Mental Rehearsal

by Jen Sharp published in Parachutist Magazine February 2014

We’ve all seen it. Maybe it was you.  A couple thousand feet from exit altitude, a skydiver with eyes closed gestures repetitively with his hands, circling his head, repeats this dance faster each time, then blinks, eyes open, and a self assuring nod affirms some internal question.
Mental review of the dive is one tool that successful skydivers employ routinely across disciplines and geography. The value of it is recognized as sufficient to be an individual line item on the forms for coach and instructor air evaluations. Guiding students through the jump internally before exit is part of the checklist coaches and instructors follow. But what is really going on inside one’s head during a mental review? How can we make this mental rehearsal the most effective? And why is such a ridiculous looking pre-jump ritual so vital?
What? The dive within
While we can never look directly into another person’s mind, we might surmise from the verbal review that follows a mental review that the skeleton of this internal practice is, simply, dive flow. Most people imagine the jump from climbout to opening, keying in on particular skills or points. Some add canopy drills to this run-through and stop after flaring. Some go through it slowly at first, then faster a second or third time.  Regardless of specifics, the art of positive-specific thinking is applied: we imagine the dive going exactly as planned. Basically, this is your to-do list for the next several minutes.
How? Tips for effectiveness
Just as some physical experiences are more effective than others, some mental practices are more efficient than others.  Obviously, having a student go over the dive in his head constantly on the climb to altitude can wear anyone out mentally and emotionally.  On the other hand, sufficient repetition is fundamental for establishing muscle memory. To balance out these ostensibly conflicting realities, have him mentally rehearse three times, somewhat mirroring a whole-part-whole teaching strategy. The first time, imagine the entire dive in slow motion, about half the speed of a real dive, just to review flow and the existence of all the items on your list. Next in parts, visualize the dive in stop motion, much like a video might be paused momentarily. Stop in the moments where a detail occurs and create a still shot. For example, on exit, stop the “video” playing on the launch part of the exit, just as the presentation to the relative wind happens. Imagine the exact body position as well as the plane’s position and the relative wind. The key is analysis: analyzing is breaking something down into its parts, cutting the steak into smaller pieces so to speak.  Piggybacking off of positive-specific teaching during the ground prep, imagine a body part and what it should be doing. There may be different key body parts, or elements, for each skill, so this can be a guide for the coach as to where to look and for the student as to what to focus on to perform correctly. Use a single word for one picture as a reminder; for example, on exit the word might be “HIPS.”  The name of the maneuver or skill is not necessarily the best single word to conjure a precise image in their minds. This stop motion can serve dual purpose as effective fodder for the debrief. Finally, go through the dive once more at a reduced-rate motion, fast enough to reinforce the flow of what’s coming next, yet slow enough to grasp the crucial detail for each piece. 

Why? The big picture
The tried and true adage goes something like, “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”  Understanding the underlying reason for making any particular jump or practicing any certain skill makes for a more informed and successful skydiver.  Knowing if a particular dive is part of a larger set of skills can likewise help the student put the jump into a larger perspective. This requires periodic goal setting sessions on the ground. If a person can see who it is they want to become, they grow into that vision. Hence mental rehearsal exists not solely on a micro level. As a typically goal oriented demographic, skydivers understand that this way of thinking goes beyond the physical aspects of jumping and applies beautifully to everyday life, to non-skydiving goals as well.
Sweet side effect?
Altitude is expensive. Rehearsal is free.