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Goal Setting: Motivation In Training For Skydiving –

by Vic Napier & Paul Schienberg, Ph.D.

The general public often thinks of skydiving as a “stunt” performed by “dare devils” in Hollywood films. If a movie scene did not call for characters to jump out of a plane, they would be falling off the balcony after being shot, or having a fiery crash into the wall of a speedway. It appears as if the only skill required is their willingness to put life and limb on the line. Since the general public is not knowledgeable about the sport, most do not have a sense of the skills and discipline required to do it well. So, this article will begin by filling in the blanks about this high-risk sport.

Sport Skydiving Background Information

The United States Parachute Association (USPA) statistics reveal interesting numbers about the popularity of skydiving in the United States. There are more than 34,000 members of the Association. This does not indicate the number of competitive jumpers because you do not have to join to jump. Of greater significance is that there are 3.2 million jumps made in the US since 1998, 268,000 student jumps per year and 107,000 people have earned parachute licenses. There are 200 skydiving centers in the US and thousands of small and medium sized businesses serving the needs of skydivers.

Skydiving involves various disciplines, levels of ability and competitive venues. Formation Freefall, Traditional Style, Freestyle, Accuracy and Canopy Formation Flying are competitive aspects of skydiving that require dedication, training and commitment that other sports do. Modern skydiving is much more than simply jumping from an aircraft and descending under a parachute.

Skydiving centers build their training programs around the minimum requirements established by the USPA for an “A” license (Basic Skydiver). The requirements to acquire this license indicate very little except that the jumper can intentionally fall out of an airplane without supervision, pull his or her ripcord, and land without incident.

Challenges Facing The Teacher And Learner

A few serious studies have shown a tendency towards task goal orientation. Skydivers tend to view their activity in a sport not as competition against others, but rather as competition against their own past performances. This probably includes challenging their own perception of what they are capable of accomplishing. It explains skydiving as a way to explore personal limits.

The very things that attract people to make their first jump – the visceral exhilaration and excitement – creates challenges for those who attempt to learn or teach new skills. The reinforcing aspects of high arousal and novel sensory stimulation is enough to motivate inexperienced jumpers to repeatedly fling themselves from airplanes with little or no interest in learning new skills or achieving any specific sport goal. In other words, the intrinsic rewards of skydiving are so strong that it encourages a lack of structure, goals and planning essential to learning more sophisticated aspects of the sport. This challenges the learning of skills needed to excel as a skydiver. Once skydivers become acclimated to jumping and the anxiety is thereby reduced, they begin to look for another activity for excitement.

Efforts to involve jumpers at this level of experience in training programs often meet with resistance. This is because internal “locus of causality”, is highly valued by skydivers, and training interventions are often perceived as threats to self-determination. Combined with the influence of skydivers tendency towards task goals orientation (competition against own past performance), it’s easy to see how low time jumpers would view skydiving as a sport with little structure, goals, or planning.

Goal Setting For Skydivers

Motivation has been defined as the “direction and intensity of one’s effort”. The problem faced by teachers of skydiving is not lack of intensity – the problem is often lack of direction and ambivalence about getting any. Goal setting is a requirement to getting that intensity headed somewhere positive.

Cognitive Evaluation Theory states that events that influence perceptions of competence and self-determination also affect intrinsic motivation. If a participant infers criticism or covert attempts to influence behavior from another person, intrinsic motivation will decrease. One of the implications of powerful intrinsic motivations is the perception of the controlling aspect of extrinsic rewards. It’s logical to assume that intrinsic motivations and the need for control are positively related. The more intrinsically rewarding the sport, the more volatile becomes the issue of control for the participant. In order for structured learning programs to be effective with skydivers, organizers and teachers will need to make sure that the participants have control over as many aspects of the program as possible. This includes not just goal setting, but also technical aspects of the skydivers and simulated skydives.

Practical Suggestion For Goal Setting

There are a number of advantages to setting goals. Goals keep attention and effort focused on the elements that make up skills. Goals automatically provide motivation. Goal setting encourages creativity in identifying effective learning strategies.

Goals should be stated in behavioral terms with operational definitions, objective measurement criteria, and specific outcome definitions. Long-term goals should be broken down into short-term goals, and short-term goals should further be broken down into their specific constituent behavioral skills that can be observed and measured. Performance goals (relative work skills) should be separate from outcome goals (points on the dive). Similarly, practice and competition goals should be separate from each other. This is to ensure that participants do not make attribution errors when analyzing their performance. Skydivers often blame individuals for outcome failures when team performance is really at fault.

All goals should be recorded and attended to frequently. Strategies aimed at learning or improving specific skills should be overtly identified and developed. Evaluation and feedback relevant to goals should be ongoing. This is where comprehensive post dives, analysis and recording become important.


There is a rising popularity to alternative sports (i.e. skydiving) both as a participant as well as a fan. The setting of goals and training of participants in high-risk sports is complicated by the fact that the motivations operating are often in opposition to more accepted sports training methods. High intrinsic motivations and need for control need to be taken into account in attempts by teachers to improve skills. External rewards backfire in that these athletes will experience them as attempts to control. Therefore, it is important in designing programs to give them opportunities for input into various aspects of the training. Having the high-risk athlete evaluate their progress is, also, helpful.