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Winning the mental battle in gliding Part 3

Mental Battle

By Bernard Eckey

In part 2 of this series of articles we not only considered the advantages of thinking ahead but we also put mistakes and setbacks under the microscope. Today we will learn how we can polish our skills without being anywhere near an airfield or a glider. If by now you are already thinking of turning the page I strongly encourage you to reconsider. Please read on – you might get a few useful hints or run into some food for thought.


Men or women in the top rank of their sports are usually quite certain that having success and winning happens almost exclusively in the head. Most of us might interpret this as a reflection on their intelligence and think that one’s own intellect is not up to par with these celebrated athletes. However, intelligence plays only a minor role. What really matters is that, in parallel with the necessary practical skills, athletes have improved the processing capabilities of their brain.

Mental rehearsals

The scientific definition of mental rehearsal is “building successful repetitions of a performance segment by constructive use of our imagination”. Sometimes it is also referred to as ‘guided imagery’ but, regardless of its name, we are talking about exercises of the mind aimed at training the brain to adopt better patterns of activity. The theory behind it is simple. Whether we experience something or whether we just imagine it – every event leaves a significant imprint in our brain that governs future behaviour or actions. It is almost like downloading an improved software package into our computer.

Even while playing as children, we ‘downloaded’ countless such programs into our brain. It has established neurological pathways that we are regularly using when certain actions are required. These reactions now occur automatically and without conscious input on our part. Put differently, we don’t have to actively think any longer when confronted with certain problems because the brain automatically implements appropriate responses dictated by previously established neuromuscular pathways. This knowledge can be applied to almost all activities and learning new soaring skills is no exception.

Limiting the Workload

Another advantage of mental visualisation is that it helps to limit the workload in demanding situations. Daily winners of competitions often speak about a very effortless flight that turned out, for them, to be surprisingly easy and straightforward. Why is it easy for some competitors and very difficult for others? Primarily, the reason lies in repeated visualisations of the flight with all its challenges and opportunities. More often than not, winning pilots have mentally performed the task well before they climbed into their glider.

What works well for top competition pilots will work for each and every one of us. Enhancing our soaring skills can continue between flights and doesn’t need to come to an end when we climb out of the cockpit. Most of us have a few idle periods every day, which provide excellent opportunities for practising mental rehearsals. It follows that it can be squeezed into the busiest daily schedule more often than we think.

Eyes, Hands, Feet

So, how do we go about it? The first step is to eliminate distractions. Make your-self as comfortable as possible in a quiet place and take time to wind down, as total relaxation is the gateway to the exercise. Now visualise an inflight situation you have trouble with. Think about the underlying reasons for your difficulties and carefully work out a better way of doing things. This might be the hardest part, but after this has been accomplished you have a blueprint for an improved course of action. Bravo, the first step of your mental training has already been successfully completed.

The second step is to close your eyes and imagine a particular scenario as seen through your eyes, as felt through your limbs, and as heard through your ears. Be fully immersed. Feel the emotions, hear the audio vario and feel the feedback from the aircraft. Don’t laugh – it can be done! Take your time and focus on nothing but that troublesome flight segment.

Now the time has come to implement the new, enhanced and perfected course of action. Repeat it frequently and, for maximum benefit, use your hands and feet to simulate moving the stick and rudder. During the first few attempts this requires your full and undivided concentration but, as with everything else, it gradually becomes easier.

Of course, such exercises must be repeated many times and over an extended period of time. It is better to practise five minutes twice a day than to practise thirty minutes once a week. Keep doing it whenever an opportunity presents itself, and it will pay dividends.

The third step is the easiest. Go gliding and let the new ‘software program’ work for you. When it is fully absorbed you can immediately take advantage of it and it can never be erased again. Let that inspire you!

Acquiring New Sills

Mental rehearsals are not only useful for eliminating weaknesses but can also be used for an easier and quicker learning of new skills. Personally, I used mental rehearsals for the first time during basic training in order to quickly come to grips with winch launching. Ever since, I have used it for polishing other flying skills and one of many examples is the quick location of thermals and the efficient positioning within its strongest core.

However, mental rehearsals can lead to problems if the particular training routine contains flaws and if this is the case it will only bolster wrong practices or bad habits. Therefore it is advisable to consult a recognised coach to ensure that you are doing it right. Otherwise mental rehearsals internalise wrong procedures and become highly counterproductive.

Now we can see that mental rehearsals have a number of significant advantages simply because they synchronize and automate mental processes and actions. This statement is underpinned by research that identifies enthusiasm and motivation as strong contributors to rapid formation of new neuromuscular pathways.

It is therefore no surprise that highly motivated cross-country pilots use mental rehearsals with great success. They know that the difference between a good and an even better pilot is their mental flight preparation. It minimises time for decision-making in the air and allows an undivided focus on feeling the air and efficient flying.

What holds true for record or competition pilots holds equally true for each of us. Some pilots use mental rehearsals to train for possible emergency situations such as cable breaks during a winch launch or aerotow. Safety is greatly enhanced when the prompt implementation of all necessary action happens almost automatically.

Practise Makes Perfect

If you have ever been to a skydiving event, you will have seen a team performing a ‘dance’ that replicates moves they intend to do in the air. Called dirt diving, it is a very visible exercise of a mental as well as a physical rehearsal. Downhill skiers do the same thing, imagining the turns in the upcoming course. The world’s best musicians also practice intensely without touching their instruments at all.

Most of us have a tendency to refine skills that we are already good at and dislike practising something we have trouble with. It stems from the fact that we all know how hard it is to tackle underdeveloped skills or eliminate bad habits. Do you prefer thermalling right rather than left or vice versa? Don’t worry, you are not alone, but while airborne it is very difficult to overcome such deeply ingrained habits. It requires a lot of persistence and willpower just when we need to pay full attention to a lot of other things.

No wonder that we tend to postpone such practise, but the good news is that it can be done on the ground by using the power of our imagination. As long as mental rehearsals are done correctly they help greatly to eliminate long held bad habits. The more positive mental repetitions you have completed, the easier it is to implement them when it really matters and the better you will cope with difficult situations when they next arise.

Let’s get back to cross-country flying now. Written notes taken during mental preparation are most useful as they help to absorb the key points and provide a kind of checklist. Memorising navigational features, likely convergence lines or thermal hotspots, for example, greatly reduces the mental workload while on task. This often results in an effortless flight and is followed by pilots reporting that “everything went according to plan”. Of course, their plan was established during flight preparations and during mental rehearsals.

Flying Breaks

In summary, our training doesn’t have to end the moment we step out of the glider. Mental rehearsals are a very effective way of learning new skills and upgrade existing ones. If we are honest, we have numerous daily breaks that can be utilised to polish our skills by the constructive use of our imagination.

Soaring is our passion, isn’t it? If you are like me, you won’t mind closing your eyes and spending a few minutes every day to think about your favourite pastime. Trust me, it helps greatly in becoming a better pilot!

That’s all for today. The article for the next issue is directed towards stepping outside of our comfort zone. Experiencing butterflies prior to ‘leaving the nest’ and venturing beyond the gliding range of their home airfield is not uncommon. As it seems to be especially prevalent among newcomers, we will investigate what can be done to help fellow pilots who lack the confidence to explore the full spectrum of our beloved sport.