Champions - Skydiving and Otherwise (pt. 2)

At the risk of giving the impression that my life consists only of parachuting, and that I do no work at all, I feel the need once more to write about a recent skydive experience. I spent last week at a training camp in Spain with my primary team, who have just moved up to the “big boys” league of AAA in 4-way formation skydiving. (see Pt.1 for an explanation of what this means).

Team Slot Machines in training.

Team Slot Machines in training. Photo by me.

Our coach this time was the peerless Pete Allum, skydiver extraordinaire with 30,000 jumps to his name, winner of countless skiploads of medals, and all-round skygod held in total awe by skydivers worldwide. Find out more about Pete here). Watching Pete training and coaching a team has been a genuine learning experience. You might be aware that there is much debate and angel-on-pinhead-classification of what differentiates teaching, training, mentoring, coaching, and so on. Pete blows these differences apart. There can be no questioning the technical expertise of a man who really has seen and done it all, as far as this discipline of competitive skydiving is concerned. He has a preternatural ability to analyse video and see in minute detail what each person is doing micro-second by micro-second, uncannily even spotting what isn’t visible on the screen, such as what is happening in a masked area, or what someone is thinking or feeling while in freefall. Humbling to witness.

However, the real revelation to me was his coaching style. Which superficially is so laid back and laconic as to be almost imperceptible at times. Pete has a remarkable ability to listen and watch carefully, and then hone in the genuine issue with laser precision, and very gently suggest the one piece of information that will completely transform an individual’s performance. He never bombards you with too much knowledge, or overloads you with ideas, he just gives you one new thing to try, and a whole world of possibility suddenly opens up.

Like many involved in training, I know I can sometimes fall into the trap of rather liking the sound of my own voice. After all, we trainers and managers tell ourselves, we possess the vital information our trainees or our work reports need, and surely if we explain it at sufficient length and in enough detail, we can fill up their buckets of knowledge to the brim. In truth, we more often end up just overloading their brains and clouding the issue. Ironically, this can actually be made worse by the telling of stories. Elsewhere on this website I rhapsodise on the value of storytelling to give meaning to information and as a way of embedding values. And I still believe that is profoundly true. Unfortunately, and I hold my own hand up to being guilty of this, it can also be an excuse for the “old warhorse” syndrome of following any learning point with “which reminds me of a time when….”. Stories have a time and place, but don’t necessarily belong in every teaching or coaching situation. Pete Allum is a man with more skydiving stories to tell than the rest of us put together, but he saves them for the bar, and even then you have to prise them out of him. In the training room, the focus is the team, not him, and all his energy goes into improving performance, not boosting his own status.

Even more fascinating to watch was the way he withdrew himself slowly from the coaching process. As the days went by he encouraged the team more and more to assess themselves and to be impartial judges of their own performance. By the end of the week he was barely contributing anything, having put in place a simple but effective system of debriefing jumps and planning improvements. True coaching, I realised, was not complete until the coach has made themselves redundant, at least for the time being.

Inspired by my experience of last week, I am now re-evaluating my own training and coaching style. I am searching for ways to ensure that the true focus of what I do is to provide people with just the right amount of information, and simple clear goals, to leverage step-changes in performance. I am checking that I don’t fill up valuable time with “interesting” stories that, yes, amuse people and illustrate points, but don’t necessarily contribute to actual learning. And I am looking for ways to embed not just information, but ways of learning, so that in the longer term my input is no longer needed. Challenges indeed.

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