On the Line: Succeeding in 4-Way
Part 2 of 6—Understanding the Different Positions (Slots)
In competitive formation skydiving, because smaller moves are faster moves, competitors engineer their dives with conservation of motion in mind. On a correctly engineered dive, a hypothetical line develops that runs from the rear to the front of each formation. The shortest moves will usually leave everyone in the same position on that line from one point to the next. This means that if a jumper begins a move in the middle of the line, he stays in the middle; if he begins at one end, he stays at one end, etc. These positions (or slots), from the back to front of the formation, are Tail, Rear Center (sometimes called “Inside Center” due to the position on exit), Front Center (or “Outside Center”) and Point. When flying pieces, the Tail and Rear Center are generally piece partners (the “rear piece”), and the Point and Front Center are piece partners (the “front piece”).
Although each position requires similar flying skills, some slots require the jumper to use certain ones more frequently. Knowing what these particular skills are will help your team decide who is best suited for each position and will help each person work toward becoming an expert in his particular slot.
The center flyers’ primary job is to lead the jump. From their positions, they are responsible for setting the fall rate, angles, pace and emotions of the entire skydive. The center flyers can most successfully run the jump by flying as a team-within-the-team. During each transition, they need to present a clearly defined setup picture to the outside flyers indicating exactly where the formation will build. In essence (especially for young teams), the center flyers should completely finish a 2-way move, hold eye contact and wait there while the outside flyers follow them.
The center flyers’ work must be precise, with attention paid to the centerpoint of the formation and the formation’s heading. If the angles are off by only a few degrees, the Point and Tail will need to travel a significantly increased distance.
The center flyers must be deliberate and confident in their moves. The sharper they make the move and the better they stop in position, the more precisely the Point and Tail can match that picture. Even if the angle is slightly off, if the center flyers make their moves and stop with confidence, the outside flyers can easily recognize the picture and respond with the necessary adjustments.
If the center flyers move to the correct position too cautiously, the picture presented to the outside flyers takes too long to gel and is unpredictable (since it is constantly moving, it will be very difficult to follow). This will cause the Point and Tail to hesitate as they second guess themselves. In other words, it is better to be wrong with confidence than cautiously correct. Of course, it’s best to be both.
If the centers provide a sharp, predictable 2-way for the outside flyers to follow, the team will be able to move as a 4-way at the same speed as the centers fly their 2-way.
The outside flyers’ job is to follow the center flyers. They must match the fall rate, angles, pace and level of aggression set by the center flyers. During the post-jump video review, they can ask the center flyers to pick it up, slow it down or pay more attention to angles, but during the jump they have to play the hand the center flyers deal them.
Both outside flyers should be patient and let the centers lead. For example, the Point will want to wait for a good setup from the center flyers before committing to an out-facing position, and the Tail will want to do the same before taking grips.
The outside flyers’ primary focus is the centerpoint of the formation and the setup the center flyers are presenting. (The center flyers’ primary focuses are each other and their 2-way. They should finish the 2-way before looking to the outside flyers.) The outside flyers match their flying to the setup and then finish the build in their corners of the formation.
The outside flyers must refer to the centerpoint by having a mental picture that defines their correct positions for each formation in reference to that centerpoint. Doing so is fairly simple for round formations, but in long formations, when the center becomes crowded, it can be more difficult.
On round formations (such as B, D, E, J, M and O), the outside flyers look directly at each other on a line through the center. Their distance from one another and their headings relative to each other define their positions. On long formations (such as G and P, and the first point of blocks 1, 12, 16, 18, 19 and 21), the outside flyers continue to look directly down the centerline, but their correct position is defined by where they are relative to the opposite center flyer (the Tail references the Front Center; the Point references the Rear Center).
During a transition from a round to a long formation, the center flyers move onto the centerline and partially block the outside flyers’ views of each other. This tends to cause the outside flyers to give up on looking down the centerline, and instead, they put their attention on their upcoming grips (which are still out of reach). If they are still able to take their grips at this point, they will often be out of position or off level, sacrificing a clean build of the formation. So, when transitioning from round to long formations, the outside flyers must maintain eye contact down the centerline. As the center flyers block the view, the outside flyers should shift their focuses from one another to the opposite center flyer (the Tail references the Front Center, and the Point references the Rear Center).
By looking at the opposite center, the outside flyer will see what his piece partner sees and will be able to anticipate the moves he is going to make. If he stops looking down the centerline and focuses only on the upcoming grips, he will fly to where the grips are instead of flying to where the grips will be in the finished formation.
Once the center flyers vacate the centerline, each outside flyer will again have a clear line of vision to his partner. At that instant, the outside flyers should shift their focuses back to one another. This skill—maintaining the line of sight down the centerline but shifting attention and focus to different references on that line—is a skill the outside flyers must learn if they are going to be able to correctly “read the play.”
Rear Center (i.e., Inside Center)
The Rear Center usually faces into the center of the formation and generally has smaller moves than the Front Center does. Therefore, the Rear Center is often the first flyer in position, which gives him the primary responsibility for setting the angles and centerpoint of the formation. While others are still finishing their moves, the Rear Center has often already stopped, providing him the opportunity to watch the others during the transition and to anticipate how the formation is going to complete.
On long formations that may be difficult for the others to completely see, the Rear Center can remain aware of everyone. He’ll feel the Tail behind him, will have grips on the Front Center and will be able to see the Point. Since the Rear Center has access to more visual and physical information than the others, he is often the first one to recognize if the formation is building as planned. Consequently, the Rear Center gives the key for most of the points.
This awareness advantage puts the Rear Center in a unique position to have information on the readiness of the team, and with that, he can anticipate how the jump should progress. The Rear Center’s job is to maintain this heightened awareness and use it to his team’s advantage, for example, choosing when to pick up or slow down the pace. This requires a great deal of mental calmness.
The Rear Center also needs to be very solid in his position, because he’ll feel the impact of any hard or off-level docks. He needs to absorb this while staying locked in position, not allowing it to move him or the rest of the team. If the Rear Center moves, everyone moves—the team responds to him. To maintain a rock-solid formation, it often helps if the Rear Center is falling slightly faster than the middle of the team’s fall-rate range. If the Rear Center is fighting to stay with the fall rate, he—and therefore the formation—will be significantly more fragile.
Because Rear Center is the position with the most control of the jump, a team may find it advantageous to put its most experienced person there.
A Front Center will spend much of his time facing away from the formation’s centerpoint, often while picking up grips on the Point. It is very important for him to cue off the Rear Center and to prioritize the center 2-way. When the Front Center forms a solid 2-way with the Rear Center, the Point’s job is easy. A Front Center can never allow himself to sacrifice solid, precise center work by trying to pick up grips on the Point too soon.
When the Rear Center does pick up grips on the Point, the grips must be very solid, since the Point’s visual awareness is greatly limited. The grips the Point feels from the Front Center will often be his primary source of information about whether he is in the correct position. Through the grips, the Point will be able to read the readiness of the team and whether he should expect a quick key.
The Front Center will split his time nearly evenly between facing toward and facing away from the centerpoint. Therefore, the Front Center often has to perform several consecutive 180-degree moves. Front Centers should spend extra time working on the skill of starting and stopping these strong, fast, precise movements.
A Front Center must also make many blind turns in which he’ll have little, if any, visual contact with the Rear Center. A Front Center should also spend extra time drilling these types of moves so he can make them with confidence despite the lack of a clear visual reference.
The Front Center flyer must excel at a wide range of skills, including the ability to make sharp, solid and sometimes blind moves. This is another slot that a team may wish to assign to one of its more skilled flyers.
The Point is located at the front of the formation and is often facing outward. It is not uncommon for the Point to spend the entire dive facing away from center and picking up few, if any, grips.
While facing away from the center, the Point can see very little, but he can see enough. He should have a clear, consistent picture in his mind during the transitions to each formation that indicates whether the formation is building correctly. The Point must be patient and take the time to see the center flyers’ setup, as well as his heading in relation to and distance from the Tail. These specific pictures will guarantee that the Point will be in the correct position when he commits to an out-facing position.
A Point also needs to “listen to” the grips that team members take on him. The information a Point gets from the grips he feels will confirm or deny that he is in the correct position and will let him know whether to expect the team to take a slight pause or make a fast key to the next point.
A new team whose center flyers are still learning their jobs needs a Point who is patient and will wait for the correct picture before committing to an out-facing turn. As the team’s center work becomes more consistent and the pictures more predictable, the Point will be able to move in synch with the center flyers while maintaining just as much confidence in his positioning.
Since the Point flyer will often fly several out-facing moves in a row, he will often have to switch his eye contact between formations. The timing of this head switch is crucial. If the Point head switches too soon, he may lose sight of his reference point. If he waits too long, he won’t have the new picture he needs to prepare for the following move.
As a team builds consistency and the Point learns his slot, it is best for him to perform his head switch after the formation is complete but before it is keyed. (For a team at this level, the keys are not usually coming very quickly, and there should be enough time for this). With more practice, the Point will be able to tell at what pace the formation will build and can confidently make his head switch before the formation is complete.
Since the keys are sometimes difficult for Point flyers to see, they rely on feeling them through the center flyers’ grips. Therefore, the Point’s grip-taking and flashing skills are often not as developed as the Tail’s. The Point will want to put in extra time drilling these essential skills to make up for the lack of practice on actual jumps.
Being comfortable flying in an out-facing position is a unique skill. Everyone will learn it, but if there is one individual more competent at this skill than the others, the Point is probably a good spot for him. Your team may want to pick a Point who is slightly on the light side in terms of fall rate. When a jumper tries to see over his shoulder in an out-facing position, he’ll often arch a little more than normal. If the Point is slightly lighter, he will be comfortable in this somewhat exaggerated arch position.
The Tail, in contrast to the Point, most commonly faces in and may take grips during every formation. Having so many grips—and often even the same grips—puts the Tail in a very busy position.
Seeing the keys requires extra attention from the Tail. The Point can easily and instantly feel when the grips on him release, but frequently, no one has grips on the Tail. He’ll have only a visual reference, and that visual reference may be quite a distance away. On long formations, the Tail usually has grips on the Rear Center, who is also giving the key. In order to have a simultaneous break, the Tail must look over and around the Rear Center’s body to see his hands as he flashes.
Complete separation is another issue for the Tail flyer. Since he often has the same grips on the next point, the Tail may get off and then back on grips before the entire team has shown the judges a complete break. To combat this, the Tail needs to do a big flash with both hands on the key and ascertain whether everyone has dropped their grips and shown a complete break before picking up grips for the next formation.
Another issue the Tail has to deal with is that, in general, no one looks at him. If the angles are off, it is more common for the center flyers to favor the Point because they are facing in that direction. Therefore, the Tail may have to improvise without hesitation to cover for the center flyers’ inaccuracies.
The Tail must also be able to pick up grips on the Rear Center without restricting the Rear Center’s move. To do this, he must look past the Rear Center to the Front Center. This way, the Tail sees what the Rear Center is seeing and can anticipate his moves and intentions. In some instances, the Tail can pick up grips while helping the Rear Center complete his move.
With so much to be aware of and so many grips to take, the Tail must learn to quickly and efficiently pick up solid grips. This way, he can communicate his readiness to the Rear Center through his hands. For more advanced teams, when possible, the Tail picks up grips on the Rear Center before the center 2-way builds. This allows the Rear Center to remove the Tail from his key checklist, and he’ll only need to look for the last grip in front of him before keying.
With so many grips to pick up, it is important that the Tail is very solid in his position to guarantee that he never floats while taking grips. In the same way that it can be a slight benefit for the Point to be on the light side, the Tail can be slightly heavy. The Tail also needs to be an aggressive flyer with a make-it-happen attitude. If there is someone on the team who is strongest in these qualities, the Tail slot may be where he belongs.
Next month: Part three of On the Line: Succeeding in 4-Way—Building the Foundation With Random Drills
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.
THE FOUR Cs
How to Put Yourself on the Line
Skydiving and other high-speed, precision sports contain two diametrically opposed qualities: excitement and calm. When someone is racing down a ski slope or around an auto track, speeding down a motocross trail or flying through the sky, his heart is pounding and adrenaline is flowing. In contrast, to maintain control and maneuver at the highest speed possible, the person’s mind must be very calm.
In skydiving, things happen at an incredibly fast pace. Within fractions of a second, the athlete needs to be able to recognize adversities that require him to alter his plan or advantages that allow him to push himself harder. He must make decisions almost instinctively since there is no time for extended analysis or deliberation.
As a team increases its speed, the members squeeze the same amount of information into less time. For this amount of information to be instantly absorbed and the teammates to make correct decisions, they need to be calm—very calm—and in an almost meditative state. The faster the team goes, the calmer its members must become.
Many high-speed precision athletes don’t establish the necessary level of calm because their adrenaline is pumping … and they love it. They come out of the gate, kick it into high gear and try to hold on. In formation skydiving, this may work for a few seconds (or with lots of luck, for an entire jump), but the team will never get through the meet without blowing up.
For athletes to operate right on the line in competition every time, they need to have a proven process that they’ve practiced and had success with in training, one that has been specifically designed for their particular endeavors. With skydiving, teams have great success using the “Four Cs”—calm, communication, control and confidence.
Being on the line begins with a very calm mind. The common tendency for new skydivers, as well as competitive skydivers, is for their arousal levels to begin increasing from the moment they board the aircraft. It continues to build, accelerating to the highest point as they prepare to exit. It seems ridiculous when their coach tells them to calm down. It’s just not natural. For skydiving team members to exit the plane in the calm state of mind necessary to perform at their best, they need to start establishing that calmness several minutes prior to exit.
To do this, sit back, slow down and relax your breathing. Don’t give any thought to the technical aspect of the moves you are about to perform. Visualize only the feeling of the jump when you are right on the line. Remember the effortless ease that the jump has when you trust your instincts and allow it to happen. Remind yourself that it is going to be easy. When you are calm, focused and free of all distractions, it will happen automatically, as you trained for.
As you begin to climb out of the plane, take another deep breath. When everyone is in position for the exit, the person giving the exit count will look around to see that everyone is ready. Pause for a moment together as everyone on the team takes one more deep breath in unison, one last reminder to stay calm.
Everyone will look in to the center, minds calm, together as one unit. At the exit count, you’ll go.
When your team hits the air, laser-sharp, direct eye contact will allow you to broaden your views and expand your air awareness. You’ll see everything that is going on with the team. You’ll easily recognize perfect moves, and you’ll recognize problems almost before they start. As an individual, you’ll see everything and keep aware of all that is happening, and you’ll see that your teammates are aware, as well.
This eye contact and awareness establishes a high degree of communication. It enables you to actually see what your teammates are thinking and feeling, and it allows you to make instantaneous decisions together. If you recognize that a teammate is over the line, you can calm him down with just a glance. If you realize a teammate is scared and flying cautiously, you can pump him up just as quickly.
To practice maintaining this level of communication on any given jump, choose a specific formation in which eye contact is easy, and make that formation your team’s cue to remind yourselves to stay calm and to communicate. Practice on the ground during the dive preparation, and the calmness will happen instantly when your eyes make contact on the jump.
At this point, you’ll be aware of everything that is happening during the jump. The team’s communication will enable you to “talk” and make instantaneous decisions together. You’ll recognize any glitches and can instantly decide and communicate how to fix them. You’ll recognize when you are on your game and can decide together to pick up the pace. This communication establishes a level of control that allows the team to adapt instantly to any situation.
It is control that justifies complete confidence in yourself and the team. With control established and recognized, you must then choose to be confident. Choose to fly fast and hard. This is a very conscious decision that you’ll make in a fraction of a second. Recognize the team has control and then choose to move with as much power as you can while still keeping that control.
With proper training, you will inherently apply the maximum amount of power you can control. But it won’t happen on its own. Like any other athletic endeavor, it requires extensive repetition. Whenever the team demonstrates control, you must answer by choosing to fly at full power. With enough practice, the team will nearly always be under control, and you will instinctively be moving at full speed.
When your new team begins training, it may take the first 10 seconds or more of each jump to work through the Four Cs process and to put the team on the line. If your team is more advanced and uses this method habitually, it will be different. You will be able to transition through the process—starting off calmly, immediately establishing communication, recognizing control and choosing to fly with confidence—one second off the plane. All you have to do is let go of any distractions and focus on calming your mind. The rest will happen automatically. It will have become ingrained.