Peak Experiences in Skydiving

Visit any drop zone and you’ll soon start enjoying the good vibes. Skydivers are friendly, possess high energy and are extremely passionate about freefalling through the sky. Excitement is in the air, and it’s easy to see why. Skydivers take premeditated risks by leaping out of perfectly good airplanes. It’s what we do, and we love it. The daily camaraderie on drop zones is compelling and is one of the major things that attracts new skydivers to the sport. It’s an activity filled with confident, competent and enthusiastic people.

However, there is more to it than that. New skydivers soon begin to understand what almost everybody on the DZ realizes: It isn’t just surviving each skydive that matters; it’s what happens during the skydive. And what happens on the next skydive could be that very special time when everything comes together for a great experience.

Reaching the Peak
Special jumps can occur without warning and without any predetermination. It could easily be your first skydive. Perhaps it was the time you flew into your biggest formation. Perhaps it was turning multiple points on an 8-way with your newest friends. Whatever the particulars of the jump, if it positively changed the way you feel about yourself, chances are you were having a peak experience. These experiences can be some of the happiest and most thrilling moments of one’s life. Without a doubt, peak experiences are people’s healthiest moments.

Abraham Maslow—famous for his hierarchy of needs that focused on the psychology of healthy people—coined the term “peak experience” in 1964. He called it “a moment accompanied by a euphoric mental state often achieved by self-actualizing individuals.” His assertions stood out in a time when the bulk of psychology research focused on the psychological disorders of unhealthy people.

Most skydivers fall into the category of healthy people. Self-actualizing skydivers use the challenges in this sport to develop their potential. The first jump is usually a remarkable experience. That first jump opens the door and lays the foundation for succeeding challenges. There is always a challenge on every skydive, some aspect that is new and different that the jumper could do better, faster or higher. It is overcoming the challenges of deliberate risk taking that helps skydivers develop individual potential and become more self-actualizing.

In the Flow
Peak experiences bear numerous similarities to another psychological concept known as “flow.” Flow, an idea developed by positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is a state of mind during which “people become so involved in an activity that the world seems to fade away and nothing else seems to matter.” When in flow, Csikszentmihalyi writes, “Time seems to fly by, focus becomes sharp, and people experience a loss of self-consciousness.”

People having peak experiences are often also experiencing flow. However, the opposite is not always true. For example, playing a good game of golf requires intense focus. While the golfer may have been in a flow state to achieve success, he was probably not having a peak experience. (Although he may have had one if he won the golf tournament!)

Successful competitive skydivers condition themselves to reach their flow states. They intensely focus and envision nothing other than a perfect dive. Look around the drop zone and you can see several methods jumpers use. Accuracy competitors, who are usually alone prior to a jump and talk very little, use silent meditation. Formation flyers, who are gaining flow in a group experience, use dirt diving and review of dive videos to help become zoned in as part of a team. Both types of skydivers, as well as the best competitors in other disciplines, use flow to reach higher levels of performance.

Team captains and leaders frequently use group dynamics to foster a sense of shared experience and togetherness to encourage the development of flow during practice for an upcoming skydive. They encourage others to stay away and not interrupt group concentration. Large record skydives require intense flow from all participants. It’s essential.

Putting It All Together
To illustrate how these concepts apply in skydiving, take the example of a jumper who was participating in a 100-way formation skydive. He was selected to be the last out of the airplane and the last to fly into the formation. He said, “I was absolutely terrified of failing my biggest test in formation flying. My solution soon became apparent. I focused my concentration so intensely that I imagined nothing else but leaving the airplane and docking in my assigned slot, and it worked! I made my largest dive. Last out, last in. It was just the way I pictured my performance.” This example illustrates how mentally picturing an accomplishment can facilitate a jumper’s intense flow state and contribute to achieving an unforgettable peak experience.

Additionally, this achievement produced several changes in the jumper’s persona on the drop zone. His teammates congratulated and lauded him for his efforts, which in turn increased his status among other skydivers. Organizers asked him to participate in future large skydives, and his contemporaries viewed him as an expert. The opinion he held of himself also increased. He said, “I felt better about myself and believed I had changed into a better person: more confident, more social and more attuned with others. I had taken a huge risk for myself. The intrinsic value of my most significant skydive resulted in positive feelings about myself. I had changed into a more competent skydiver and changed myself into a more fulfilled person. I felt that life was pretty damn good.”

This jumper achieved a significant goal by taking an enormous risk. He opened the mental pathway to unlocking his potential as a skydiver and as a human being. His risk-taking started the process of becoming more self-actualized. His peak experience was a self-validating event that had its own intrinsic value. The experience was an end unto itself, rather than a means to an end. Life was never the same.

One of the wonders of skydiving is the effect it has on jumpers. It is a world of fun and fulfilling enjoyment. If you give it some thought, you may find that you have already had one or more peak experiences at the drop zone. And who knows, more peak skydives are probably on your horizon!

About the Author
Mike Horan, D-881, has a master’s degree in clinical social work and a doctorate in educational leadership and used this knowledge in his 40-year professional career.

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