Winning the mental battle in gliding Part 2
By Bernard Eckey
In the last issue we looked into positive thinking and the importance of focussing on the task at hand. This time we will deal with two other vital mental skills. First, we will put ‘thinking ahead’ under the microscope, and afterwards we will learn how to turn setbacks into something positive.
When we learned to fly, our instructors undoubtedly told us to expect the unexpected – another aircraft appearing out of the blue, changing weather conditions or a tailwind springing up on short final. After we became solo pilots, and especially after having attained an advanced level, we were no longer dependent on instructors. Success in a complex sport like ours depends entirely on whether we master the art of teaching ourselves.
One of the first lessons newcomers often learn the hard way is to consider the next stage of the flight well in advance, and think of the next decision(s) in good time. Particularly while flying cross-country, it prevents decision making overload situations and this holds true especially when difficult circumstances arise.
Thinking ahead not only avoids getting into tricky situations in the first place but it is also absolutely essential for safe and successful soaring. The sooner we start thinking about the next decision, the better our chances of getting it right. Put differently, staying mentally one step ahead frequently makes the difference between success and failure.
It is not without reason that coaches often proclaim, “Never let your glider take you to a place your brain hasn’t been to a few minutes earlier.”
Improving Your Chances
Let’s consider the typical example of climbing nicely under a big cumulus and rapidly nearing cloudbase. Now we have only seconds before we must leave the thermal, which gives us very little time to decide on an optimum strategy for the next section of the flight. Our procrastination has deprived us of the opportunity to make a calculated and well-considered choice on the options available to us.
If, on the other hand, we start our decision making process well before we reach cloudbase, we are much better off. We can pick the most promising cloud on track, which greatly improves our chance of finding the next strong thermal without delay. Further, we can take into account matters relating to meteorological navigation and thus make the optimum track across the ground.
We could elaborate on this topic with countless other examples but I’m sure you get my point. Decisions have to be made sooner or later whether we like it or not, so why not make them without haste and in good time? Not very many rushed ad hoc decisions are likely to be good ones, just as split-second decisions are unlikely to be perfect. Finally, not making a decision is the worst decision we can ever make!
Dealing with mistakes and setbacks
To be human is to make mistakes, and gaining experience without making a few along the way in our flying career is impossible. Taking off with the wrong trim setting, switches in the wrong position, or an incorrectly selected radio frequency are just a few examples of mistakes on the ground. They happen to anyone but should also be motivation for improving our performance and for learning from such blunders. Being annoyed about our mistakes is understandable, but what follows is what really matters.
Because the aviation community has learned to build redundancy into virtually every procedure, minor mistakes hardly ever lead to an accident, but that doesn’t mean that we can ignore them. On the contrary, they should be reason for a critical self-evaluation and for a review of practices. Only then can we avoid future repetition. Recognising a mistake and being receptive to a critical assessment from our peers is a vital step towards less error-prone aviation activities. But learning from the mistakes of others is equally important.
A past culture of blaming the pilot after a mishap is changing to a frank assessment of the causes of an incident or accident. The aviation world has long recognised that it is never a single event that results in a mishap but a series of relatively minor and seemingly insignificant occurrences. Only when pilots can be sure there are no repercussions can we expect a frank and open sharing of information that prevents others from falling into the same trap.
Automatic vs Conscious Behaviour
Making a mistake for the first time is highly educational for most of us but we occasionally meet pilots who repeat the same mistakes time and again. As a longstanding instructor and coach, I have seen this too often. Why do we revert to the same wrong actions even though we have resolved never to repeat the same mistake again? Why is it so difficult to keep to one’s resolve and why is it so hard to change old habits, behaviour and conduct? The answer lies in behavioural patterns deeply embedded in our brain.
Without conscious input on our part, previously acquired behaviour is automatically selected if the brain judges it appropriate for a certain situation. Evolution has adopted this as a survival strategy for a million years when there is no time for rational thinking to escape danger. However, if we want to make behavioural changes or adopt a different reaction to a set of circumstances, we need to be aware of our brain’s reluctance to implement them. Otherwise we will fall back to the old way of doing things and already well-established actions will run their course.
In aviation we need both type of actions – the automatic ones as well as the actions governed by conscious thought. Any attempt to eliminate automatic reactions would be highly counterproductive given that flight safety is often dependent on rapid response on the part of the pilot. Automatically implemented behaviour patterns are positive in principle but they also greatly hinder our ability to change unwanted reactions. In cases like these we must apply strict countermeasures and consciously steer our decision making in a different direction. Otherwise our brain will just revert back to the standard pattern again.
This brings us back to mistakes. When we want to learn from our mistakes we must first realise that we are making them, but this doesn’t always happen. Recognised mistakes are relatively easy to deal with as long as we keep the above comments in mind. Coaches, instructors and distinguished peers can often provide help, but studying relevant literature can often lead to a more in-depth analysis of the problem and – what is just as important – provide good advice on preventing such mistakes in the first place.
Now let’s focus on mistakes that are not recognised, because they are far more difficult to eliminate. Why would we change something if we don’t know what we are doing wrong? During basic training we relied on our instructor to correct our mistakes. Now, having banished the instructor from the back seat, identifying and correcting errors is entirely up to us.
The chance to get help when it comes to identifying mistakes diminishes greatly after we have attained solo pilot status, but it doesn’t mean that such opportunities don’t exist. Engaging in discussion with like-minded pilots comes to mind. They not only help us to eliminate our own weaknesses, but such frank interactions also benefit our participating friends. It is remarkable how such opinion exchanges help fellow pilots to lift their game and move them a step closer towards their ultimate goals.
Apart from that, we can also attend coaching weeks usually offered by state associations, get help from club coaches, or from commercial organisations. Another great opportunity for skill and knowledge advancement is individual coaching. Coach and coachee can deal with specific issues and target specific skills considered in need of some polishing.
Failure, Learning and Bouncing Back
Gaining flying experience without making a few mistakes in the process is unavoidable. Experience is not what happens to us but what conclusions we draw from what happens to us. We must be determined to implement changes and be firm in our resolve to never repeat the same mistakes. This isn’t possible to do without first analysing our blunders, only then can we avoid a recurrence and reap the fruit of our soul searching.
To sum up, failure is an element of learning and bouncing back is critically important. There is nothing wrong with making the odd mistake as long as we admit it, learn from it and strive for future improvement. No achiever made it to the top without persistence and no glider pilot has won a competition or set a record without a past string of failures. Let that inspire and motivate us. Finally, let’s not forget that by socialising with achievers you will become an achiever by adopting the attitude of achievers.
In the next issue we look a lot deeper into this interesting topic and investigate how we can polish our skills without being anywhere near a glider. Stay tuned to this channel. I promise some enlightening reading.