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To focus on the task in hand you need to be relaxed and happy under your wing. This frees up mental bandwidth. Photo: Nicolas Cochet
Skills and learning

Managing your bandwidth

Thursday 6 May, 2021

Paragliding and SIV instructor Malin Lobb looks at how mental bandwidth affects performance in flight.

How does our mental bandwidth affect our performance in flight? As humans we only have so much capacity for receiving or recalling information before we become overloaded and the information stops being received. This capacity is greatly reduced under stress – we clearly see it when teaching SIV. But stress can be present even in the subtlest of ways, so we need to be aware that our bandwidth is always in danger of being taken up.

Let’s take a look at two different pilots, both have the same wing and harness and they both possess exactly the same amount of cross-country knowledge

Pilot one is looking at his wing with a lot of “What ifs?” running through his head. What if I have a collapse? What if I get sucked into a cloud and can’t get down? I don’t know any rapid decent techniques! Why is the wing moving like that? What should I do when it moves like that? The pilot’s muscles are tense, their pulse is fast and breathing shallow, their vision is narrow and fixated mostly on their wing.

Pilot two is flying their wing autonomously with complete confidence in being able to handle any incident they may face. This frees up their bandwidth so the thoughts running through their head are of where the loftiest line is, what is the minimum strength thermal they will stop for, to speed up or slow down, focusing on coring the thermal. The pilot has relaxed in to their harness, and is constantly scanning the horizon for new information. Their brain is like a sponge, their eyes are the portal for all of this wonderful information to flow through.

Who would you put your money on to fly the furthest? Who will land exhausted after only an hour-and-a-half in the air?

The difference between the two pilots is not the equipment they have or the knowledge they possess, but the amount of available bandwidth they have. Pilot 1 has their bandwidth taken up with worry, stopping helpful information being processed and knowledge being recalled.

On the spectrum

Would it surprise you that by reading one book on cross-country flying you possess all of the knowledge you need to fly hundreds of kilometres? The difference is bandwidth: the ability to be able to not only recall knowledge, but apply the knowledge in real-time during a flight.

Again, it is not the amount of XC knowledge possessed in the first place. The more your bandwidth is taken up with your wing and “What ifs”, the less bandwidth you have to focus on the task ahead.

In all honesty, we are all on a scale between the two pilots, constantly fluctuating between being more like Pilot 1 or Pilot 2. The most important thing is to recognise when our bandwidth is being taken up and then do something to regain our focus.

The F-Word

So what can we do? First, we need to be analytical of what is taking up our bandwidth, identify when it is happening, and then put in place triggers to regain our focus.

The biggest culprit in sucking up bandwidth is fear. You can call it stress or adrenaline if it hurts your ego to mention the F word, but it is always present, however good a pilot you become, and always needs keeping in check.

It is good that fear is there, it keeps us alive. It is also a very complex subject so I will deal with it in much more detail in a separate article, but an important thing to remember is that the results of fear manifest themselves physically – and it is much easier to notice physical triggers than internal triggers in stressful situations.

If your stomach muscles are aching, or you are sitting more upright in your harness, or grabbing your risers, these are all obvious signs that there is something going on in your head.

Psychology is a vast subject, but basically it is your job to find out what works for you and to become aware of what is sapping your bandwidth. If it is the fear of the unknown, the “what ifs”, then you can combat that with a pilotage course. If your fear is irrational then it needs a different approach. However, the biggest milestone you will have is becoming aware of these bandwidth-sucking culprits in the first place and acknowledging that, until they are dealt with, they will forever affect your performance as a pilot.

Try this

As a little exercise, visualise being Pilot 1 and then Pilot 2. Really imagine the difference between the two: how do you feel, how does your focus or confidence change, how is your thought process different?

The next time you fly take a moment to reflect on whether you feel more like Pilot 1 or Pilot 2 and why? Then you will know what you need to do to free up your bandwidth.

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