A Few Nuggets of Golden Advice from a Winning Self-Funded Skydiving Team
It starts like a bad joke: a Californian (Kenny Beach), an Italian (Alessandro “Alex” Struppa) and a Frenchman (Lawrence De Laubadere) walk into a skydiving competition...
“Our team name was Banana Hammock,” Kenny grins. “We decided that while we were drunk ice skating.”
Yep. Banana Hammock.
“Alex made a logo,” he continues. “It’s a banana in a hammock with his hands in the air. His arms are my jumpsuit and his legs are my teammate’s jumpsuit, and the banana is drinking a martini.”
The punchline of the joke? Banana Hammock took the 2-way MFS gold at the 2014 Nationals. (*Rimshot*!) It was a damned good result, especially considering where Kenny was at the outset.
“When we did our first team jumps,” Kenny remembers, “Alex was already able to fly head down and pick up grips. I would leave on my head and then flop away and fall past. Byyyyyye.”
As it turns out, the road from flopping to flying your way to the top of a national podium is paved with very intentionally-executed intentions. Without meticulous planning and open team communication, there’s very little chance you’ll ever make it to the first round. And, for most mere mortals on self-funded teams, you’ll have a very limited number of chances to get it right before the money and/or the wherewithal runs out. The struggle is real.
That said: If you’re looking for an example of a skydiving team done right, this is it. Banana Hammock not only walked away with a gold medal but with the teammates’ friendships intact--gold within gold--and Kenny is willing to share the wisdom he gleaned from that epic endeavor.
1. Compete for the right reasons.
When Kenny was first looking for teammates, he ran into a lot of friction from people who simply didn’t want to compete without the guarantee of a win.
“You have to understand that it isn’t the winning that makes you better,” Kenny observes. “It’s the fact that you are getting in with a like-minded, dedicated group of people and you are doing the same skydives over and over with them. You each learn how the other flies, and then you can focus on the really fine details.”
“When you train to compete, as long as you approach it from the mentality I’m not going to win, I’m going to become a better skydiver and I’m going to use this as a tool to buckle down as if I’m trying to win,” he muses, “then you will be giving yourself the opportunity to learn all these particular skills within whatever discipline you’re training, in a really focused environment.”
The most deadly contingency for most skydiving teams is that of the suddenly-absent member. Shore up.
“If you want to do a 4-way team, find 8 people,” Kenny says. “If you want to do an 8-way team, find 16. People are going to bail on you. I’ve seen teams that have been destroyed a week before Nationals because their outside center flyer decided he couldn’t go to Nationals anymore and the entire team’s training was shot because they didn’t have a backup. Make sure you have more people than you need.”
3. Start talking.
Got some people interested? Great. Now it’s open-communication time.
“When you get the people, put together the plan for your schedule and the goal of what you want to achieve: to win; to place; to develop; whatever that is. Figure what everyone wants to do and find a general consensus. For example: You might have one person who is, like, I want to win the Worlds this year and somebody else who is, like, I just want to see what a competition is like. Both of those people won’t get what they want. The person who just wants to see what it is like isn’t going to put the energy in to train hard enough to win the Worlds. You are going to have to meet in the middle if it’s going to work. Find people you can work with and who will work together for compatible goals.”
At some point along this journey, emotions are bound to escalate. When that happens, be ready. Kenny advocates getting everyone into a quiet room and passing around a talking stick (or a talking altimeter or a talking helmet or a talking rock or whatever ya got).
4. Everybody gets a job.
Kenny insists that, once the team is in agreement about the goals, it’s time to give everyone a very specific set of roles to play.
“Try to divide up the responsibilities for each member,” he says. “Have one person be responsible for making sure there is coffee in the morning; one person be responsible for making sure the video flyer gets taken care of; one person be responsible for making sure your pack jobs are done. You’ll pool your resources to pay for everything, of course, but have the admin jobs divided up so that everyone is responsible for part of the team so it comes together as a fully functioning unit. You don’t want one person getting stressed because they’re having to do everything. Everyone shares ownership.”
5. Plan down to the minute detail, and do it on paper.
“I think the thing that helped us the most was sitting down and getting a calendar and scheduling out every single day we were going to train, with concrete goals lined out. Not just, We want to win Nationals. Instead: We want to win Nationals and have this kind of average point. We put down on the calendar what skills we needed to work on at what time, and we broke it down to be really structured around what we were going for.”
That hyper-detailed schedule might sound imprisoning; for Kenny, it was anything but. It gave him the freedom he needed to dedicate himself completely to the task.
“If I knew that in the month of February, I would be at Paraclete for the second week and training three full days over the last weekend, then when February comes around, I’d know exactly what my schedule was going to look like to plan ahead for work. The strictness of the schedule ensured that we were getting the number of jumps we needed, the amount of tunnel time we needed and the amount of work we needed, all within our schedules.”
Not a spreadsheet nerd? No problem. You’ll get the hang of it.
“I literally had no experience of even how to set up a schedule,” he adds. “I went from working at McDonald’s to a full time skydiver, and then I quit my job to pack parachutes.”
In fact, Banana Hammock’s training schedule derived from a 4-way-specific structural starting point gifted to Kenny by uber-competitor Dan B.C. The team agreed on a certain number of jumps and a certain number of tunnel hours that they needed to accomplish in the nine intervening months between their training start date and the Nationals competition in October. From there, it was a matter of division--but with a twist.
6. Cluster ‘em up.
“You just divide up the jumps by the number of months you have available,” Kenny explains, “but you try to schedule so you are trying to do your month’s jumps in 2-to-4 day time period. You don’t want to do 40 training jumps over the entire month. You want to do 40 training jumps in 3 days and then maintain currency the rest of the month. That way you are honing in and developing those skills rather than just maintaining some vague point of currency. Like: Do I transition on my right or my left shoulder? Do I back up two feet or a foot? When you do 10 jumps in a day, you can dial that in. If not, you are not going to get that level of resolution.”
7. Then plan for the contingencies.
“Then we went on to build a plan for all of the things we could think of that could possibly go wrong,” he continues. “When we did our first team jumps, we had already had a contract that we had written up and both signed that said, ‘if this happens, this is what we are going to do.’ That way there was no animosity between us if any of it happened.”
Happily--and somewhat predictably--but for a few speed bumps, Banana Hammock ended up cruising cheerfully along its well-oiled tracks to meet its golden goal. While the team decided not to compete again (self-funded, y’know), Kenny reports that everyone involved considered it a happy ending, and he, for one, is glad he took the time to do it right.
“The best advice I can give you,” he smiles, “Is don’t give up. Don’t quit. It won’t always seem like it, but it is worth it. If you’ve ever considered competing, you owe it to yourself to try.”