Size Doesn't Matter

by Jen Sharp published in Parachutist Magazine June 2011

Perhaps the most pervasive misconception in skydiving today is that size matters. The narrow definition of a tandem instructor as a strong, husky, young male has contributed to a wide gender disparity in the field. Very few women have earned this rating, let alone still use it.
By dissecting some myths about what it takes to be a tandem instructor, women skydivers (and smaller men) on the fence about earning their ratings might make some discoveries, be encouraged and find support.
Myth One: I won’t be accepted or taken seriously as an instructor.
It is true that some, due to ego or lack of confidence, will feel the need to challenge female tandem instructors or accuse them of incompetence. However, it is important to understand that these attacks are rooted in the attacker’s own fears. Take, for example, a male tandem instructor who uses his strength as his main asset, identifying intently with the role of superhero for passengers he feels are just along for the ride. He may not realize what is possible for a female instructor to achieve, and she may threaten his definition of an instructor and make him subconsciously think, “Well, if she could do it, that means I’m less of a man.”
Reacting defensively to attacks only invites a volley back and forth. This usually leaves both parties angry, upset and with a frustrating sense of not being heard. One effective way of dealing with these situations is by applying the principles of the martial art Aikido to resolve conflicts. This process deals with attacks in a way that creates harmony and sheds the idea of win-lose outcomes. The basic idea lies in these steps:

Women generally have a proclivity toward fostering connection and communication rather than notching the wall with marks of achievement. Capitalizing on that, a young female tandem instructor who spends quality time with her students not only feels more comfortable on the jumps and prevents her own burnout, but also makes a huge contribution to the public’s first-jump experiences. A person who is treated as a student instead of a passenger is more likely to view skydiving positively, spread that vibe to others and perhaps even join the sport.
Myth Two: Only tall, strong, powerhouse women can be tandem instructors.
Even a very small woman can be a successful tandem instructor if she understands that efficiency is the key to endurance and to achieving power with minimum strength. Apply the adage, “Work smart, not hard.” Most skydivers have seen a student struggling to close a container while learning to pack, sweating and using all the muscles he has, when a small girl with thin arms comes over and closes it with little effort. Smaller tandem instructors can apply the same technique a petite packer uses to get maximum effect for minimal effort by using leverage. Struggle does not equal accomplishment.
A tandem rig weighs about 50 pounds. If it's unpacked and you carry it in front of you, you’ll definitely notice how heavy it is. However, if it’s packed and you are wearing it balanced on your physical center, it doesn’t feel nearly as heavy. However, picking the rig up to put it on can be quite taxing after multiple jumps. Instead, try the four steps below:

You can add padding to the front of the shoulder area of your jumpsuit to minimize any discomfort caused by the weight of the container. Photo by Matt Royal.

Remember to “be lazy.” Gear up at the appropriate time to minimize how long you must carry the rig. Before boarding, use a picnic table or chair to lean the rig against as you stand and wait. In the plane, sit with the rig balanced against the floor or bench. In freefall, you won’t feel the rig’s weight, and under canopy, you are suspended from it.
You can also save energy during a long day by having a short, wide, pop-up laundry bag waiting in the landing area. For the trek back to the hangar, put the tandem canopy tail-first into the laundry bag. Then, if you want to carry it hands-free, route your chest strap through the handles of the bag and buckle back up.
Myth Three: I won’t be able to reach or extract the drogue.
A rig sits on your back differently when you are standing upright than it does when you are in freefall. To practice locating and throwing the drogue, go horizontal. Put the rig on, making sure to tighten the laterals as much as possible since this pulls the container toward your back, keeping the drogue close.
Then, toss the drogue. Practice this. It may feel odd at first, but soon you’ll gain confidence because you’ll know exactly where the drogue is and that you can easily extract it.
Myth Four: I can’t manage big guys in freefall if they don’t perform well.
Many skydivers assume that a heavier student is more of a challenge, but that is not so. In fact, heavier students and light instructors have an even greater tendency to fall belly-to-earth and remain very stable. Armed with an understanding of airflow and a few tools and techniques, a tandem instructor of any size can out-fly her student in almost any situation.
Using a looser suit with increased arm drag and legs equipped with booties can give any tandem instructor a huge advantage. A small instructor should also fly with her legs wide, presented in the airflow outside of the student’s legs. If you experience “potato chipping” or feel that you’re fighting your student, simply relax your whole body and move your limbs into clean air. Push your knees down slightly, and drop your elbows “mantis style” to create three-dimensional control (which is more effective than trying to fly two-dimensionally “above” your student). This also allows you to compensate for a turn by pushing down, deflecting air or placing your arm or leg out farther.
Regardless of size, managing the exit and getting stable before throwing the drogue concerns many new tandem instructors. Again, rule number one is to be lazy. Don’t struggle: Remember what happens when inexperienced freefall students struggle for stability.

The laundry-bag trick. Photo by Matt Royal.

You can secure and maintain exit and freefall control by setting up the launch calmly, flying your own body on the hill and understanding where the flow of air is. If you start to flip, let it happen and catch control when the flow of air presents itself again. Tandem freefall—sub-terminal or terminal—is the same as solo flight; it is just that your useable surface areas (such as forearms, shins and feet) are farther away from your center. Otherwise, freefall is just freefall.
Myth Five: I won’t have enough strength to flare.
Fortunately, advances in tandem gear make tasks such as flaring much easier than ever before. When flaring a modern tandem canopy, the initial toggle pressure will be as light as a sport canopy’s. Be sure your hands are close in toward your body instead of out far from your sides. When your hands are just past your shoulders, point your elbows up and push down to flare the rest of the way. Even a small woman can perfect a tandem flare this way.
If you practice the flare from the student position, be aware that you’ll experience much greater toggle pressure than if you were in the instructor’s spot, since you won’t be able to use leverage as effectively.
Adding more females to the tandem instructor pool may foster more first-time and repeat business among certain demographics. The anticipated result is that more female coaches, instructors and examiners would add numbers and depth to our sport, snowballing to inspire more women to explore skydiving. Sure, getting a tandem rating can be intimidating. But for most people, fear is based in the unknown. Those who get out there and experiment with what is possible using safe, controlled, small steps will find out that overcoming the challenges may not be that big of a deal.
Take it from a 108-pound instructor: Size doesn’t matter. Strength doesn’t matter. Technique and desire do.