People say your whole life flashes before your eyes when you fear you’re going to die.
In my case, nothing flashed before my eyes except smears of green and blue – land and sky – as the mess of parachute above spiralled me down.
No thoughts entered my mind. Nothing. Just a sense of horror that I’d finally done it now.
Accidental Action Man
Then, surprisingly, I acted. I say surprising because I’m not the action-man type. I’m not the guy on the news that says stuff like, “I heard screams, so I ran into the burning orphanage eight times to save the children and their kittens from a horrifying death – anyone would have done the same.”
I’m the guy who says, “Holy Fuck! That orphanage is on fire. The government should do something.”
Corkscrewing toward the ground that day under a malfunctioning parachute, it was with genuine amazement that I felt my head move and my eyes lock onto the cut-away handle. As if watching an action scene in a movie, I saw a hand reach for it. It pulled the handle and the canopy released.
The spinning stopped, but no relief came – I was back into freefall. It grew noisy again as I picked up speed and the relative wind rushed past my ears. My vision filled with more green than blue – I was getting close to the ground.
The primal part of my brain was appalled at the sight.
My head moved again and my eyes located the reserve canopy ripcord. Again a hand reached for it and pulled hard. Another hand cleared the cable. A jolt ripped me out of the movie scene as I decelerated from 200 km/h to 20 km/h in seconds. The reserve was out.
Only then I had my first rational thought, I’m alive.
That was jump 108. I’ve had five more parachute malfunctions over the 2600 skydives I’ve performed in Australia, Europe, Middle East and the US over my five-year skydiving career. I’m one of a small group of people who can say they have shit themselves over four continents.
In hindsight, that first emergency wasn’t going to be the end of me – it was probably fixable without cutting away. It was nothing like the violent malfunctions that came later as I progressed to high performance canopies. But I was terrified that day, and I feared I was going to die. So where did action man come from?
How Skydivers Beat Fear
In skydiving everything is fast. You need to think quick and act decisively. In emergencies, however, skydivers (particularly newbies) often suffer from sensory overload. Their brains freeze, buffering while it tries to process a flood of new information while screaming, “Holy shit balls, I’m going to die”.
Even without a malfunction, most first-time skydivers will suffer from sensory overload when they exit the aircraft. They lose the capacity to think for the first five seconds or so.
Skydivers’ sensory overload is an extreme example of a common experience.
We’ve all felt something like it when we’ve struggled to think straight while being grilled in a job interview or giving a speech or trying something intimidating like rock climbing or SCUBA diving.
Skydivers solve this problem by rote learning. Just like we teach kids to memorise the alphabet or times tables, we teach skydivers to memorise emergency procedures.
They rote learn the procedures and they practice the physical movements, creating muscle memory. They drill the steps deep into the brain, so when they are needed they reflexively kick in – cutting through the brain lock, and without relying on the problem-solving part of the brain.
When the shit hit the fan on jump 108, my inner man of action didn’t take charge. My brain simply recognised a situation drilled into me, and triggered an automated response. See this, do this.
As the reserve canopy deployed my brain unlocked and I could think clearly again. The rest of the procedures then appeared in the front of my mind and I landed the canopy safely. Of course, I told the other jumpers I was all over that shit.
Beat Fear by Rehearsing
Early in my career, I was asked to give a lecture at a military college. The thought terrified me. I imagined with dread the moment I would be introduced to a packed lecture theatre. The lonely walk to the podium. The indifferent faces of military officers, their standards impossibly high.
I rehearsed the first two minutes of the lecture until I knew the lines backwards. I visualised the moment when I’d hear my name announced, and pictured standing up, walking confidently to the podium and speaking in a loud voice those lines I knew so well.
When I heard my name that day in the lecture theatre my brain kicked into autopilot – just like the day I spiralled under the parachute. By the time I’d finished the first two minutes, my heart had slowed and my mind had unlocked. I gave the rest of the hour-long lecture relatively stress-free.
The Skydive Technique and Fear of Change
I’ve also used this technique to change careers into the ruthlessly competitive field of international relations, to move to a city where I didn’t know a soul, to twice deploy to war zones, and even to get married (best decision of my life).
Skydiver-style, I drill-learnt the steps, and every time my “action man” got me through the sensory overload until my brain fired up and took over.
Try it next time you have to do something terrifying.
Here’s how skydivers do it:
- Break the process down into steps (Still scary? Break it down into smaller steps)
- Come up with your Plan B in case things don’t go to plan
- Go over the steps until you know them backwards
- Visualise the moments you’ll use them
- Where possible, practice physical actions to help build muscle memory
- Test your recall. At random times of the day, try to recall instantly your ‘emergency’ procedures.