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FAI World Air Games 2015, Dubai, UAE. During the bus ride from the dz to the airfield, my teammates were silent. All were intently focused on visualizing, in painstaking detail, for the upcoming jump. An incredible opportunity lay ahead of us. Round 2 had the potential for yielding a World Record.
For Team USA, Round 2 became the success we visualized. With 33 points in time, we bested our 32 point World Record score set two months prior at the US National Skydiving Championships. We were elated! Celebratory high-fives, hugs and fist bumps were shared as we watched the final judging.
Golden Knights World Record skydive, 33 points, World Air Games, Dubai , 2015.
(F, L, B, G, P)
After dirtdiving and creeping the next round, we grabbed our rigs and boarded the bus for the airfield. In sharp contrast to the previous ride, this one felt much more relaxed. Our transport time was filled with joking, laughter and conversations ranging over a wide variety of non-skydiving related topics. I noticed no-one seemed to be visualizing but didn't think too much about it at the time. We were riding a wave of endorphins from our previous jump, an emotional high I thought would help carry us through Round 3.
In the months leading up to Round 3, our team experienced a string of solid performances. At the US Nationals we won Gold, scoring a record high 23.7 average for ten rounds and broke the single jump 8-way World Record which had stood for 18 years. Roughly two weeks before the World Air Games we competed at the Inflight Dubai Clash of Champions, winning with an average of 32.4.
Judging by our recent performances, I took for granted that we would automatically continue to perform at our peak and allowed myself to indulge in the bus ride fun. I was sorely mistaken. We drastically underperformed on the next round, a jump which contained a sequence that was well within our wheelhouse.
We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success. We often discover what will do, by finding out what will not do; and probably he who never made a mistake never made a discovery.
Our subpar performance on Round 3 troubled me. I knew the root cause and I knew it could have been prevented. We lost discipline and focus. The score we received for the jump was a direct reflection of the effort we applied to its preparation.
During the 2015 World Air Games, the Canadian female 4-way team set a new Canadian National Record of 26 points in Round 4 of their competition. I heard rumor that their bus ride behavior before and after their successful competition round was very similar to our own. I decided to go to the source and ask team member Renee Point about her thoughts on the issue.
“Funny you should ask that question, as it is one of the first things our coach [Niklas Hemlin] brought up when we went through the debrief of the meet earlier this year,” Renee replied. “Basically, we have to change our approach to individual competition jumps. We are not a consistent team. This includes visualization, arousal control, control of doubts/fears and a calm and collected approach to each jump. We need to put aside all external factors and other distractions (rankings, records, emotions, errors/success in the previous jump) and mentally approach each jump the same way. This keeps all team members in the same mental and emotional state and provides consistent performance. Unchecked factors and distractions can have a surprising effect on the team's ability to fly at the same pace, see the last grip and respond to minor errors.”
Renee continued, “For our meet, we had a bad jump in Round 3, and then followed up with the record on Round 4. We were ecstatic that we had come back from the bad jump, then set a record. We let ourselves get carried away with our newfound success. This had a direct effect on our following jump as it altered the mental state, thus the ability to perform in the next skydive. We tried too hard, applied more power and speed which resulted in a frantic feeling/off-pace dive. It was not a disaster but not consistent with our performance on the previous jump. Had we shelved the external factors/distractions from the last dives, the result would have been a more consistent meet.”
I began to wonder if loss of focus immediately following peak performance or significant achievement in the midst of competition was something of a phenomenon. I pored over numerous sports psychology articles and websites. Surprisingly, my research yielded very little literature specifically regarding the topic. Then, by chance, I felt the compulsion to reread a framed newspaper clipping which has been hanging on our team room wall for almost 21 years. I look at the picture often but haven't read its content for several years. Until now…
“Golden Knights take fifth gold medal in World Championships,“ reads the article's heading. “In the process, the team set a world record making their win a historical event.“
Due to a change in personnel the team regarded themselves as underdogs. Team member Charlie Brown said, 'This year it took the strongest team effort that we have ever put together. I don't think our individual talent is any better than last year, except as a team, we're more focused.'
The article continues, “On the second day, the U.S. Team gained four points on the French. The Europeans had a slow skydive and a bust. On the third day, the team lost two points in the third round jump.“
'You could sense that there was a relaxed attitude because we were surprised to be so far ahead, so we did not give the 100 percent like we should have,' team member Joe Trinko said. “The French outperformed them in that round, but fortunately the US Team lost only two points, but the Knights realized that if they relaxed too much, they would lose the competition.“
There are several striking similarities when comparing the performances between the 1995 US Team and the 2015 teams of USA and Canada. One similarity I find eerily peculiar is that both US Teams from 1995 and 2015 underperformed on Round 3 after performing well.
During the months leading up to Round 3 our team had been operating in an optimal performance state, what many athletes refer to as, “the zone.” The reference here, is to achieve some optimal level of arousal that leads to better integration of mental and physical processes and superior performance (*Prapevesis & Grove, 1991; Hanin, 2000).
Being in the zone is an essential part of any team's success. It is difficult to attain but very easy to lose. Staying in the zone requires continuous immersion in the mental and physical preparation for the next competition jump. This means tuning out any number of internal or external task irrelevant stimuli (distractions).
In the case of Round 3, we let ourselves become distracted by external task-irrelevant stimuli in the form of significant achievement and perceived peak performance. Instead, we should have delayed the gratification of celebration and doubled our efforts to immerse ourselves in preparations for the remaining seven competition jumps.
Fortunately for us, the mistake was not too costly with regards to our overall competition standing. Our substandard performance in Round 3 was disappointing but provided us with a valuable learning opportunity.
As a competitive skydiver, your journey will likely contain many rewarding moments of significant achievement and peak performance. To make those moments last and to consistently function in your optimal performance state, learn to recognize distractions and be prepared to double your efforts to remain focused.
Prapavesis, H. & Grove, R. (1991). Precompetitive emotions and shooting performance: The mental health and zones of optimal functioning models. The Sport Psychologist, 5, 223-234.
Hanin, Y.L. (2000). Emotions in sport. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.