Skydive Mag

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Building Mental Muscle

Words by Laura Mclelland

Brit Chicks 8-way World Championships 2012
From Fear to Focus to FUN!! — Image by Stikkos

Left to run free in pressure situations my head hasn’t always thrown out the most encouraging of thoughts. ‘I might die’ progressed to I might ‘fall off, ‘miss the count’, ‘go unstable’, ‘forget the dive’, ‘this didn’t go well last time’… 

 A racing heartbeat with jumps passing in a bit of a haze did not lead to the fastest progression in the world – sometimes not even to the slowest! But when I joined a 4-way team, our coach changed all that. Having a coach that focuses on mental performance, that can inspire you to push yourself and perform is a beautiful thing. But what happens when they are not there? It is down to you.

Monsters don’t sleep under your bed, but the perfect host is your head
Robert Carl Blank (Fairground Attraction CD)

It is challenging organising all the advice you get for mental preparation and visualisation into something that works for you, that is both concise and effective. I came across a book ’10 Minute Toughness’ by Jason Selk that described a short sequence of steps that I could adapt and practice to help me focus during those times where I felt out of my comfort zone or under a lot of pressure. It involves a bit of self-reflection, visualisation and a lot of practice but it is perfect for the ride to altitude or the wait in the tunnel chamber.

Brit Chicks 8-way World Championships 2012
Exit, Round 1, World Meet – when you most need your mental strength — Image by Stikkos

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Step 1: Centering breath

Stress if not managed can initiate the primal fight/flight response. Such primal forces have little time for the ‘stadium approach’ or visual clues to who you are meant to be docking on… they would also probably be unconvinced of the survival benefits of a 4-way dive, unless your teammate has a particularly effective ‘death stare’. The racing heart and the narrowing of your perception robs you of your performance and ultimately the enjoyment of the jump. So, start as you mean to go and get your heart rate under control.

Start with a deep breath; take your time, if you are feeling stressed you may tend to rush so time yourself. Breathe in for 6 seconds, hold for two seconds and breathe out for seven seconds.

It's been shown time and time again that, when two teams are close in competition, it is mental strength that makes the difference
George Jicha
Brit Chicks 8-way World Championships 2012, Dubai
A familiar, well honed routine will help you deal with the distractions of a new DZ — Image by Stikkos

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Step 2: Performance Statement

A performance statement is a type of self talk designed to help athletes focus by identifying thoughts that produce consistently strong performance. It simplifies what you are trying to achieve into one or two key principles for your jump.

If you have no plan for what to tell yourself, then you leave yourself open to an active imagination that can spew forth random distracting thoughts, negative emotions and experiences. Or perhaps you try to remind yourself of all the technical details that you are trying to achieve. Managing and sifting through all this clutter is mentally draining and can leave you unfocused and unprepared for the jump ahead.

The essence of mental toughness is the ability to replace negative thinking and clutter with thoughts that are centered on performance cues or that contribute to self-confidence. The body listens to what the mind tells it. Take the time to reflect on your experience (good and bad) to identify statements that could work well for you.

In order to create your performance statement consider the following

1. Imagine you are about to compete in the biggest competition of your life, and the best coach you have ever had is standing next to you. Just before the jump the coach looks you in the eye and tells you that if you stay focused on these one or two things you will be successful. What one or two things would the coach name (be as specific as possible and avoid using the word ‘don’t’).

2, Again imagine that you are about to compete in the biggest competition of your life but this time you are coaching yourself. Just before the jump you (the coach) look at yourself (the athlete) and say that if you stay focused on this one thing or two things you will be successful. What would you name?

Your responses to the two questions may be the same, however if there is a difference trust yourself as you are truly the expert on what works for you to be successful.

Examples

'One jump at a time' (easy to dwell on a past jump or think ahead to the outcome of the competition)

'Keep calm, See/feel the last grip'

Put into practice, see how it works and continue to refine these statements until you identify what you need.

All I had to do was trust that if I calmed down, relaxed, and just let it happen, I would perform to the top of my abilities
Brit Chicks 8-way
Focussing on referencing is more useful than focussing on monsters! — Image by Juan Mayer

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Step 3: Personal Highlight Reel

The personal highlight reel is a short visualisation of you performing at your best. The effectiveness of the visualisation depends on how much you invest in it; the more layers you can add in terms of sight, sound and feel, the more powerful it is.

Start with what you can see. You can watch you fly your slot from the cameraflyer’s perspective or visualise what you would see while flying your slot. Research shows that you continue to add to your muscle memory and that muscles fire in sequence when visualising from this angle. It’s also beneficial to get on Skyleague’s YouTube channel or the Intime website to help visualise a top skydiver flying your slot.

‘Visualisation’ is not just about what you see and feel on the jump, you have to include your emotions, arousal level and the confidence to deal with whatever is thrown at you. The goal is to capture the elements of what made a good jump feel great for you and replicate it in your visualisation. Replaying those feelings can release the same endorphins and you can feed that positive energy into the jump ahead.

The investment in this step is not in the length of the visualisation but in the quality. A short gripping movie of your superstardom will be most effective. Visualise a great jump, at normal working time, and include how you want to feel during the competition and practice.

The personal highlight reel can be extended to incorporate training sessions, upcoming competitions or organised events that you are attending. Build in how you want to feel before, during and after the event/training camp/meet. See yourself doing well, in your ideal arousal state and achieving the targets you set yourself in your performance statement.

Brit Chicks 8-way
Visualise what you will see, and also from the cameraflyer's perspective — Image by Juan Mayer

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Step 4: Identity Statement

Who are you? What do you want? Why are you here? When you are in a high pressure situation, well out of your comfort zone you'd be forgiven for wondering why you do this to yourself! The identity statement is a reminder of strengths you have and/or are building on, as well as the reason you chose this journey. It is a very clear, personal statement that cuts through all distractions, all worries and focuses the mind on why you are more than capable of the challenge ahead.

Examples

'I am a strong, powerful flyer and a top 4-way competitor'

'I have prepared for this, I am calm under pressure and I am at the top of my game” 

It is important to frame the statement as something you already possess or have already achieved rather than something you desire. So, a positive statement, no wishy-washy ‘maybe’, ‘sometimes’, ‘try’ or ‘might’. What you are trying to achieve may be challenging but never forget how far you have come since you first jumped out of a plane. Your choices and your experiences make this statement something that resonates with you; the more it does, the more effective it will be.

Never forget how far you have come since you first jumped out of a plane
Laura, in the door, Brit Chicks 8-way
Laura on exit – Mentally focussed and ready for anything! — Image by Jim Stevenson

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Step 5: Centering Breath

Coming full circle, this closes out your mental preparation. Again take your time and take a deep breath. Take note of if/how your heart rate has changed. You can always adjust your preparation until you find something that works for you.

Give it a go!

The ride to altitude can set the mind racing or to sleep, neither of which is ideal. The ability to focus is a skill that needs to be worked at to overcome nerves and distractions. What you focus on sets your arousal level, confidence level and your ability to reach your potential. It can all be practiced and refined when you are not under pressure that way, when you are at your National Championships, World Championships or latest big way formation you are giving yourself the best chance of achieving your goals as you’ve already done it in training!

Brits at World Championships, Dubai 2012
Photos show Laura's 8-way team, Brit Chicks, at the World Championships, Dubai 2012 — Image by Stikkos

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