On the Line: Succeeding in 4-Way
Part 3 of 6—Building the Foundations with Random Drills
Once your team has a clear picture of the ultimate goal it is trying to reach, it will need to develop a well-thought-out training plan that will help build a strong foundation of basic skills, discipline, work ethic and attitude. Don’t underestimate the importance of this. You can only reach heights that your foundation is strong enough to hold. If you try to reach for performance levels that are too high before your foundation of basic personal and team skills is strong enough, the team will forever be in a cycle of taking two steps forward and one step back (or possibly even one step forward and two steps back). But if your foundation is strong, you will be able to layer on new skills one at a time and continue a steady climb toward reaching your goal.
The training technique that simultaneously builds the strongest foundation of individual flying skills and team freefall communication skills is the stop drill. Stop drills are the most efficient way to train to fly with maximum speed, efficiency, awareness, communication and synchrony using random work. (Random formations are single points without a requirement for how the team must transition from one random to the next.) What defines a stop drill is the length of time that the team stays off grips. Envision a judge scoring your team for a stationary, completed no-contact formation.
Stop drills separate a formation into skill sections. The team performs each part one at a time, starting from the break of a formation to the complete build of the next formation. By giving each of these skills complete attention, team members are able to perform each one as aggressively and efficiently as possible. These skills are:
- Anticipation and Key Discipline. While in the completed formation, everyone anticipates their next move as they look to the person who will key the next formation.
- Flashing. On the key, everyone flashes hard with both hands as they break grips.
- Sharp Moves. Everyone moves with as much power as they can while still being able to control their positions in the next formation.
- Eye Contact. The team holds its eye contact during the entire move until the members stop and are in position for the next formation. Whenever possible, they should look directly in the eyes of another team member.
- Awareness. Holding extended eye contact makes the members aware of the entire team.
- Stop Hard. Park in position. Maintain eye contact. Do not pick up grips.
- Anticipate the Next Point. Once everyone has stopped in position and is in the no-contact formation (the pre-finished picture), the formation is guaranteed to complete. The team members need to train themselves to anticipate the next point at this juncture, while in that pre-finished picture.
- Grips. The center flyers decide when it’s time to pick up grips. When the outside flyers see them make the decision, they must pick up their grips simultaneously. The team members should look at their grips while taking them so they can do so efficiently without fumbling. The grips should be solid. Don’t just lay a hand on the spot—pick up every grip as if you were going to fly a piece with it.
- Repeat. Go back to Anticipation and Key Discipline. Repeat the skills for the next point.
Ultimately, jumping with these skills separated out is not how you’ll skydive. But it is the best way to build muscle memory so that the team can perform formations technically correctly, sharply and efficiently.
Moving Quickly and Stopping Hard
Chasing grips is the most common mistake formation skydivers make. As soon as one formation breaks, all attention goes to the grips and the jumpers chase the grips like starving animals chasing their prey. They inevitably get tunnel vision and lose awareness of the team. They end up over-moving and getting off level without even recognizing it. After they pick up their grips, they look back to the center to see how the transition went for the rest of the team and whether the formation completed or not. The jumps are rough, noisy and sometimes even out of control.
When a team’s jumps are rough and unpredictable like this, they usually analyze the problem to be that they are trying to go too fast. They equate roughness with speed and become scared to fly aggressively because the jumps become too noisy and erratic. To correct this problem, they decide that they will score more points if they just fly slowly and smoothly, under that line. But the problem was never that they were going too quickly, it was that they didn’t stop. To some degree, they were basically crashing into every point.
A common expression in 4-way used to be, “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.” That is crap. Slow is slow; smooth is smooth; and fast is fast. To be fast, it is best to be smooth. But if you have to go slowly to go smoothly, then you are defeating the purpose. Concentrating on going slowly and smoothly can help a little: You’ll make the same errors but pay a smaller price for them because you’ll have less momentum and the impact will reduce. But 4-way is a race, after all, and training to go slowly will not win the meet.
To score the most points, teams must make the shortest moves they can as quickly as they can. The only way to control speed is to see where to stop and know how to stop. Moving aggressively requires stopping aggressively. As most of us know, moving is no problem. Most jumpers can easily move all over the place. The trick is stopping in the correct spot after moving at maximum speed.
By holding eye contact during the entire transition, jumpers can see where and when they need to stop. They hit the brakes hard and at the right time. If they end up over-moving, the fix is not to slow down. It is to start stopping either sooner, harder or both. The confidence to move quickly will not diminish—the jumpers can continue to move at maximum speed.
By focusing on stopping hard, jumpers are able to learn how to go quickly while also minimizing their moves. The jumps become very predictable, and the team develops a feeling of total control. This gives the confidence to push the speed even further. The team is learning to fly on the line from the very beginning. From the start of training and during every competition, fly as quickly as you can control.
A jumper who holds eye contact through the entire transition will greatly increase his awareness. By looking harder and watching longer, the jumper can see everything that is happening with the team. He’ll stay level even when there are fall-rate changes. He’ll recognize over-moving as soon as he has gone two inches rather than two feet too far. He’ll see when the transition is going well and will know the key will be coming soon, or he’ll see that there is a glitch and will anticipate that the key may be later. He can calm others down or speed them up—whichever the situation calls for. He can gain total control of the jump and the confidence that goes with it.
Anticipation is the single most essential element necessary to move quickly. When a jumper’s anticipation is sharp, he’ll fire into a move the instant the key comes. With less-than-ideal anticipation, there will often be a slight hesitation. That hesitation may only take a fraction of a second, but in formation skydiving, a fraction of a second can be worth a point.
Exceptional anticipation is often the difference between having a good jump and a great one. Too often, anticipation is something that happens by chance, because a team hasn’t had a clear plan to practice its anticipation skills. Generally, FS competitors don’t even practice thinking about the next formation until the one they are doing is keyed. That is not anticipation.
The definition of anticipation is being aware of having to do something before you need to do it, not when you need to. In skydiving terms, this means knowing what the next formation is before the current one gets keyed. Ultimately, keys will come the instant the formation is complete. At that speed, a team will need to anticipate the next point before it completes the current one. This level of anticipation is a skill and mental process that teams cannot take for granted: They need to practice it. Stop drills provide the perfect training opportunity.
When a team holds eye contact through the entire transition, the members will recognize the pre-finished picture and will know the formation is going to complete. At that moment, they need to anticipate the next point. Then, before they even pick up their grips, they will be mentally prepared for the next move. On a regular skydive, they’ll be going through the steps too quickly to recognize this moment. But on a stop drill, they’ll have the time to actually train to recognize this pre-finished picture as a cue to anticipate the next point. After developing this skill during stop drills, it will be much easier for them to apply it during skydives that are at normal speed.
By actually practicing anticipation skills using this technique, a team will greatly reduce the number of brain locks its members have. When a member does have a brain lock, he’ll recover from it much more quickly because he’ll realize sooner—at the pre-finished picture stage—that he doesn’t know what the next point is and will have time to remember before the key comes.
Competition rules define grips as “stationary contact.” To show a legal formation to the judges, all the grips that define that formation must be stationary at the same moment. That is good enough for the judges, but for the team to know that all the grips are on, the person being gripped should be able to feel it.
Jumpers often waste time picking up good grips. Their hands are in the correct position, but they’ll take much too long to make them stationary. A jumper who picks up weak grips this way can miscommunicate his state of readiness to his teammates. This will often cause the key person to hesitate or even stop to look and see if the team is ready. Either reaction will slow the team down and be a detriment to overall confidence. Solid grips that are stationary at the first instant of contact bring a sense of certainty and confidence to a team, since there is no question that the formation is complete and everyone is ready to transition.
It is true that fast teams often have no choice but to take “cheap grips” (grips that are legal but less than solid) as a result of moving at high speeds or being slightly out of position with the grips out of reach. By taking perfect grips on stop drills, jumpers will build muscle memory and instinctively pick up the most solid grips they can when making the most of a less-than-ideal situation. If jumpers train to take cheap grips from the beginning, they’ll end up fumbling and groping when the team starts to go fast or when they are slightly out of position.
During stop drills, the entire team should take grips simultaneously, staying off grips until the center flyers feel that the team has shown a stationary, frozen, no-contact formation. This training not only synchronizes the grip-taking, it also trains the center flyers to lead and the outside flyers to follow. Because the outside flyers actually see the center flyers decide to pick up grips, they learn to anticipate and match the center flyers’ timing so that grip-taking is simultaneous. Practicing this gives the team an opportunity to start building the freefall communication that is so essential to advancing in the sport.
Once the team’s move is finished and has stopped in position, the members will be able to see the grips in their peripheral vision. Once they make the decision to pick up those grips, they should look right at the grips and aggressively take them.
Obviously, our plan is not to arrive at the National Championships doing stop drills on our random work. Once we have used the stop-drill training to build a strong foundation of personal flying and team communication skills, it is time to move on.
Level-One Random Work
New teams should practice random skydives using the stop drills, performing each move deliberately, one at a time, as aggressively as possible. Learn how to minimize moves and fly with total efficiency while flying at maximum speed. Hone team communication to achieve awareness and synchrony. The jumps should be very controlled and predictable with clean, sharp and synchronous moves and stops. By doing this training from the beginning, a team will learn to fly on the line with confidence, speed and power.
Once the team’s performance is consistent, it can move on to level-two jumps.
Level-Two Random Work
Level-two jumps are very similar to level-one jumps except in one respect: grips. Level-two teams should practice the same stop drills but no longer need to show a no-contact formation or wait until everyone stops before picking up grips. Each individual must make a complete stop, but once that individual has stopped, he can pick up the grips as they present themselves.
The team still needs to take grips efficiently and communicate its readiness through them. But the jumpers’ hands should now be picking up grips with a certain degree of muscle memory. They should now be able to look less directly at the grips and begin utilizing their peripheral vision.
The grip-taking will not be as synchronous, because some flyers have shorter moves than others. Some members of the formation will have stopped and presented grips before others have. But having done the stop-drill training, they should now be completely aware of the team and know with certainty whether they can pick up grips sooner without hindering the build. Indeed, they can now actually assist the build by picking up grips earlier.
On level-one jumps, the team was already moving at its maximum speed. Teams performing level-two jumps should not be trying to go any faster. However, the team should be scoring more points by being more efficient and not spending as much time building each point. Level-two jumps will feel easier and less forced. A nice team pace should begin to take shape, and the random work will start to develop a consistent rhythm.
Level-two jumps are calm, aggressive, controlled and predictable. The skills a team has invested so much time working on should now begin to happen instinctively:
- They naturally hold eye contact during the transition because it would seem crazy to look anywhere else.
- They always fly as aggressively as they can because they’ve never done it any other way.
- They automatically complete each aggressive move with a sharp stop.
- Their hands instinctively pick up good grips because that’s the only way they have ever done it.
Now it’s time to trust these instincts and let them work for the team in level three.
Level-Three Random Work
On level-three jumps, the team begins to hold eye contact just long enough to see that the team has made a clean break and then goes for the grips. In the time it takes to see a clean break, the team will start to move. The members will be able to recognize how the transition is going and will know if the build will happen quickly or if there is a glitch that may slow it down. They’ll still see the pre-finished picture with just as much certainty, but this will occur during the transition rather than after the stop.
At this point, the team’s anticipation will be better than ever and will happen automatically. The members will seem to instinctively know to hold eye contact as long as practical while taking grips as soon as they become available. Level-three teams can use this simple rule: Don’t look at or try to pick up a grip before it’s within reach.
In level one, the team had to consciously think to move aggressively, stop hard, hold eye contact, anticipate at the pre-finished picture and pick up solid grips. On level three, these skills should have become ingrained.
On level three, the team still should not be trying to go faster. However, the points will be coming much more quickly than at level two, simply because the team is flying with maximum efficiency and minimal wasted time. The team pace should have accelerated on its own while still feeling calm, sharp and aggressive. At this point, the team is ready to move on to level four and add speed.
Level-Four Random Work
Now it’s time to up the ante. The team has squeezed out every point it could by becoming technically proficient. Its skills have been steadily advancing. From the beginning, the team has been flying as aggressively as it thought it could control. Now it’s time to push more and risk being less under control.
On levels two and three, teams let their style of skydiving establish a consistent team pace. Now it’s time to use that pace as a tool. On level four, the teams push themselves to a new speed by predetermining a faster pace.
The team should no longer need to focus as much on looking and stopping since those happen naturally. On level four, once the team members see the key and the clean break, they pick up the grips of the next formation based on the team’s new predetermined pace. They’ll still need to be disciplined and allow the key person to key the points, but the key person now has permission to key on pace instead of on completion. In other words, if someone wasn’t on grips when the key came, he was too slow.
Sprint Drills for Level Four
The most productive way of executing level-four jumps is by performing five-point sprints. On the first jump, the team pauses at the first point and allows the members to take a breath to prepare to fire through the sequence. On the key, the team races through the five points at the new, predetermined faster pace, then pauses again to catch its breath at the first point.
Doing the sprints this way provides the team a chance to experience the new pace in smaller, more manageable increments. After the first jump, the team will be more prepared to hold that pace for a full 35 seconds on a repeat jump. If the team first tries to perform the entire jump at the new pace, it’s very likely that it will completely fall apart early in the skydive and not have the chance to become comfortable at the new speed.
When pushing the pace, scores commonly stay at about the same level or even go down, since there are often busts or glitches that cost time and points. But the drill should show the team members that they are capable of going faster than they had previously thought. Let the eye contact and communication dictate the speed. Don’t allow the speed to dictate the quality of the communication.
Level-four training should make the team comfortable with being over the line. This is important, since most teams will lose touch with how calm they need to be in order to trust their instincts and fly right on the line. After doing a chunk of level-four jumps, return back to the level-three plan of moving at full speed while not consciously pushing the speed. The team does not constantly need to push—the time spent on the sprint drills will have allowed the team to become comfortable at a new speed.
Random drills help ensure that a team is well trained and comfortable at its maximum speed. Trust that when the team calms down (it can calm itself by focusing back on the four Cs—see June Parachutist, “On the Line, Part 2” for details) and establishes good communication, the speed will take care of itself.
Next month: “Block Training With Stage Drills,” part four 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.
Controlling the Pace With the Key Speed
A key is the signal to the team to break a formation. The top formation skydiving teams move with precise timing and synchrony. The primary tool used to keep the team in sync is the key speed, the speed at which the team signals to break its formations.
The first step of a team’s training is to learn to skydive as one team instead of four individuals. A huge factor when accomplishing this is to understand when the team is ready to transition to the next formation and keying so at the correct time.
The correct key speed can change from point to point and will evolve throughout a team’s development. It is not always as simple as just keying when the last grip is on or when the formation is flying tension-free or on a certain rhythm. Keying too quickly can make the team feel rushed and panicked. It can push the team over the line and lead to a major breakdown. Keying too slowly wastes time and takes away from the energy of the jump. So when is the right time to key? The answer is quite simple: Key when everyone is ready to go.
It is the key person’s job to learn to read the readiness of the team. A team that communicates with good eye contact as well as solid grips projects its readiness to the key person. The Rear Center is the primary key person, because he is most often in the position to easily see the entire team and where the team can easily see him. He is usually the first to be able to tell whether or not everyone on the team will be ready for the key.
It takes longer for a younger team to be ready for keys than for an experienced team. A very new team may not be ready to transition until everyone has a good grip, the formation has completely stopped and all eyes are on the key person. The more experienced teams should be ready the instant that the last finger comes in contact with a legal grip. However, good communication, awareness and knowing what to expect from the key person are essential for teams of all experience levels.
Knowing What to Expect
When all the teammates have good eye contact and awareness, they can tell during the transition that the formation is building well and that the team will be ready for a key. The key person recognizes before he even has a grip that he will be able to key quickly, and he knows the team will be expecting it.
When the team has a rough transition, the formation doesn’t build as well. Consequently, they may not be ready to transition as soon. With good eye contact and awareness, the team will recognize that there is a problem that may delay the build. They will expect that the key person may choose to “squeeze the formation” (slow down the pace by keying more slowly). In either scenario, the team is aware of what’s happening and knows what to expect from that key person. They are able to stay together and fly as one.
Knowing what to expect from the key person has a very calming, confidence-building effect on the whole team. If someone makes a flying error and is late getting on grips, he knows there is no reason to panic, because the key person has him covered and won’t go without him. On the flip side, when the jump is going smoothly, the team will expect the key person to recognize that and take advantage of it by picking up the pace.
There may be times when a formation is nearly unstable or someone barely has a grip, but all of the teammates are aware of the problem and are ready to go. The key person may not like the situation, but he’ll see what is happening and know what he needs to do in response.
For instance, consider a situation where the key person can see that the Front Center barely has a grip on the Point flyer. But the Front Center is holding his hand perfectly still to show stationary contact. The Front Center has clearly decided that his grip is as good as it’s going to get. The Rear Center can read the Front Center’s intent and knows the Front Center is ready because he is not trying to pick up a better grip. The formation may not be pretty (and is barely even complete), but it is ready to key.
The exact same is true if the Tail has a weak grip behind the Rear Center. If the Rear Center feels the grip moving as the Tail tries to get a better hold, he knows the Tail isn’t ready to go. When he feels the weak grip freeze, he knows the Tail has decided to go with the grip he has. The Rear Center keys, the Tail flashes, and they go to the next point. Had the Rear Center keyed sooner, the Tail may not have been ready because he was still focusing on picking up a better grip.
Another scenario would be when a team finishes a block (two formations that include a particular way the team has to transition from the first to the second) off level and with too much speed. If the team finishes on grips and locks down to stop, everyone is aware of the problem even though the formation is still off level. If they fix the levels immediately after the key (as they move to the next point), it will take less time than it would to hold the formation and fix the levels while still on grips. Because they are aware of the problem, they are ready to go.
On the other hand, if someone on the team isn’t aware of the level problem, he won’t know what will be required to fix it. The team isn’t ready. Choosing to key then could result in a problem that takes much more time to fix than it would have to adjust while still on grips. Under this scenario, it may be better to squeeze the formation and hold off on the key.
The team needs to address the key speed when reviewing its jumps. Let the key person know if the team was ready earlier than he thought it was. Conversely, the key person should let individuals know if they weren’t ready when they should have been.
Ultimately, if a jumper’s hands are touching the grips, he’d better be ready for the key. That’s why teams train on eye contact and anticipation skills so that everyone is aware of everything and is always a step ahead.
Follow the Key Person
It is important that all the teammates let the key person lead and then follow it. The key person has the key because he can best evaluate the team’s readiness and because everyone on the team can most easily see or feel the key when he gives it.
Major breakdowns in a jump often occur when an individual debates or overrides the key person’s decision. When this happens, the key becomes unclear and some of the teammates may break while others are still on the previous point. The team either stops completely to get back together or fails to build the correct formation for several seconds. This breakdown in communication will do far more damage than any individual flying error.
A breakdown like this won’t happen if everyone follows the key person. Jumpers must back up the key person even if they think—or are even certain—that he was wrong and the formation wasn’t complete. The best strategy is for the team to stay in sync in any situation.
It is actually more important for the team to stay in sync than it is for every grip to be perfectly legal. In FS, judges score teams by what they think they see. If everyone flashes on the key, the judges may think the formation was complete even if it actually wasn’t. But if everyone doesn’t move together on the key, the judges may think the formation wasn’t there when it actually was.
Make it look good by staying together. Stay together by following the key person.