Written by: Ben Liston
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There have been numerous articles on how to form 4-way formation skydiving teams, but there doesn’t seem to be much written direction on how to get the most from the jumps and tunnel time you have once you have worked out finances, overarching goals, and expectations for commitment. We hope that the following suggestions can help collegiate 4-ways teams prepare for this year’s US and/or Collegiate Nationals. If you are brand new to 4-way, or skydiving in general, some of the stuff below might not make sense to you now but it will after you or your team start to make a few jumps, read some other articles, and/or talk to coaches or other 4-way junkies. Hopefully some of what we’ve written will be helpful both to folks who are brand new to formation skydiving and others who have done a bit of 4-way.
Each team certainly has its own strengths, weaknesses, dynamics, and goals, so don’t take the following words as gospel, just use it as a starting point for a conversation about how to get the most out of your training. The first few sections below provide some explanations about common 4-way terms, and then there are a few sections about how to approach training.
While some of the info below comes from what our current teams have learned through our own training, much of it is a direct result of world class coaching we’ve been lucky enough to receive over the years. We’ll try to keep things as general as possible in this article, but feel free to get in touch with us if you or your team have questions that aren’t addressed here, or if you have some specific questions about blocks, exits, or specific moves (like you’re having a hard time side sliding or moving backwards, for example).
OVERVIEW OF “SLOTS”Figuring out how to build each formation is made a bit simpler by sticking to what’s called a “continuity plan.” It’s basically a way of engineering your exits and formations so that the same person is in the same place when you build various points. I’ll do my best to explain how to pick who should go where, but my words might make more sense if you print up a copy of the dive pool to reference as you continue reading.
In looking over the dive pool, note that there are two types of formations:
One of the best resources around to aid with learning is a version of the dive pool from Team Fastrax’s website. Here’s a link: http://www.teamfastrax.org/divepool.aspx.
It’s color coded and shows what is typically the best actual shape for each formation rather than the USPA pictures that just show the more conceptually rigid pictures of the formations. For example, the four way cat in the block CAT-CAT (“15”), is best built in the curved shape of a “C” instead of building it with all four people on a strait line like the USPA picture shows.
So, in the Fastrax pictures you’ll find that each person’s position is color-coded. What we’ll refer to as the “Inside Center” or IC is in blue, the “Outside Center” or OC is in green, the Point is in red, and the Tail is in yellow. So who should go where? Part of the answer should be informed by experience, individual skill, and temperament, but also who feels comfortable in different exit slots. For Otter type doors, the IC is typically inside the plane toward the back of the door, the Point is inside the plane and toward the nose of the plane, OC is outside the plane towards the front of the door, and the Tail is usually outside the plane towards the back of the door. As teams get more advanced, this changes up for a few different exits, but for new teams it’s typically best to stay in these spots and get comfortable with them. Here’s an overview of the nature and skills required for the different slots:
Inside Center: This person has most of the “keys” (signaling that the formation is built and complete by letting go of her/his grips) and is responsible for starting the exit count. Ideally this person is good at staying calm enough in freefall to know when to push the pace of the skydive and when to slow things down as needed.
Outside Center: This person usually has the biggest moves from formation to formation (often 180s). The OC should be someone who can communicate well with the IC and be a confident and strong flyer who won’t get pushed around as he/she is docked on.
Point: This person has a lot of the individual flying roles for certain blocks and is responsible for facing away from the rest of the team for many of the points. The Point should feel comfortable facing out and be a good solo flyer.
Tail: This person is typically docking last on each formation and I’ve heard coaches refer to the Tail as having to be a “completely different animal”. Formations sometimes shift a bit as they are being built, and while teams should work to minimize this, the responsibility usually falls on the tail to make up for the changes in angles because the point is usually facing out and has a harder time adjusting. A good tail is hungry and agile in the air, but also is calm enough to make her/his moves quickly and dock softly.
EXPLANATION OF MIRRORSYou might notice that some of the formations printed in the Fastrax dive pool are backwards from the ones shown in the USPA dive pool. For example, the Fastrax one might show a left-hand DONUT (or “J”) instead of a right-hand one, or a MEEKER (or “E”) with a left-hand grip in the middle instead of a right-hand one.
Both are legal, count as complete formations, and can be used interchangeably even within the same jump. The same holds true for “blocks”, but if you start in the mirror you need to finish in the mirror. Some people have a hard time conceptualizing mirrors. If so, just hold up the printed dive pool to a light with the back of the page facing you and take a look.
As stated above, it’s typically best to just build things one way and avoid building a left hand center grip MEEKER (E) one time and a right one the next. I’d suggest just following the Fastrax dive pool since they show the ones that are easiest to exit and typically flow together the best.
EXPLANATION OF “SLOT SWITCHERS” Slot switchers are dives in which two members (usually the point and IC), sometimes all four members, of the team get switched back and forth in the formations over the course of the skydive. There are only a few blocks that make this happen and USPA has kindly kept most, if not all, of these nasty ones out of the Collegiate and Intermediate dive pools. It’s well worth it to avoid the “memory” caused by slot switchers and mirrors by taking a slightly longer move. The one move might be rough, but getting yourselves into unfamiliar slots and increasing the likelihood of brain locks just isn’t worth it.
EXITSWhile all the formations can be launched out of an Otter (sometimes with a cheater grip), new teams will typically score higher if they stick to a couple exits they know well and then grip switch or transition to the first required point of the jump. Since the clock starts ticking right when the first person leaves the plane, being able to move while on the hill and avoiding funnels is crucial. For new teams I’d recommend starting with the random SIDEBODY (or “P”) as your exit and only move on to another one after you have the “P” exit down cold. I personally think that BOW (“H”) is the easiest point to launch, but “P” is much better for transitioning to other points, so it’s a good place to start.
To launch SIDEBODY, everybody should leave the plane at the same time with the Point being high enough to get her/his own air, and the Tail being low enough to get her/his own air too. If you picture everyone leaving together, presented to the relative wind and flying on the same plane, you should be able to draw a strait line through everyone’s heads. This means that the OC and Tail’s personal headings are angled at about 45 degrees to the right, and the IC and Point are each pointed about 45 degrees to the left (this is considering that the line of flight is the strait up/down heading).
If you get this exit down, you can certainly start to work on others, but you might find that having one exit that you can nail every time, and learning how to quickly maneuver from it to other points, will help you score better.
PREP YOUR JUMPSThis sounds obvious but is worth writing. Training jumps are expensive – don’t “wing it.” You should spend at least 10 minutes creeping each jump (looking at the individual moves and running through the whole jump from exits – just walking it doesn’t cut it!) Be sure to talk about grip plans, who is keying each point, remind yourself about the “fast page” of the random moves (which I’ll discuss below), and discuss block technique.
SOFT DOCKSYou will be able to go faster if you aren’t pushing each other around and knocking each other off balance. Ideally, after each point is keyed, everyone gets their balance, cracks her/his move, stops right in the correct place, and then takes grips. I highly suggest taking grips so lightly that you don’t move your teammate even an inch. If you find yourself moving at all, make the correction by flying your own body rather than pushing or pulling on your teammate. If you all are disciplined enough to do this religiously, you’ll find that your speed will drastically increase. If you decide to listen to just one piece of advice written in this article, make this be it.
BUILD FORMATIONS ON THE “LONG AXIS”Getting from one point to the next can be confusing since the four team members all have at least slightly different ideas about what angle the next formation in the sequence of a dive should be built on. One way to avoid this confusing predicament and to reset from a poorly built point is to build things on the line between the center point (belly-button) of the Point and Tail. We call this the “Long Axis.” This puts a lot of responsibility on the IC and OC, and they should be playing close attention to where the point and tail are as they are deciding where to move for the next point. If done well, the Point and Tail should only have to rotate in place and move towards or away from the center of the formation a little bit (if going from a long formation like CATACCORD (“G”) to STAR (“M”) for example), then the Point and Tail would have to squeeze together down the line or expand if the dive had you go from “M” to “G.”
If you’re having trouble figuring out a specific move, sometimes it’s helpful to build the point you are going to and do the move in reverse.
LOOK FOR THE MIDDLE PICTURESFor every block there is at least one middle picture to aim for. For some it is the halfway point and for some there are two or three “pictures” along the way. Just like hitting different points in a good landing pattern under canopy, you should be moving to specific places as you work through each block. Get a coach or experienced 4-way gal/guy to talk you through these.
FOLLOW THE STEPSBreakdowns and busts are often caused by either one person or the whole team getting sucked into a rhythm. While some people and some great coaches encourage this, our team has found that we go faster and score better when we stick to “the steps.” Here are the steps we follow. There’s so many that you’ll think we’re crazy to do all of them for every point, but they happen quickly and have become second nature to us. Here they are from the “key” of one point:
A BLOCK IS A BLOCK, A RANDOM IS A RANDOMIn most skydives (unless it is all blocks) there is at least a short series of randoms and you should have the intention of moving through this section with speed, precision, and vigor. We call this “the fast page.” When you get to any Block(s) in the jump though, take just a bit longer to build it right and calmly execute the moves. Ideally, each time you do a specific block, it should feel identical and routine. As you are dirt diving, creeping, and/or walking the skydive, move quickly through the random page taking light grips and following the key plan. Then slow down the block move to remind yourself to execute it smoothly and consistently. Don’t forget to close off the block, while remembering that it is important to freeze and show the completed point to the judges, and also that it is the beginning of the fast page.
LEARN THE DIVE THE FIRST TIME THROUGHIf your team is doing well enough to get through all the points and start over again, you should start to focus more explicitly on learning and seeing what’s going on the first time through. This tip (courtesy of Pete Allum) is priceless. If a particular move is smaller, larger, or just needs to be different from how you planned it on the ground, learn from the botched move the first time through (or “lock-in” the correct move if you nailed it) so you can crank up the speed as the dive continues. Don’t be so anxious to score points that you keep making the same mistakes through a whole jump – slow things down just a little bit the first time through, then once everyone “gets it”, you can ramp up the intensity and power.
After you decide how many jumps and how much tunnel flying you can do, come up with a plan of how to use the jumps and time most effectively. The suggestions below for how to use your jumps uses percentages with the hope it’ll serve as a guide, whether you are doing 40 – 400 jumps.
TUNNEL TRAININGGetting to a tunnel is worth it – however, don’t get suckered into cramming all four team members in there if you aren’t proficient as individual flyers. You are much better off using the tunnel to hone individual and two-way skills than you are bouncing off the walls just to do “4-way”. Work on center point turns, adjusting fall rate, grip taking and flashing drills, side sliding, forward and backward movement, and superpositioning (sliding and turning at the same time).
For your actual jumps, I suggest the following phases:
PHASE 1 – FALL RATE AND COMMUNICATIONFigure out what your team fallrate should be and get the right amount of weight in weight belts for the slow fallers on the team. The person that falls fastest should get in comfortable arch and other folks should wear enough lead to keep up. It’s a pain to wear weight, but your team won’t reach your potential if anyone is struggling to stay up with the formation. I suggest just moving through three points SIDEBODY (“P”), STAR (“M”), and OPEN ACCORDIAN (“F) as you sort stuff out.
Repeat this jump as many times as you need to sort out fall rate, focus on good eye contact and physical communication, and to follow “the steps” above as you move from point to point.
PHASE 2 – BASIC RANDOM WORKPick three point random skydives and get used to working together for the first 25% of your planned jumps. Using eye contact and good cross-referencing, as well as looking to the person directly across the formation from you to help make fallrate adjustments and stay together will help you get the most out of these jumps.
PHASE 3 – BLOCK TECHNIQUEEven if you don’t have many jumps in your budget, try to see each block at least once, you can put two together in the same jump. Focusing just on blocks for 25% of your jumps will probably serve you well, but you might want to sneak in one random jump once a weekend just so you don’t go crazy!
PHASE 4 – PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHERAfter you’ve got a good taste of the blocks, add in a random or two. Do this for the next 25% of your jumps paying attention to “the fast page” of random moves and the “clean” execution of the single block in each jump.
PHASE 5 – COMPETITION DRAWSToo often teams don’t practice doing actual meet draws. For the last quarter of your training, take draws from the National Skydiving League website, www.skyleague.com, and do those actual jumps. You should do this so you can see how you are scoring against other teams in the country and help emulate what it’ll be like at real meets. Obviously, try to compete in as many local NSL meets (or other meets if there is a league in your area) as possible.
4-way is fun but difficult. Remember that everyone is doing their best and that mistakes are inevitable. A good rule of thumb for debriefing is to give everyone a chance to debrief themselves and take responsibility for any mistakes they made before pointing things out to one another. I highly suggest getting video on every jump (once you can stay within the frame and within ten vertical feet of one another) and watch the video before you try to start fixing things or telling people what they did wrong. Whenever I critique teammates in the landing area, the video inevitably shows that I was the one screwing things up.
Get a trusted local 4-way guru or coach to provide outside perspective whenever possible. This goes for prepping and debriefing. Even if they say the same thing that a teammate would have, words just seem to get heard a bit clearer and with less bad blood when they come from a knowledgeable person who isn’t a member of the team.
Have fun and make it a point to be social at the end of the day or training camp.
Don’t hesitate to contact members of Mass Defiance or Perris Fury through the collegeskydiving.com forums if you have any questions for us! Our team websites are Mass Defiance and Perris Fury.
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