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In part 6 of this series of articles we already touched on the subject of concentration but now we will look into it a little deeper and investigate the link between concentration and stress.


By Bernard Eckey

Most of us have little trouble concentrating while the task at hand is progressing as expected. We run on automatic – in cruise control, so to speak. Our mind is free and we feel relaxed in the knowledge that we have the situation nicely under control. Scientists call this the Ideal Performance State (IPS) and individuals describe it as being in control, physically relaxed, energised, calm, self-confident and optimistic. In other words, as long as everything is running smoothly, humans are in a frame of mind that ensures an appropriate level of concentration. This occurs without any great input on the part of the individual.

But things can change rapidly when we get distracted or stressed. External distractions from other people, the environment, equipment problems, incomplete preparation and so on are as detrimental as mental distractions such as emotion or mental baggage. As soon as the arousal level changes – for example, we get very nervous or feel particularly anxious – we move away from our IPS. Things get even worse when stress, our greatest enemy, takes over. Understanding what causes stress is vital for coping with it and for successfully managing it. Stress occurs in two stages:

Stage 1 – Trigger
The trigger to stress is our reaction to something. The examples in gliding are plentiful. If, for example, we are in very strong sink and get alarmingly close to an outlanding, perhaps even over difficult terrain, stage 2 will be triggered automatically.

Stage 2 – Arousal
The body reacts instantly by releasing a complex combination of stress hormones. Evolution has ensured that all available blood is automatically directed toward the muscles in readiness for a fight or flight response. This leaves less blood for the brain, which means that mental capacity and concentration levels become mismatched to the task at hand. The pilot becomes overloaded and, as a result, usually experiences a highly significant drop in performance.

Overload situations occur when too many things are going on at the same time and pilots are unsure what their priorities should be. Each person has his or her characteristic way of focussing on the job at hand. Some pilots function well under pressure, while others don’t handle high situational demands very well and become easily confused or overloaded. Countless thoughts rush through their heads and confusion reigns.
Task prioritisation can easily become too complex and it is common for old, bad habits to creep back in or for mistakes to occur. However, experienced pilots are less likely to suffer from overload. They can ignore irrelevant information and block out distractions while executing proven solutions learned during similar situations in the past.

Some exceptional pilots have acquired the ability to switch to a narrow type of concentration and focus on nothing other than a specific predicament. Analytical thinking and the ability to see possible solutions is an important skill, which becomes very handy in situations where our attention needs to be directed towards critical demands. After a particular crisis has been satisfactorily resolved, these pilots can switch back to a broader focus again, which greatly increases their chances of a successful outcome.

Adjusting concentration levels to in-flight situations
Although it was mentioned in a previous article, long stretches of brilliance can never make up for short periods of poor concentration in gliding. However, intense concentration is neither possible nor required at all times, which means that we can adapt our level of concentration to specific situations. After a good climb back to a comfortable altitude, for example, we can and should relax a little. The same applies when the sky ahead gives reason for great optimism and when we have the entire situation nicely under control.

However, extremely low levels of arousal can lead to apathy, which in turn allows the mind to wander and become distracted. Again, the result is a depressed performance. The obvious solution is to manage energy and arousal levels by practising relaxation. Simply by adopting a different sitting position by adjusting the rudder paddles and/or the backrest, we can eliminate muscle tension and aid relaxation. After re-trimming the glider you can eat an apple, take a bite from a sandwich, have a drink, or simply find time for a position report.

After the flight, engage in active relaxation, such as jogging, cycling or walking. Passive relaxation methods such as massages, whirlpool sessions, or visits to a sauna can augment these active ones.
In contrast, high levels of concentration are required during tricky in-flight situations. In these circumstances it is vital to avoid excessive muscle tension. It is well known that in such situations, some pilots push harder on the rudder pedals, some pull their head between their shoulders, while others strangle the control stick. In all of these cases, the big challenge is to achieve relaxation on cue. The two most proven methods are as follows:

Breath control
In contrast to individuals under tension, relaxed people breathe slowly, deeply and rhythmically. Fortunately, we can control our breathing and, at least for a short time, take conscious control of automatic body functions by inhaling deeply and slowly through the nose. We concentrate on the movement of the chest and inhale deeply, but in an unforced and unhurried way. While slowly breathing in, we count to four or five and when the inhalation is complete, we pause for about two seconds. As we exhale very slowly through the nose we count to four or five again. Exhalation should take at least as long as inhalation.

We need to repeat the exercise a few times and, when we feel the first positive results, it is helpful to say to ourselves that our breathing has become calm, deep and regular. Intrusive thoughts might periodically come into our mind to interrupt the smooth flow of this technique. This is quite normal. We just refocus on slow breathing (and counting) as we resume the exercise and carry on where we left off. In only a short period of time we will find that we markedly unwind and significantly reduce our level of tension.

Progressive muscle relaxation
Again, the objective is to relax on cue but this method takes longer and is less suitable for use in an aircraft. For this reason, it is best undertaken prior to a flight, or in a two-seater. The technique requires a deliberate tensioning of muscle groups for as long as it takes to feel the tension. After about 6 to 8 seconds you will clearly notice how that feels.
Now relax this particular muscle group while paying attention to the contrasting feeling. Repeating the exercise several times and doing the same thing to other parts of the body, especially tense shoulders or neck muscles, is bound to lead to relaxation.

These techniques need to be practised and rehearsed to benefit from them, if and when the going gets tough. Without prior practice, pilots will find it hard to implement these suggestions properly and might not get the desired outcome. However, the results will be worth the effort for the patient and committed glider pilot.
This brings us to the end of this series of articles. I’m hoping that some fellow gliding addicts have already applied some of these hints or suggestions and hence enhanced their enjoyment and satisfaction from our unique sport.