Pilot in Command – Take Control!
Flying a parachute confidently is far safer than being timid...
Trying to run an 8-way team like a 4-way team most often will result in disaster. There aren’t even twice as many people on an 8-way team but it’s at least four times the hassle. The extra chaos factor is enormous, email easily becomes a monster, and it can be really hard to get agreement on anything – or even to find some overlap in everyone’s schedules where you can actually train. Trying to get something done can feel like walking in treacle.
The secret is to approach it with a different mindset to 4-way. A lot of the accepted wisdom of running 4-way teams simply doesn't work for 8-way, you need to throw out the old rule book and look with fresh eyes.
Most 4-way teams operate democratically, ie, everyone votes. (Sometimes the cameraperson even gets a vote!) In an 8-way this can result in a loss of direction, mammoth discussions and a tendency to make ‘weak’ decisions, more about personal opinions than moving towards the team goals.
A more successful model for an 8-way is what Perris Moxie calls a ‘benign dictatorship’. Everyone agrees on the goals, the team elects a captain and a vice-captain, who drive the team towards the goals. Team members agree to buy into these decisions; understanding the captain and lieutenant will consider all the options and make the decision for the good of the team (that's where ‘benign’ comes in). This is far more efficient so everyone can focus their energies on what‘s important (like homework) instead of sweating the small things.
There are lots of jobs to do in a team (booking tunnel, checking flights, registering for competitions, team T-shirts, sponsor liaison…). I think the best way to perform these is in pairs, so each task has two people assigned, who can talk between themselves and come back to the team with a proposal or a (very) shortlist of options. This also makes sure everyone contributes. There is a tendency in an 8-way team for the more energetic ones to end up doing mostly everything, with a few cruisers. (You can also allocate one person per task, as you wish.)
So, the training’s going great then the winds get turbulent – should we stand down or continue? … A committee discussion ensues about whether to jump, taking time, energy and focus off the task at hand. As Christy Frikken said in her ‘Weather Strategies’ article it pays to make a plan in advance. Have the coach or 1 or 2 people who make the weather call. Again the idea is to make the call for the good of the team and not because they personally want to hit the bar. (‘Benign’ right?!)
Email can become scary. Someone sends a simple question around, ‘shall we stay at place A, B or C’? Before you know it if you don’t log on for a day you can have 96 emails in your inbox – all really about trivia (Place A has a swimming pool, B is less costly, how about place D, a few jokes). This sucks energy; we all have too many emails to answer anyway. The solution, as above, to have specific people for certain tasks – if they want opinion such as at which place to stay then ask people to reply just to them/her. Do not click ‘Reply all’ unless absolutely necessary. The email sender should set out the options super clearly – ‘reply to me only, and choose/put in order options A, B or C.
Use technology to help efficiency and keep email traffic down: Google documents for team notes, Google calendar to plan camps.
I have been astounded many times in my 25-year 8-way career at taking a phone call from someone blithely cancelling anything from a tunnel weekend to a Nationals to an entire training year. (Yes you know who you are!!) For some unknown reason it seems people find it easier to renege on an 8-way commitment than a 4-way. I’m not sure why since they let down 8 people instead of 4 but experience has shown this to be the case.
Therefore, it’s a really good idea to have everyone sign a contract, in which you agree your goals and commitment (days, money, homework, physical training, wearing team shirts, whatever). This makes team members more committed in themselves and aware of exactly what is expected, so less likely to renege. You can make the contract as simple or as detailed as you wish, even including ‘if I can't turn up to any of XX dates I will cover the cost of an alternate’s jumps’.
Get a supply of reliable alternates. You will need them. It’s extraordinarily difficult to find overlap for team training in 9 persons’ schedules, especially if you want to train at weekends. By some bizarre law of 8-way entropy, there are at least three times as many random calamities (granny dies, scarlet fever, ash cloud) than with 4-way. Choose alternates if possible that will raise the game, or who may be good potential to join the team in future.
It’s not too hard to find another three people with similar goals, attitudes, availability, geography and ability to do 4-way with. It is REALLY hard to find 7 that are a good fit. So you have to accept that there will be a bigger spectrum in every area. That’s just how it is. Someone will always be lagging behind the group, and if you change that person, another one becomes the weakest link. Someone will want to stop jumping at the first sign of inclement weather. Others will be happy to jump in any conditions. You need far more tolerance in an 8-way team.
In a 4way team there can be a tendency to all do the same thing (dinner, laundry, supermarket); it works. It's the kiss of death in 8-way. It’s best to let people be fluid. For sure have some team dinners but allow space on other nights for people to do their own thing, it’s much easier for everyone.
If you stay in a house, make sure you have enough bathrooms for nine people. Don't underestimate the time it takes for everyone to do their morning ablutions! ;-)
In a 4-way team there will be 10 relationships between the different pairs of people. In an 8-way there are 36. It is far easier for factions to develop within an 8-way team; behind-the-scenes bickering can be rife. The solution is to have regular ‘pass the rock’ meetings where everyone has their say and is listened to by the others. Team members literally pass a ‘rock’ (any inanimate object); while person A has the rock she/he is the only person to speak and everyone else listens. Then the rock goes to the next person and so on. This is a great medium to talk though any issues without raised voice or arguments – and there will be issues, more so than in 4-way because of the larger spread of opinions, attitudes and personalities.
With 9 people it's harder to get together or talk meaningfully between competitions so it is more important to have team meetings when you are together to allow vital discussion of decisions. With 4-way often coaches advise postponing Nationals debrief meetings till later – but the mechanics of phoning/skyping 8 people make it important to snatch a meeting any time you are all in the same space.
It’s frustrating to feel a lot of your training minutes are wasted waiting for that last person to join the dirt-dive/debrief/mock-uip. With 4-way, often the maxim is, ‘Never be the last person on the team’. In 8-way that doesn’t work, because psychologically people see others dilly-dallying and take longer themselves. A far more effective 8-way motto is ‘be in the first half of the team to be ready’.
The biggest advice I have comes from something George Jicha said to my then-8way team 20 years ago, “Everybody’s talking and nobody’s listening”. (Like Twitter!) Every time someone says something you don’t agree with, hold back your knee-jerk response to immediately say they are wrong. You will have your time to say your piece. But for right now actually LISTEN to what is said. It might have some merit and at least deserves to be heard and considered, this is your teammate – who signed a contract! You wouldn’t cut someone off at work so easily. Treat each other professionally and with respect.
Everything above applies to a recreational 8-way team, which is a different animal from a professional team. If you are on a pro team I have nothing to teach you and I have no idea why you would have read this far. ;-)