traits of Winners
Striving for an ambitious goal is striving to win. The winning spirit, attitude and character are much the same for a victor in any endeavor. The qualities and traits of true winners cross into all areas of life. The courage it takes to make the decision to pursue our dreams is itself the first sign that we are winners. In other words, before we can win, we need to become winners.
A winning athlete:
- Pours his heart and soul into training, putting 100 percent of his effort into being the best athlete and teammate he can possibly be. At the same time, he keeps it in perspective, realizes it’s only a game and doesn’t think his world will fall apart if he doesn’t achieve the result he set out for.
- Enjoys the game and the hard training needed to reach his full potential.
- Learns and grows from his mistakes, knowing that they are a natural part of training and improving.
- Doesn’t let his self esteem or opinion of others rest solely on athletic ability or performance in competition.
- Demands more from himself than from any other teammate.
- Is emotionally tough and never responds to input defensively.
- Supports his teammates with his attitude, actions and words, boosts their confidence and self esteem and pushes them to be the best they can be.
- Can stay on the line in the heat of competition.
- Seems to perform at his best instinctively, without obvious thought or effort.
- Still have fun training together every day, regardless of sacrifices, hard work and apparently insurmountable odds.
- Hold tight to the belief that they are capable of reaching their goals.
- Unconditionally trust each teammates’ commitment to the team’s goal.
- Are able to communicate freely and openly within the team.
- Are focused and intense when the task of the moment requires it but then are relaxed, laid back and loose when they can be.
- Stay committed to the goal of personal and team best.
- Enter into competition calmly and confidently.
- Know what their best is, know what they need to do to deliver it and know that they will deliver it.
- Have well-defined training and communication processes so that they are capable of operating with ease and efficiency.
Together, your team members must make a decision about the type of teammates they want to be and the kind of team they want to be a part of. Much of it is just that simple. You should decide as a team how you want to feel, act and behave before you start training. Then during training:
Decide to have fun.
Decide to not let your or your teammates’ mistakes get the better of you.
Decide not to be defensive.
Decide to push yourself and demand the most from your performance.
Decide to support your teammates in whatever way they need.
Decide to stay calm in the heat of competition.
Decide to hold on to the belief that you can win.
There will be times when your own feelings and emotions try to steer your thoughts and behavior in a more negative direction. If you recognize this happening, make the decision to be the person you want to be, not the weaker person your emotions might try to turn you into. This decision is yours and only yours to make. It really is that simple. And if you decide to do this, your teammates will too.
Developing Your Skills as a Team
The best formation skydiving teams appear to move not as individuals but as four parts of one machine.
This requires a combination of highly developed individual flying skills as well as team freefall-communication skills. Advanced individual skills enable each flyer to perform fast, precise solo movements. Advanced team communication skills synchronize the individual teammates’ movements. It is the glue that holds the individuals together and what enables the team as a whole to fly at the full potential of the individuals’ speeds.
Individual Flying Skills
The physical skills are generally the more simple (not to be confused with easy) part of competitive athletic training. Excelling at these skills requires a deep commitment and hours of hard work and repetition. But almost anyone can do it if he believes he can and is willing to work.
For 4-way formation skydiving, you need the individual flying skills to:
- Move horizontally forward, backward and sideways.
- Turn in place by rotating around your center or other pivot points.
- Control your fall rate to maintain or adjust levels as needed.
- Execute moves where you combine horizontal, rotational and possibly vertical movements at the same time.
- Finish your move by coming to a complete, sharp stop and parking in position.
- Be solid in your position without allowing yourself to be moved.
- Maintain your position whether facing toward, away or sideways from the center of the formation.
- Maintain position while quickly picking up solid grips.
- Maintain position while releasing the grips with large hand movements used to show the judges that the entire team is off grips (aka “flashing”).
There is no question that the best way to learn and continue to sharpen your personal flying skills is in a wind tunnel. Training in a tunnel provides the extended freefall time needed to explore and discover the exact body position and body mechanics that are most effective. Ultimately, we want these movements to become innate (i.e., to achieve what’s commonly known as “muscle memory”). Flying in a tunnel gives us the chance to do extensive repetitions and, in doing so, build muscle memory in the shortest amount of time possible.
Soon after assembling your team, you should arrange a tunnel camp with a qualified coach. Holding a two- or three-day tunnel camp early in your team’s training could save you two or three weeks down the road. It will allow you to learn the basics of correct body mechanics and begin to develop muscle memory for the various flying skills.
Basic Neutral Body Position
The first step toward developing your individual flying skills is learning to fly in a comfortable, neutral body position. (“Neutral” meaning the body position you are in when you are staying still, the position you return to after stopping a move.)
There is no single basic neutral body position that is perfect for everyone. Varying heights, weights, builds and degrees of flexibility will all have an effect on what body position works best for each individual. However, there are common aspects to all correct neutral body positions. They are:
- Your pelvis/lower abdomen area is the lowest point on the wind. It serves as your center of gravity, providing a natural pivot point for in-place turns.
- Your head and eyes are the highest point. This allows for maximum visibility and awareness of the entire team.
- An unforced pelvis-low, head-high position is the definition of a comfortable arch. From this configuration, you should be in the middle of your fall-rate range. Quick level changes and recovery are easy, and you can perform them with minimal body movement.
- Your legs are comfortably spread at between a 45- to 90-degree angle. This provides a strong, stable stance on the air and a large flying surface.
- The angle between your arms and torso is roughly 90 to 120 degrees. This keeps your hands forward and in a position that requires minimal movement when picking up and dropping grips.
- Your arms are lower than your eyes and head. This prevents them from blocking your line of sight and keeps your hands level with your teammates’ grips.
A reasonably flexible person, flying alone and relaxing on the air, will naturally assume a neutral position similar to this. (Individuals with extreme or limited flexibility will have to work a little harder.) In this position, you feel solid and are very balanced on the air. You are in the middle of your fall-rate range, have a complete range of motion and have access to the full capabilities of all your flying surfaces.
The most common cause for compromising a correct, neutral body position comes from fighting the fall rate. In competition formation skydiving, being able to “stay up” or “stay down” with your team’s fall rate is not enough. It is crucial that everyone on the team effortlessly stays on level while flying in their neutral positions.
If you are not able to easily stay level with the team while in your neutral position, then you (and perhaps the entire team) will have to adjust the fall rate. Ideally, a team is matched well enough physically (size, build and shape) that the members can simply use tight competition suits and no one has to wear additional weight. But this is rarely the case. On most teams, each individual has to contribute to creating the team’s perfect fall rate. This may involve gaining, losing or wearing weight, increasing flexibility through extra stretching exercises or using a bigger suit. However, there are limits to how much weight a person can gain or lose without sacrificing his personal physical conditioning. Teams that are not similar enough in size and shape may not be able to adjust their individual weights enough. If that’s the case, members may need to wear looser jumpsuits or weight vests, but in excess, this will ultimately limit their ability to fly at full potential, so they should do as much as possible to adjust weight with diet and physical conditioning before relying on equipment modifications. Nearly everyone can adjust by five or 10 pounds, and quite often, that’s all it takes.
Team Freefall Communications Skills
Members of world-class FS teams have trained to the point that their individual flying skills have become innate. But even four great individual skydivers at a world-class level will not necessarily skydive as a world-class team. For a team to perform up to its full potential, the individual members must develop sharp and clear freefall communication skills. It is this that will enable the team to fly at its maximum speed, minimizing and synchronizing its moves. A team with good freefall communication knows when it can add speed or when it needs to pause and regain control. For a team without this skill, even the smallest glitch can lead to a costly breakdown.
At the core of this communication is laser-vision eye contact—not just looking at each other but actually talking to each other with your eyes. You must create a level of eye contact and communication that enables you to read each other’s mood, thoughts, intensity and intent. With this heightened communication, the team will be able to read the play and make instant decisions as to how best to maximize opportunities.
Team freefall communications skills include:
- Focused eye contact.
- Awareness of everything that is happening with the entire team.
- Awareness of the entire team’s physical, mental and emotional conditions.
- Reading each other’s thoughts, intents and readiness through eye-to-eye contact and solid grips.
- Seeing that the jump is on target or recognizing unexpected errors.
- The ability to instantly make fully informed decisions.
- Anticipation—knowing the next formation before the formation you are building is complete.
- Recognizing the team’s readiness and pushing the key speed (the speed at which you signal the break to the next point) accordingly.
- Key discipline—seeing the keys and following the key person.
- Synchronizing movements, including taking and breaking grips.
Most teams make the mistake of focusing on personal flying while neglecting communication skills. The first thing you should do to avoid this mistake—and to turn four individual skydivers into a team—is to focus your training on in-air communication.
Next month: “Understanding the Different Positions (Slots),” part two of “On the Line: Succeeding in 4-Way.”
About the Author
Dan Brodsky-Chenfeld, D-8424, is a founding member of Arizona Airspeed and has earned many U.S. and world 4- and 8-way formation skydiving championships. He has used the coaching strategies he shares in this series to lead many teams to achieve the same success. Brodsky-Chenfeld currently manages Skydive Perris in California and is a member of the P3 organizing team. His critically acclaimed book, “Above All Else,” is available at aboveallelsethebook.com and at major book retailers.