The situated management of safety during risky sport: learning from skydivers' courses of experience.

Author:Mohamed, Sara
Position:Research article - Report


Skydiving is generally considered a high risk sport. In the popular imagination, this assessment undoubtedly finds its source from images of skydivers plummeting to earth through empty space, scenes that evoke strong emotions associated with potentially watching someone die (e.g., Caillois, 1977; Jeudy-Ballini and Voisenat, 2004). Despite such risks and potentially fatal incidents, skydiving is practiced both recreationally or competitively (e.g., freeflying, formation skydiving) (FAI, 2011). Competitive practice and training requires particularly high concentration, strategic planning and stress coping skills, in addition to the necessary great attention given to safety concerns (e.g., Hare et al., 2013; Thatcher et al., 2003). However, Celsi et al., (1993) claimed that skydiving is indeed a high-risk sport by pointing to the finding of one death per 700 skydivers between 1978 and 1980. Skydiving is sometimes characterized as an "extreme" sport with the ultimate outcome being the intense thrill one experiences and because it exposes practitioners to a mortal risk that they are not fully aware of, especially as they multiply jumps (Loirand, 2006; Tomlinson, 2004; Vigarello and Mongrin, 1987).

Nevertheless, the position of skydiving within the field of high-risk sports appears to be more complex and contrasted than one might think. Perceptions of the relative risk are linked to the observers' concerns and their position among practitioners (e.g, insider vs outsiders) (Ball, 1998; Fuller and Myerscough, 2001). For example, many practitioners state that skydiving is a sport that arouses intense sensations in them--and not an extreme and unreasonable activity (e.g., EPCO, 2013). These testimonies have been supported by an ethnographic study of skydiving (Hardie-Bick, 2005) and accidentology research. Westman and Bjornstig (2005), for example, reported that from 1994 to 2003 the prevalence of fatal accidents was about 0.8 per 100,000 jumps, indicating that the objective risk was lower than that of other activities like motorcycle riding. A recent French epidemiology study confirmed this assertion, showing that out of 246 injury-related deaths in 2010 in France, mountain sports (i.e., mountaineering, skiing) were the most dangerous (99 deaths), followed by water sports (scuba diving), whereas skydiving caused only two deaths (Rigou et al., 2013).

Despite the multitude of forms that skydiving may take, its practice is regulated to maximize safety (Vidovic and Rugai, 2007). Four main innovations have emerged since the 80s: (a) the introduction and widespread use of safety devices that are thought to have significantly decreased landing errors, (b) the wing parachute and its automatic activation, which offers a much improved scope for piloting and a softened landing, (c) learning programs in which safety concerns are prominent, and (d) the requirement of licensing based on successful completion of practical and theoretical exams involving a minimal number of jumps. These regulations have clearly made skydiving safer, but they do not explain how skydivers manage these risks in practice (training or competition). Moreover, a qualitative study suggested that the risks do not completely arise from the sport itself and its rules and regulations, but from the way it is practiced. From skydiver's perspective, the notion of risk is not inherent to the objective act of skydiving (Penin, 2012), which in turn implies that another way to understand skydiving risk is to look at how expert skydivers manage risk.

One way to analyze how practitioners interact with risk is to examine unfolding actions. Course-of-action theory (e.g., Theureau, 2003) offers the possibility of this type of analysis as it focuses on the stream of interactions between actions and situations during a specific period of time. A course of action is defined as "the activity of a given actor engaged in a given physical and social environment belonging to a given culture, where the activity is meaningful for the actor; that is, he [sic] can show it, tell it, and comment upon it to an observer-listener at any instant during its unfolding" (Theureau and Jeffroy, 1994).

This theory has been used for studying diverse activities in which safety has to be managed, such as industrial practice (e.g., Leplat, 1995; Theureau, 2000), education in difficult fields (e.g., Flavier et al., 2003), and elite acrobatic sports (e.g., Hauw et al., 2003; 2008; Hauw and Durand, 2004; 2008). In these sports particularly, studies have shown how practitioners accounted for risk by developing a specific organization of their activity that embedded two main concerns: ensuring the viability of the ongoing activity in terms of performance (meeting set criteria) and ensuring the safety of the activity (maintaining various forms and levels of supervision of the unfolding situation). By studying how skydivers manage safety using the course-of-action approach, we thus expected to provide a better understanding of how safety concerns in this sport (a) emerge as meaningful, (b) are embedded in situation and (c) are distributed over the time of the activity.

To summarize, the aim of this study was to understand how risk is taken into account in a high-risk sport by analyzing the management of safety in situation during training in skydiving activity. Course-of-action theory was used to provide a deep and dynamical analysis of the experience from the inside of this activity.



Four male skydivers holding the Swiss license volunteered to participate in this study with an average age was 30.25 years (SD = 5.12 years). Two of them had seven years of skydiving experience and the other two had three years. They were all regular practitioners, training in the same club, and they had accumulated between 160 and 1200 jumps.

Data collection

The investigation analyzed four jump training sessions. Each skydiver was followed by the same investigator from the preparation of his material to landing and packing of the parachute. All had chosen their jump program without any restrictions from the investigator: three of them were freefall jumps (Rene, Laurent, Bertrand) and one was a wingsuit jump (Eric).

Two types of data were collected: (a) videotapes of the skydivers' activity from jump preparation to landing and (b) video-recorded and transcribed verbalizations and commentaries elicited post-activity during self-confrontation interviews.

The skydivers' activity was recorded by the second author using a digital helmet-mounted camera to collect video data, even during the jump. After the jump, the participants viewed the videotape of their own activity during the self-confrontation interview (Theureau, 2003). All of them were asked to describe and comment on their own activity (i.e., thoughts, affects, sensations, feelings) related to their recorded behaviors: as they watched their behavior, they provided descriptions of their experience. An inserted timer coupled with the image made it possible to locate the verbalizations in relation to specific moments or events of the performance. The videotapes were used to enhance their capacity to remember how they experienced the unfolding of their activity and to situate each element of experience in relation to observable events (e.g., to be in the plane, to be above the landing zone). The interviewer's prompts were designed to elicit selected components of activity: (a) the meaningful part of action (i.e., a description of action that was meaningful for the skydivers was obtained with questions like: What are you doing here? What are you searching for?), (b) the representamen (e.g., What are you perceiving? What do you see?), and (c) the interpretant (e.g., What are you thinking about? What are you concerned about?). The researcher made it a point to elicit comments from the athletes about how prominent their safety concerns...

To continue reading