Teaching Skydiving

by Jen Sharp published at EducationalFoundationForSkydivers.org January 2010
reprinted in Parachutist Magazine May 2013

It’s a small world… but it’s an even smaller skydiving world.  Right now there are approximately 30,000 skydivers in the U.S.  And how many of those are licensed?   How many of those licensed are active and current?  How many of those current licensed are coaches or instructors?  We are definitely an elite group of individuals responsible for the safety and learning of those coming after us.  It is our vital and immeasurable mandate to continually improve our sport, keep the good traditions, and ensure this sport for future generations.  How can we best  meet our goals and serve this sport well?

With professionalism, with knowledge, and with good technique.


It’s good to have fun, but it’s more fun to be good.  It’s good to have fun and joke around with friends at the drop zone and escape your everyday life.  But when it comes to your demeanor around students, temper that “raw fun” with some professionalism.  If you are a GOOD coach or instructor, a professional one, you gain more satisfaction from the pride that comes with being good at what you do.

Don’t talk about your student’s performance or personality with other skydivers unless it’s presented in a manner that you would be willing to share with the student themselves.  If you wouldn’t say it to their face, don’t say it behind their back.

If you find yourself becoming increasingly negative or facing burn out, then STOP for a while.  You don’t need the stress and your student deserves good attention. 

When you took on the role of teacher, you also become a role model.  Everyone remembers their first jump instructor vividly!  And they continue to watch your actions to discern what is appropriate and what is not.  For example, if you preach NO hook turns, but you do them yourself, you are being hypocritical.  With the authority comes the responsibility, so if you don’t want this responsibility, don’t be a coach or instructor.

Know your stuff

You have a responsibility to yourself and especially others under your direction to continue to learn and work towards improvement.   This means improvement in freefall skills AND instructional skills.

Know your limitations.  Make connections with other instructors to inspire you, remind you of things you already know, and teach you techniques or content you hadn’t encountered before.  It also means continually improving your own freefall & flying abilities and increasing your range.   

Know your student.  Spending even just a few minutes asking your student about their life outside skydiving, their goals, their fears, makes a big difference in how relaxed they are, and effectively how they perform on the dive.

Know your material.  And know how to present it so someone else can understand.  For example, one of the most important concepts we teach or review is Emergency Procedures.  But have you ever actually touched and practiced pulling your cutaway and reserve handles in freefall?  How about under canopy?  It feels completely different than doing it on the ground.  Experiencing it and practicing it for yourself will help you be able to teach it and give a realistic perspective to your student.  We can all do backflips, but how do you explain it to the student?  Go up and DO one, and analyze yourself.


When USPA came out with the categories for the ISP, I immediately recognized how valuable it was for transitioning students and for being objective with dealing with students’ skills.  At the same time, I was overwhelmed with trying to understand and sort out the new information.  So, I devised this memory system, using the letter of the category, to help me keep them straight: 



The main goal we teach first is the arch and adjusting to the environment of leaving an airplane for the first time.



No matter the method, we introduce the basics of body awareness, altitude awareness, and general safety.



You get control of your skydiving when you are able to pull stable on your own.



These dives feature 90 and 360 degree turns and forward movement.



Expand outside the box, or outside the “boxman” in this case, as we add disorienting maneuvers and positions other than “flat and stable”


flat track

Getting a flat and long track is so important, an entire category is devoted to it.



Here’s where group freefall skills are introduced, including gripped exits, forward movement for docking, fall rate, and reinforcing tracking.



Hone their skills in the last category where they gain their independence and earn their first license to “learn”.


A big part of being a coach or instructor of any method is observing well and interpreting what you see to help the student improve.  Knowing what mistakes students commonly make can help you anticipate their moves and get a head start on fixing the problem.  Present this in a positive way and reinforce the correct way of doing things. For example, many students have problems with backsliding.  Instead of saying, “Don’t put your feet up on your butt,” teach them, “Extend your legs and point your toes slightly; you should feel a little pressure of the wind on the top of your toes.”

Show me

Speaking of common mistakes, the biggest common mistake that coaches and instructors make is talking too much!  We all want to impart our knowledge onto our students, and we mean well, but telling them the information doesn’t mean they learn it.  It’s not your job to tell them; it’s your job to make sure they have learned it.  How can you know if they have learned the information unless they repeat it back to you, or better yet, theyshow you!
The essence of teaching through “show me” is in three tasks: 1. present new concepts concisely; 2. ask questions of your students to ascertain their comprehension; and 3. say “show me.”  
1. new concepts: Here’s where you can satisfy your urge to talk, but be careful of telling “war stories.”  Real life examples are very useful but make sure they are pertinent and leave out the drama.  Demonstrate new skills to the student yourself or use video to show them.  Using visual aids, like a real time altimeter, freefall doll, charts, video, written dive flows, all increase the chance your student will comprehend and retain these new concepts.  Using video as a teaching aid is extremely helpful, but not widely used, despite the large amount of footage we take. 
2. ask questions: 
Especially when you are reviewing (which needs to be before every jump), ask the student to teach you.  For example, when you get to canopy control and winds/playground for that day, give them just enough information for their level, and have them explain their intended canopy pattern to you.  For a newer student, that may mean you tell them jumprun direction, playground area and remind them of altitudes.  For a more experienced student, you may just need to give them a winds aloft chart and guide them to the answer by asking questions when they pause.
3. show me: 
Have you ever seen an instructor “explain” a skill, like turns, and do this while simply standing, or worse, while sitting?  Don’t be lazy… create the most realistic mockup for your student to practice and demonstrate.   This not only helps them learn the concept physically, but it also gives you a preview of how they will perform the dive.  You save time and money by fixing and practicing on the ground.

Again, using video during this “show me” section can often help.  I sometimes use my video camera which has a small viewing screen you can pull out instead of just a viewfinder, and I tape a brief 3 or 4 second shot of my student demonstrating a skill on the ground.  Then I show it to them.  Their reactions have been very positive and it helps them to understand their own body.  This works even better than a mirror would because you can get a viewpoint from many positions.

“Show me” applies to every single part of the instruction: gear, aircraft (routine & emergency), exit, freefall (routine & emergency), canopy, landing (routine & emergency), and don’t forget: DEBRIEF!  You can increase knowledge and retention tremendously by teaching all the way through the debrief.  Have the student show you what just happened, then work on fixing it right then.

In Summary

Speaking of “show me”, since I can’t show you show you in a written article how to apply these concepts, I’ll have to settle for writing out a dialogue. Here’s a short example of a review of gear and emergency procedures using a few of the concepts presented here:
(note: these examples use concepts Skydive Kansas teaches and may not fit exactly with your particular training program)

Instructor: “What’s this handle?”  Student: “Main ripcord.”
Instructor: “What altitude do you pull it?”  Student: “5,000 feet.”
Instructor: ”Show me.”
Instructor: “What happens when you pull it?”  Student: “Opens the main canopy.”
 “How do you know if you have a good canopy?”  Student: “Square Stable Steerable”
Instructor: ”At what point do you have to decide if it’s good or not?” Student: “2,500 feet decision altitude.”
Instructor: ”What do you do if it’s not a good canopy?”  Student: “Pull the cutaway handle.”
Instructor: ”Then what?”  Student: “Pull the reserve.”
Instructor: ”Show me.”

This takes less than 30 seconds, and you just reviewed a major portion of gear and emergency procedures.