Dan Darby and Ashlee Richman of Arcus Flight wingsuit instruction and rental company about what it takes to be an effective wingsuit coach…
Several years ago, we stumbled upon an article titled something along the lines of, “From Zero Skydives to Wingsuit Coach in 200 Jumps”.
Now, obviously, since you can’t even begin wingsuiting with fewer than 200 jumps, becoming a wingsuit coach at 200 was a pretty unobtainable goal. Many newer skydivers getting into the sport with wingsuit goals may have no idea what it takes to become a wingsuiter, much less what they should be looking for in their future wingsuit coach. Similarly, wingsuiters who have progressed to the point where they find themselves giving out advice to locals on a regular basis may be wondering what it takes to level up from local mentor to skilled coach.
With Arcus Flight as a wingsuit rental company used by many new wingsuiters and with Dan serving as one of Squirrel’s coach evaluators, we’ve come across a variety of different types of coaches and seen the impact a coach can have on their student’s development. This article will give you a rundown on what experienced wingsuiters should work on if they want to become quality coaches.
Dan has done around 400 first flight courses (FFCs) and coached multiple skill levels and styles over the last 7 years, and he has been evaluating Squirrel coach candidates since 2020. Ashlee also conducts first flight courses, has tried out a variety of coaches as a student, and has observed multiple coach courses. Between the two of us, we have seen just about every style of coaching and student preferences out there, and one thing is clear: there is no one-size-fits-all style of teaching. However, there are definitely key elements that are necessary to make a coach/student relationship effective.
Let’s start with the foundation: What makes an effective FFC instructor?
If you’re wondering what you should look for in a wingsuit coach, check out our other article, ‘Why Get Wingsuit Coaching?, for a more thorough explanation of how coaching can benefit your progression when you’ve found the right coach for you. There are a number of factors at play that can make a FFC a total flop or a soaring success.
Beyond just telling a student what to do on their first jumps, an instructor should be able to explain to the student how to tell the suit what to do and why it works. For example, if a student asks a coach how to turn, and the coach says, “you just turn”, that won’t get the student very far. An instructor should be able to teach the mechanics of wingsuit flight so a student can expand their skills with a solid foundation and a genuine understanding of why things work the way they do.
The big picture
Additionally, an instructor should do more than just give a student a suit to jump and a little advice to survive the first handful of wingsuit jumps. A course should give a functional understanding of navigation, planning the jump, and how to integrate into dropzone operations. The instructor should be invested in helping each student become the kind of wingsuiter other people like having around.
If you’re an experienced wingsuiter thinking about becoming a coach, keep in mind what elements of different coaches and organizers you found helpful through your progression. More experienced wingsuiters and those who are more naturally athletic or took more easily to the discipline, may have difficulty describing how they do what they do and why. You will need to describe a feeling or response that is alien to someone just starting out, and when it has become or feels intuitive, you may forget how detailed your explanations will need to be. You should be able to describe the mechanics of flying in multiple ways. One way may seem clear to you, but you’d be amazed how many different ways there are to misinterpret what seems like a simple explanation to you.
Observe and listen
Just as it’s important to speak clearly, you should also be able to observe and listen well, so if your student isn’t quite understanding what you’re explaining on the ground, you can find another approach to better prepare them for the sky. Observing, anticipating, and communicating with clarity all require a level of creativity that you may not frequently access as a skilled fun jumper. You may have a student who is so overwhelmed that they forget everything you’ve briefed them on, or you may have a student who came to their course believing they already knew everything, so they ignore everything you briefed them on. In both cases, you’ll need to be observant on the ground and on the jump to be prepared for the chaos that may ensue.
Beyond communication skills, a wingsuit instructor will also need to understand the foundations of flight backwards and forwards. You should develop your own skills for navigating, flying in groups, deployment technique, and these should all become second nature. There is a need to maintain a level of focus, and not fall into the “send it” trap. If you’re thinking about becoming a wingsuit instructor, once you’ve built a foundation of skills, you can start flying with newer wingsuiters to experience following someone who has little control. Show some restraint while you’re learning though; practicing maneuvers with less predictable newer jumpers who likely don’t have the control or awareness to protect themselves if you mess up is a danger to you both. Once you have the flying skills and appropriate attitude for coaching, you can challenge a wingsuit coach course with a coach evaluator.
Wingsuit Progression and Coaching Beyond First Flight Courses
Just as when we first start skydiving, the biggest risks come from not knowing what we don’t know. It’s a great feeling when all the little tips start falling into place, and newer wingsuiters go from struggling to feeling in control. But getting comfortable in your suit does not necessarily mean it’s time to start taking on the role of coach to anyone less experienced than you. Imagine seeing the 50 jump wonder advising a freshly A-licensed jumper how to handle their solo freefly or movement jump at a busy DZ. Sometimes trying to give advice when you don’t fully understand the advice you’re giving can cause more harm than good.
Building on tools
After AFF, the learning doesn’t (or shouldn’t) stop. We work on canopy skills (hopefully), focus more on how and where we fit into shared airspace, and seek out knowledge based on the disciplines that appeal to us the most. Similarly, once we get comfortable as newer wingsuiters, we should start building on the tools we’ve been given: flying relative to others, accessing the full performance range of the suit, and exploring which wingsuit disciplines we’re most drawn to. No-one expects every skydiver to be highly skilled or even proficient in every single skydiving discipline. However, wingsuiters often forget that there are multiple different wingsuit disciplines, too. We can’t speak to the other manufacturers, but SQRL has different sign-offs for different techniques coaches can teach. Some can do FFCs, others can do advanced coaching like over the head transitions, and others are signed off to teach BASE.
It’s important to be honest with yourself about your strengths and only teach the skills that you’re a true expert in. It may be tempting to say yes to anyone who comes to you for coaching, but directing someone to a coach that’s a better fit will make you a more valuable resource than practicing on newer wingsuiters who don’t know any better. Not all wingsuit coaches are or need to be an expert in every wingsuit discipline. Flight-1 and Alter Ego coaches are highly respected across the industry for canopy instruction, but that doesn’t mean they should be the guys you call when you want to start dialing in your angle flying. They aren’t all experts in every discipline, and every wingsuit coach doesn’t need to be an expert in everything either; but the student’s goals and coach’s skills should line up. If a student comes to the wrong coach for the skills they want to build on, the coach should be honest and humble enough to admit that though they have a lot to offer as a coach for some types of flying, they may not be the best choice for every student.
Notice how we’ve barely touched on the flying skills aspect of coaching. Communication is the most important element for every type of wingsuit coaching. The difference between great coaching and truly useless “coaching” is the ability to explain what you are trying to do, how to do it specifically, and why that works. If all you can say is, “fly faster” you’re missing a large part of the coach’s job. There are world class flyers and shredders with countless followers who have completely lost touch with how to explain what they do. All of the skill in the world won’t make you a good coach if you haven’t put thought into the mechanics of what you do and how to convey that to someone else. That said, you do need enough skills to fly with your student so you can debrief properly after the jump. Sometimes there’s a camera bust or you’re teaching someone how to follow, and you may not have debriefable video, but being able to explain to your student what went right and what went wrong are essential components of coaching at every level – and that requires you to be on the skydive.
The last element that goes into an effective wingsuit coach is a personality or approach to teaching that encourages learning and keeps your student engaged. We skydive because it’s fun, but if someone is paying you for your time, experience, and knowledge, it’s important to give them back value for their money. This takes a measure of discipline, structure, clear goals, and constructive feedback – while still keeping your student motivated and excited to keep jumping. You can’t be more stoke than focus, but your debrief delivery shouldn’t push your student out of the discipline or suck the fun out of the sport. Like all things, balance is key.
Learning to be a skilled and effective wingsuit coach requires commitment, patience, and enthusiasm. If you want to go down that path, stay motivated by your desire to share knowledge and grow the discipline.
Working in Skydiving Series
Check out other articles aimed to help you work in your chosen area of the sport
- So, you wannabe a freefly coach?
- So, You Wannabe a Skydiving Instructor?
- So, You Wannabe a Jump Pilot?
- So, You Wannabe a Rigger
- So, you Wannabe a Cameraflyer – part 1 and part 2
- So, You Wannabe a Canopy Piloting Coach
- So, You Wannabe a Packer
- So, You Wannabe a Tunnel Instructor