Why Bases Always Think They’re Right
This is the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to write: the base is not always right.
Too frequently in both our own training, and that we see of others, there is a misbalanced dynamic. I’m as guilty of this as many others. Bases have a tendency to think they have all the answers because the information they have is more ‘reliable’ (we’ll get to that later). This causes conversations and proposals during training to be centered around the base’s reality and the information they receive, and unfortunately diminishes the role of the flyer to engage and to have a voice.
Today we’ll take about why the base is not always right, and why that doesn’t supersede everything else even if they are. We’ll also cover how to identify this as it’s happening and what to do about it when it does.
This article contains a lot of sweeping generalizations, but they are based off what we’re seeing and hearing when we coach, are present in other training environments / communities and our own experiences in our practice together. Take them all with a heavy pinch of salt; they may or may not apply to you and those around you.
Feeling vs Seeing
Let’s first talk about the validity & reliability of the information we, as a partnership, receive during training. Flyers (obvious sweeping generalization) typically talk about what they felt occur to them during a trick. ‘I felt like I was falling backwards’.
Bases (again, sweeping generalization) will talk about what they see and feel happen to the flyer. ‘You were too piked and I felt it go back’. Without even realizing it bases can easily dismiss the information flyers receive, and are trying to communicate, because we think our information is more accurate / valid because it’s more ‘objective’.
Bases see it happen, flyers feel it happen.
Because so much of what happens in partner acrobatics is based on timing, shapes and shape changes, bases are by default in a more advantageous position to see when those shapes and shape changes aren’t happening how they think they should.
What we see is, in our minds, more reliable information than what you feel. What we’ll see later is that even though this may be true sometimes, it doesn’t mean that it should invalidate the ‘less-reliable’ information.
This idea of feeling vs seeing is, I think, at the heart of the ‘bases always think they’re right’ problem. And we’ll come back to it, right after this:
I Have an Idea…
...the four words Isis dreads to hear come out of mouth.
As a flyer, you’re probably less likely to suggest new things to try. As with new things, comes new risk. And as the flyer is the one at risk, no one is more aware of that than them. As a base, even if you’re mindful and attentive to the risk the flyer is undergoing, it’s still much easier for the base to suggest things to try. As at the end of the day, they’re not really the one in danger.
Never is this more obvious than when taking a trick out of lines for the first time:
Us, while coaching – “Ok, you wanna take this out of lines?”
The base, instantly – “sure”
Us – “We weren’t talking to you.”
The decision to do, or not do, something ultimately rests with the flyer. That’s not to say that if a base expresses reservations but the flyer doesn’t, those reservations should be ignored. Reservation on either side should be responded to exactly the same, but in our experience bases are less hesitant than flyers.
Often in our training; I’ll think of a wild new idea, suggest it to Isis, she’ll express reservations about it, I’ll listen to and come up with ways to address those reservations safely if there is opportunity to do so. We’ll try to build towards the trick, we’ll train the trick, we'll get the trick. That’s what that process looks like when it’s healthy.
In an unhealthy process one person will think of a new idea to try, suggest it to their partner, they’ll express reservations about it, the suggester will bulldoze over those reservations with ‘nah, it’ll be fine. I’ve got you’, they’ll try the trick. That’s an unhealthy process.
There is a fine line between reassuring your flyer, and pushing your flyer. My rule, both for myself and for our students, is that if ever they put forward a solid ‘no’ then that’s the end of it. You’re free to offer up alternative solutions or progressions to address any reservations or uncertainty they express. But as soon as they say no to those suggestions, or their uncertainty becomes certain you drop it.
How to walk that fine line between reassurance and pushing is a whole other topic in itself. I wanted to touch on it to explain how and why bases tend to end up being the ones leading the training sessions. This then extends into leading the problem-solving moments that come up during training.
Leading By Asking
I’m neither smart enough nor qualified enough to delve deeply into the gender dynamics of anything, including acrobatics. However, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that within society men are disproportionately encouraged into, and end up in, positions of leadership more frequently than women.
This societal trend extends out to our acrobatics practice as the majority of pairs we see are ‘mixed pairs’ with a male identifying base who typically leads trainings, and a female identifying flyer. There are obviously exceptions to this.
I want to make it clear that I do not think that partnerships have to be led by the base. I don’t think our partnership is led by me. I don’t think a partnership has to be led by any single person. Part of the difficulty of Partner Acrobatics is navigating a very difficult and complicated working relationship. That relationship is far more complex than many people give it credit. You, as a base or flyer, will over time develop your own strategies, communication techniques, and power balance & dynamic with whoever you are working with.
All this advice is not the sole way to do things, it is the way we do things. I can only speak from my experience, so your partnership may look very different to ours, and the others we're seeing, and that’s ok as long as everyone in it is happy with how it’s working. The key component of all of this is good, effective communication.
Having said that, there is a large overlap in the qualities of a good base and that of a good leader. Being a good base means, among other things, being attentive to the needs, concerns and wellbeing of your flyer and being able to communicate effectively. I think the weight & nature of this responsibility & role causes bases to take on a more ‘leadership-esque role’ within their partnership, even if they don’t mean to.
What this looks like when it’s healthy is asking questions, taking appropriate action based on the answers and cooperating to help make decisions.
If we’re working on a new trick, or getting to the stage where we’re ready to take a trick out of lines, I will always make sure to ask her what she needs in order to feel safe, and then we move forward based on those answers. I feel it’s my responsibility to lead the line of questioning to ensure it’s been properly considered & discussed between us, even if it feels redundant, and then to act on the answers.
You absolutely have to make sure you’re giving flyers the space and opportunity to speak, to answer your questions, and to let their thoughts be heard. There is no point asking if you’re not going to listen to or, worse, pretend to listen and then ignore the answer.
This is not to say that Isis does not take charge of her own safety or her training and leaves it up to me, but rather that I want to explicitly make sure she has been given the opportunity and space to do so to make sure nothing has been overlooked. There is very little doubt in my mind that Isis would never allow herself to be put in danger, or to not speak her mind. However, I consider it part of my role as a base to ensure that she is able to do that freely and to help facilitate that dialogue.
I find myself constantly asking ‘What do you need?’. Which on paper looks like a very subservient question, but it comes back to being attentive to the needs, concerns and wellbeing of your flyer. Which comes back to being a good leader, which comes back to being a good base.
Which gives some explanation as to ‘why bases tend to lead trainings’. Which brings us back to ‘why bases always think they’re right’.
Pitfalls & Escape Ropes
So, we’ve without realizing it, we’ve fallen into a dynamic where the base is ‘leading’, and the information they receive is, in their mind, by default more ‘valid’.
These two things, among others, when combined can create a dodgy cocktail of power. Whereby the base, unconsciously or consciously, considers their information more important, and is used to being the one, subtly or explicitly, in charge find it difficult to have either of those things questioned or challenged.
Even just having your flyer tell you they felt something different to what you think you saw is essentially them questioning your reality. Which is a difficult paradox to navigate, and I think all too frequently leads to bases doubling down on ‘well I saw this and there’s no way that can’t be right because I saw it happen’.
We need to remain constantly aware of the potential for this to happen, so that we can adjust our behaviour and reaction as is appropriate. Part of what helps address this is humility. As a base you have to fully accept that if you see the flyer is making a mistake there is almost always something the base could be doing better, to help them do it better.
If the base is looking up and seeing the flyers handstand is piked, that’s just the symptom. Coming down and saying ‘you were piked, don’t pike’ is not addressing the root cause of the problem. Even more so if what the flyer is feeling does not line up with what the base is seeing. There is a reason the flyer is feeling what they’re feeling.
Just because what they’re feeling does not line up with what I’m seeing does not invalidate their information.
Make sure you’re giving the flyer the opportunity to voice their thoughts. Ask questions. Listen. Shut up. When Isis is explaining something to me I have this awful habit of interrupting and saying ‘ok, yeah I get it’ when I feel like I've understood what she's trying to say. Even when she’s not finished explaining. Even if I do get it, there still might be more information coming that I need to know or maybe I didn’t even get it. This goes both ways. Make sure you’re giving everyone the opportunity to talk and have their thoughts heard fully.
The best question you can ask is ‘what do you need from me?’.
This alone helps to address everything we’ve spoken about here. It opens the floor for the flyer to say what they felt & what they need, it reminds the base to listen to the answer, it takes the lead away from the base, and it helps close the ‘information gap’ between what the base is seeing the flyer doing and what they’re not feeling themselves do.
As a base we have to remain acutely aware of these tendencies, because only by being aware of them can we do something about them. It’s very easy in moments of stress or fatigue during training to fall back into old patterns and into default behaviours, but we should always try to remember:
More Sweeping Than A Broom
There were a lot of sweeping generalisations made in this article and I don’t want to in any way paint the picture that it’s always the guy domineering over the girl, or base over flyer. It can absolutely go both ways, and there are some incredibly assertive, powerful flyers out there who much or all of this won't apply to.
I can only write from my experience, and cannot begin to hope to cover the complexities and myriad of circumstances potentially involved in this topic. Please do not think that I consider all flyers, or all women, damsels in distress needing to be rescued by myself or someone else.
Partner acrobatic training relationships & dynamics are incredibly complex and unique to each partnership, what I’ve written about today is based on my own personal experiences and what I’ve seen in the training relationships of the students we coach.
There are undoubtedly more layers to this, some of which you may personally have experienced, than I have been able to write about and I absolutely don’t want you to think I was willfully ignoring those layers. I am limited by my own experience, and am always welcome to hear from others to help expand that limitation. I’d like to offer a big thank you to Rissa for her help with large sections of this, and with helping to offer up more diverse experiences.