Above: Photo by Craig O'Brien.
Becoming a better skydiver takes a lot of things: practice, patience, humility and a willingness to listen. One of the best things you can do to advance your skydiving skills—at any level and in any discipline—is to surround yourself with people who have more experience than you. The pros have a lot to offer, and less-experienced jumpers can benefit from their expertise. Everyone’s path will look different, but coaches with experience have done and seen a lot. They’ve messed up, and you can learn from their mistakes and make fewer of your own.
“How good do you want to be?” is a simple, logical, practical question. Being honest with yourself might be the hardest part of answering it. It’s a personal question that comes back to ambition, desire and drive. But no matter what stage you’re in when it comes to skydiving, there are practical steps you can take to improve your skills. And if you want to be really good at skydiving—or anything else, for that matter—it will take time, commitment and sacrifice.
Goals, Guidance and Direction
Skydiving is a goal-orientated sport with various levels of licenses and ratings and many disciplines to explore. Without guidance, it can be confusing or overwhelming and you may plateau at a certain level and become frustrated at your lack of progress. A mentor or coach can help you navigate all the choices available, help you identify your strengths and weaknesses and suggest skillsets to work on.
Erika Woodrum got her first skydiving license in 2018. Back when she had about 100 jumps and was doing 4-way formation skydiving at her home drop zone, an experienced skydiver complimented her flying and asked if she would be interested in being on a team. “I had no idea at the time about what it meant to be on a 4-way team,” said Woodrum, “But I loved those jumps, and I decided it would be my first big goal right then and there.”
Steve Vigliotti had a similar story. He started skydiving in 2013 and now has 1,150 jumps. Mentorship has played an invaluable role in his skydiving journey by helping him find the disciplines that drive him the most. “Mentors have helped me to greatly improve my skills, which is a big focus for me in skydiving,” he said. “Without mentors to help me push my limits, I would have much less passion and engagement in the sport than I do now.”
Accept Your Ability
Gary Tays has been skydiving since 2015. “When I got back into the sport after a long layoff, the best advice I received was to stick your nose into it,” he said. Around the same time, he told an organizer who invited him to be on a formation jump that he didn’t feel ready for it. The organizer could see that his skill level was more than adequate and said, “You’re coming with us.”
Throughout your skydiving career, be honest about your skill level. Even if you say you’re better than you are, the truth becomes obvious very quickly. It can be a waste of time (and money) for you and the people you’re jumping with, and no one wants that. A lower skill level is nothing to be ashamed of, and if you take the time to seek guidance it shows initiative and that you are serious about wanting to improve. Remember: Everyone starts at the beginning, even those who eventually become pros.
Get Out There
Traveling expands your perspective more than you might think. “You may find an awesome mentor at your home DZ, which is great, but the more you can broaden your network the greater chance that you will find a mentor or mentors who align with your goals,” says Vigliotti. Skills camps are an excellent way to learn and meet like-minded people. Many drop zones host events specifically for rookies, and bigger boogies will usually include focused organizer groups that cater to beginners, mid-level jumpers and pros. Jumpers can find a list of competitions, skills camps and boogies at uspa.org/events.
Since women make up less than 15% of the skydiving population, both USPA and the Canadian Sport Parachute Association have set up mentorship programs specifically for them. USPA’s Sisters in Skydiving (uspa.org/sis) and CSPA’s Mentorship Program
(cspa.ca/en/mentorship-program), as well as the Women’s Skydiving Network (womensskydivingnetwork.org), offer support, networking and resources to help women overcome barriers in the sport.
Another way to set goals is to join a team and enter competitions like the USPA Nationals or Collegiate Nationals, which both have categories for up-and-coming jumpers.
Getting one-on-one training is also valuable. Tays equates skydiving to playing hockey. “If you want to get better at hockey, don’t go play a game. Learn how to skate first, shoot the puck, how to stop. If you want to improve in skydiving, do 2-way drills with an experienced coach.” Though that 2-way may not be as much immediate fun as getting on a zoo dive, you’ll be developing the skills you need to move forward.
It can be intimidating to ask for help in skydiving, just as it can be for other aspects of life. But you’ll probably be surprised by how accommodating accomplished skydivers will be when approached with a positive attitude. People love to share their knowledge. Skydiving is a small world, so you’ll have the opportunity to interact with the best of the best. It starts with talking to the drop zone owner, a coach or that person with 2,500 jumps who’s having a beer at the bonfire. Don’t be afraid to ask who they trained with and how they got where they are.
Woodrum, the one-time fledgling 4-way skydiver, is now an AFF instructor. She spends as much time as possible teaching big-way and 4-way basics at her home drop zone. She remembers the encouragement she got when she was starting out and now pays it forward. “I try to compliment rookie jumpers as much as possible. You never know what will stick, but I’d rather it be positivity than negative critiques,” she said.
One Size Doesn’t Fit All
You’re not going to connect with everyone you meet. The key to a successful mentorship is to find someone you respect and get along with on a personal level, but also someone who won’t just tell you what you want to hear.
“A great mentor will support you in your journey but is also willing to challenge you in order to make sure you are making the best decisions for yourself,” said Vigliotti. He also believes that you shouldn’t feel the need to have just one mentor and that it’s helpful to hear varying opinions on certain topics and have different mentors for different disciplines.
“Surround yourself with people you can learn from and look up to, and it will only set you up for growth,” said Woodrum.
For Tays, a good mentor is not selfish. “They are someone who will give up their time for other people and not look for recognition.”
Over time you can get better at anything if you are committed to putting the work into it. If you seek out advice and are willing to learn from those who have something to teach you, even better. A mentor can guide, influence and encourage you, but ultimately the kind of skydiver you want to be is up to you.
About The Author
Lana Starchuck, CSPA C-4045, is a Canadian writer, author, editor and speaker. Her next book, “What Happens When Your Parachute Doesn’t Open and Other Failures,” is about reframing failure as learning.