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Foundations of flight | Balancing Your Brain

By Joel Strickland

Foundations of Flight | April 2020
Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Brought to you by three-time British Freefly Champion Joel Strickland. Strickland is a full-time freefly coach and tunnel-flying professional and a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale Artistic Events Judge. Jumpers can read more of his writing or contact him for tunnel camps in Europe at joelstrickland.net.


Your brain can process only a certain amount of information at once, be it body position, movement, transitions or any combination of those. When you add the pressures of the environment in which you are training, concepts that are simple to understand on the ground or outside of the tunnel quickly become confusing. In much the same way that performing tasks slowly allows for smooth and consistent progress, choosing the correct number of tasks helps you get the most from your time and jumps.

During a skydive or tunnel rotation, the more individual elements you add to a plan, the less amount of space your brain has to process the technique for each part. Constant assessment of how many tasks you are performing at any one time can strengthen your skill in the correct ways. This allows you to find balance between the extremes of “one” and “many” and will provide you with insight on how you learn best.

Developing muscle memory requires repetition, and there is plenty to be said for having the physical and mental fortitude to focus on a single something until it is jolly well done. However, flying with others often consists of action and reaction, and this requires ever stronger awareness and adaptability as the jump progresses. Flexing your mental muscles at both ends of the scale is correct because the way everything works together is just as important as the individual elements themselves, but the real juice is in your ability to recognize the ideal balance between these two extremes in any situation and adjust accordingly in the moment.         

Tunnel Example: Lead and Follow

There is no such thing as too early to begin studying the mechanics of how to use space in the tunnel. Following a coach as they lead you around the tube is a very effective way of learning both the moves and the lines. A skilled and experienced coach will be acutely aware of the balances they apply to your rotations, constantly searching for that sweet spot where you advance at your best rate.

If you have the chance to watch a good coach with a variety of different students, do so. Pay attention to the similarities and the differences. Are they going the same way or changing directions? How many different moves are there in this rotation? Is the pace changing between different students? How about for the same one? Why did their form look better before but is now messy?     

Sky Example: Every Jump Ever

Even the simplest skydive has a lot of elements. From checking your gear and putting it on, all the way through the whole process to taking it off again at the end. As a skydiving student, you have so much to think about that your instructor takes care of external considerations (assessing conditions, deciding on exit order, performing gear checks) for you. Down the line, it gets easier for you to take these things on, and eventually they become simple habits. 

If you look for it, you’ll see that this is true at any stage of your jumping career. How many things can you pile into your brain before you see the effects? How many sketchy breakoffs could have been avoided if everyone eased off just a touch on the complexity of the jump? Be honest.  

Key Points:

  • Task loading is something that remains with you throughout your flying career. Identifying it and accepting the effects can help you learn more in any given situation. 
  • Flying gracefully and efficiently is as much about lines through space as it is about positions and transitions. The more comfortable and practiced you get at properly balancing these elements during training, the more the edges will bleed into each other until the series of pieces gradually becomes a graceful, uninterrupted flow.
  • Repetition—the same group with the same plan, the same move in the same place—relieves pressure.
  • Training with structure and balance is as much about developing your awareness as it is your physical ability. The first time you avoid careening into someone because you were automatically looking in the correct direction is deeply rewarding.
  • The imaginary brain dance is a vital skill. Picture the plan. Picture it as a success. Run it through slowly in your mind, then in real time, then quickly. Repeat it. Repeat it some more. Then make it so. 
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