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Foundations of Flight | Learning About Learning Freefly—Using the Gears

By Joel Strickland

Foundations of Flight | December 2019
Sunday, December 1, 2019

As a skydiving student, you may have heard that slow is smooth and smooth is fast. However, your brain may not believe it and be absolutely convinced that fast is the only thing that is really fast. (It’s why you got into skydiving, right? Because … fast.) The reality is that there is no such thing as too slow. If you are learning a move and go at it quickly, then sure, you might get it done, but your body will not absorb what is happening as efficiently as it would if you performed your repetitions at a more measured pace. If you rush, it will ultimately take longer for the move to sink into your muscle memory.

The slower you perform a move, the more time your brain has to process exactly what is happening: not only the way the wind is hitting each part of your body and its effect, but also your ability to remember and repeat the move properly. To achieve a smooth, continuous progression and for myriad safety reasons, it’s important to begin slowly and then increase speed smoothly and in control. This is far more important than any speed you ultimately can generate.

Even if you’re not a car person, the gearbox analogy can help you understand how to best learn movement in the tunnel or the sky. By developing and using the concept of a personal gearbox that goes from static (neutral) to zoom (fifth gear) and back again, you’ll find the safest and most consistent way to get into your slot and hold it once you are there.

If you are missing a couple of gears between static and zoom, you may very well not be in control of your speed or traveling in your intended direction when you finally get to zoom. If you are fast but are all over the place, people will sensibly steer clear of adding their squishy selves to your presence on a skydive. Good control as you go up and down through your gears is key to being where you want to be, when you want to be there.

Sky Example: Tracking Jump

You are diving out the door on a medium-speed tracking jump with a bunch of people of mixed abilities. This is a third-gear jump, so you are in third gear out the door because that is the plan. However, you have some ground to make up to get to the others. You shift up a gear to fourth and are gaining, but not quickly enough … the jump will be over by the time you get there. So, you go up another gear to fifth. Now yer talkin’ … but as you gain on the pack, you can tell that you’ll be coming in too hot. So, you ease back down to fourth gear to allow yourself to still gain on the others but at a safer pace. You sidle up and go into third gear to maintain your slot. Woo.

Tunnel Example: Back Carving

All flying requires subtlety of movement, but people often find that basic back carving tests their overall awareness the most. Back-carving drills can teach you how to (and more importantly, how not to) apply speed. You will find that only by smoothly increasing and decreasing power will you remain in control and in position.

Each gear change will come with questions, and the answers affect each new step. Am I in the right place? Am I going the right way? If the answers to these questions are yes, then great, move up a gear. Ask the same questions again at the new pace. If one or both of the answers is no, don’t hold this pace until you hit the wall. Bring it down a gear. You’ll know what the correct position and amount of control feels like … you were just there a few seconds earlier. Tidy it up. Increase your speed again. How is it now?

Key Points

  • The gears analogy is a simplified approach to learning how to manage speed. However, you can apply this concept anywhere, from moving individual limbs to building giant formations.
  • A simple move performed with precision and control is worth much more than a flashy move performed with none.
  • There is great value in making your own monkey brain understand that there really is no such thing as too slow and that the best way to learn how to go fast—for you and everyone around you—is to prioritize and build your skills up.
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