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There is one training technique that builds the strongest foundation of individual flying skills and team’s freefall communication skills simultaneously. We refer to this training method as STOP DRILLS.
Stop drills are the most efficient way to train your random work towards the ultimate goal of flying with maximum speed, efficiency, awareness, communication and synchronicity.
On stop drills we separate a transition into its parts and do each skill 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 our complete attention we are able to do each one as aggressively and efficiently as we can.
The particular skills are:
Allowing the time it takes to separate out each of these skills to this degree is not how we are ultimately planning to skydive. But it is the best way to build muscle memory and train our instincts so that we do them each technically correct, sharp and efficiently.
The most common mistake formation skydivers make is that they chase the grips. As soon as one formation breaks, all of their attention goes to the grips and they chase them like a starving animal chasing its 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 if the formation is complete or not. The jumps are rough, noisy and sometimes even out of control.
The most common mistake formation skydivers make is that they chase the grips.
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 slow and smooth, UNDER THE LINE. But the problem was never that they were going too fast, it was that they didn’t stop. To some degree or another they were basically crashing into every point.
When I started competing in 4-Way a common phrase was “slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” That’s 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 slow to go smooth than you are defeating the purpose. Concentrating on going slow and smooth can help a little. The same errors are made but we pay a smaller price for them because the momentum is less and the impact reduced. But it is a race after all, and training to go slow will not win the meet.
To score the most points we must do the shortest moves we can, as fast we can. The only way to control our speed is to SEE where, and know how to STOP in the correct position. Moving aggressively requires stopping aggressively. As most of us know, moving is no problem. We can easily move all over the place. The trick is stopping in the correct spot after moving at our maximum speed. By holding our eye contact during the entire transition we can see where and when we need to stop. We hit the brakes hard and at the right time. If we end up over-moving, the fix is not to slow down. It is to start stopping sooner and/or harder. Our confidence to move fast is not diminished. We continue to move at maximum speed.
By focusing on stopping hard we learn to go fast while minimizing our moves
By focusing on stopping hard we are able to learn how to go fast while also minimizing our moves. The jumps become very predictable and the team develops a feeling of total control. This gives us the confidence to push the speed even further. We are learning to fly right ON THE LINE from the very beginning. From the start of training and during every competition we always fly as fast as we can control.
By holding our eye contact through the entire transition our awareness is greatly increased. By looking harder and watching longer we see everything that is happening with the team. We stay level even when there are fall rate changes. We recognize over-moving as soon as we have gone two inches too far instead of discovering it after moving two feet too far.
Anticipation is an essential element in speed. When our anticipation is sharp we fire into our move the instant the key comes. With less than ideal anticipation there is often a slight hesitation. The hesitation may be only 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 or a great one. Too often it __is something that happens by chance because we haven’t had a clear plan for how to train our anticipation skills.
Exceptional anticipation is often the difference between having a good jump or a great one.
As a general rule FS competitors don’t even practice thinking about the next formation until the one we are doing gets keyed. That is not anticipation. The definition of anticipation is to be 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 one we are currently doing gets keyed. Ultimately keys will be coming the instant the formation is complete. At that speed you will need to be anticipating the next point before the one you are currently building is built.
This level of anticipation is a skill and mental process that cannot be taken for granted, it needs to be trained. The stop drills provide the perfect training opportunity for this. By holding our eye contact through the entire transition we recognize the pre-finished picture, we know the formation we are currently doing is guaranteed to complete. It is at that moment that we need to train ourselves to anticipate the next point. Before we even pick up the grip we are already mentally prepared for the next move. On a regular skydive we are going through the steps too quickly to have time to recognize this and train our minds what to think. But on a stop drill we have the time to actually train this pre-finished picture as a cue to anticipate the next point. After developing this skill on the stop drills it is much easier to apply it on skydives that are at normal speed.
By actually training your anticipation skills using this technique you will greatly reduce the amount of brain locks you have. When you do have a brain lock you will recover from it much quicker because you will realize that you don’t know what the next point is at the pre-finished picture and you have time to remember it before the key comes.
Grips are defined in the rules 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 were on at the same instant the grips should also be solid enough that the person being gripped can feel them.
A great deal of time is often wasted picking up good grips. The hands are in the right position but take much too long to become stationary. Picking up weak grips like this can miscommunicate our state of readiness to our teammates. This will often cause the key person to hesitate, or even stop to look and see if we’re ready. Either of these will slow the team down and be a detriment to the overall confidence. Solid grips that are stationary at the first instant of contact bring a sense of certainty and confidence to the team. There is no question that the formation is complete and everyone is ready to transition.
Picking up weak grips can miscommunicate our state of readiness
It is true that fast teams often have no choice but to take “cheap grips”. These are grips that are legal but less than solid. This happens both as a result of moving at high speeds as well as when we are slightly out of position and the ideal grip is out of reach. By taking perfect grips on a stop drill you are properly training your hands and building muscle memory of this skill. You will instinctively pick up the most solid grips you can and make the most out of the situation when the grip taken is less than ideal. This way you will be able to get away with cheap grips when you need to. If you train taking cheap grips from the beginning you will end up fumbling and groping for them when the team starts to go fast or you are slightly out of position.
On the stop drills the entire team will take grips simultaneously. We stay off grips until the centers feel that the team has shown a stationary, frozen, no contact formation. The centers then decide together when to pick up grips and the outside flyers match them. This training not only synchronizes the grip-taking, it also trains the centers to lead and the outside to follow by learning to read the centers' intent. The outside flyers actually see the centers deciding to pick up grips. They anticipate and match the centers' timing so that the grip taking is simultaneous. This opportunity for the centers to practice making decisions and for the outside flyers to learn to read the centers' intent cannot be wasted. It is an excellent chance to start building the freefall communication that is so essential for the team to advance.
On the stop drill the move is finished and we are stopped in position. We can see the grip in our peripheral vision. When the decision is made to pick up grips we look right at it and aggressively take perfect grips. Perfect grips on a stop drill are defined as grips you could fly a piece with.
On the stop drills we do each move one at a time and as aggressively as we can. We learn how to minimize the moves and fly with total efficiency while also flying at our maximum speed. The team communication is strong and provides a heightened degree of awareness and synchronicity. The jumps are very controlled and predictable. We are clean, sharp and synchronized in our moves and stops. All eight hands are on and off grips together. By doing this training we have from the very beginning trained to move with confidence and to fly “on the line” with as much speed and power as we can control.
But 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.
Photos in this article, by Craig O'Brien, show Perris Fury
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