By Ian Currer, author of Touching Cloudbase and the technical officer for the British Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association.
This article is a short version of an interactive presentation given by Ian at the 2017 Kendal Mountain Festival (UK) and is based on the BHPA coaching course modules.
Our lives are a constant series of goals. We set these goals for ourselves or they are set by others: get to work on time; finish work by 5pm; lose 10kg; walk to the summit.
Some are easy, some are hard, and sometimes we fail. But many goals are extremely useful. The best are those that give us the highest sense of achievement and are often hard work and difficult to see through.
Ask any pilot about their most enjoyable or memorable flight and you can bet it will involve completing something hard, or for the first time. Just floating about for a bit is great, but it’s not something that leaves a lasting impression.
Once you have mastered the basic skills needed to fly, the most important thing for your safety and enjoyment is being in the right mental place to fly well. If you are cold, tired or fearful, for example, you won’t get much from your flying.
Rather than focusing on negative, internal thoughts – or even distractions at home and work – we should be concentrating on positive, external thoughts. Where is the next bit of lift? What are the clouds doing? Can I catch that guy ahead? It would be great to beat my personal best.
Internal, positive thoughts are also useful in moderation – things like focusing on your technique or navigating. That said, “head down” flying is an increasing issue in all types of general aviation. As we carry more and more cameras and instruments, they provide ever-increasing amounts of information to be processed. And that can be a distraction.
Having a positive, external mind-set is obviously the ideal situation for a pilot and the good news is that there are some useful tools and techniques to help you achieve the right frame of mind. Here are some of the best:
Talk yourself into it: Try a bit of self-briefing: “You’ve done this before”; “This mountain launch is no more difficult that my usual club site”; “You are easily capable of this”.
Clearly, you must be realistic. It’s no good lying to yourself, as you are likely to get found out. “That pilot is doing fine so I am sure I will be, too” just might not be true.
Focus: Some pilots find that the ritual of conducting their pre-flight checks helps them to shed exterior concerns, others simply like to sit quietly for a few minutes.
Mindfulness is a useful technique for many people who find that closing their eyes, focusing on slowing and controlling their breathing and concentrating on the moment helps them to clear their minds and prepare.
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Positive visualisation: Imagine yourself succeeding, repeatedly. This is a very powerful technique (much loved by instructors). Mentally replay your previous successes and so prepare for the next one. Demonstration is the external version of this, and is a key element of any skills training. But be aware that imagining failure is equally powerful – and not nearly as helpful.
Peer groups: Being on your own is a lonely place, especially when you are faced with decisions about whether or not to fly, and particularly if you are relatively inexperienced. Flying with others of a similar level (ideally with at least one more experienced pilot) can be a huge boost to your confidence. This is why club coaching systems are so important.
Set goals: This is one of the most effective tools in the box. Cast your mind back to being a student pilot. The training syllabus is carefully set out as a series of exercises, each one of which builds on previous skills, becoming gradually more challenging. These are goals, and almost every student, no matter what their ability, manages to work their way up the skills ladder with help from their instructor.
Almost every day of training, at least one new skill is mastered or improved and this creates the appetite for further progression. Indeed, it takes just a few days to go from day one concerns, such as “Can I fly this thing, and will I survive?” (internal, negative thoughts) to “Can I gain more height and top-land?” (external, positive ones).
Once you become an independent pilot, however, suddenly these goals become a lot less defined, and peer group and instructor support can be lost as well. Quite a few pilots find this period challenging, and it is one of the reasons why a significant proportion of newly-qualified pilots drop out of the sport in the first year.
You can deal with this in several ways. Going on a more advanced course is an easy fix, and very effective at helping pilots to progress – although there is a cost involved. Making an effort to join a club and take advantage of its coaching support system is another. (Indeed, many coaches complain that they are not asked for help often enough.)
But setting yourself and achieving suitable goals is the prime method of affecting your own state of mind and making progress, and this works for pilots at all levels.
So, what should the goals be? The illustration on p50 shows competence on the horizontal axis and difficulty on the vertical axis. Set yourself a particularly technical and challenging goal when your experience or competence level is low and you will be firmly in the anxiety or “catastrophe” zone – and in our sport, that means you are in serious danger.
On the other hand, if you set easy goals when you are already experienced at doing them, you will be in the relaxed or “play” sector. There is nothing wrong with that, but you are not progressing much and boredom can easily set in. Imagine your school had made you do straight and level flights for a whole week…
Instead, your goals should place you in the middle of the “arousal” section. Here, goals shouldn’t be too easy, but you should have the skills to be able to master them with practice.
The upper, “peak arousal” channel means that you are working at the very edge of your abilities. This is elite athlete coaching territory where you will fail more often than succeed, and is best avoided for most pilots.
This system applies equally to pilots of all levels. For a new pilot, being in the “arousal” zone may mean practising top-landing techniques or ridge soaring. For a cross-country pilot, it may be planning and navigating a triangle flight. For Antoine Girard, it could be flying the length of the Andes on a vol-bivouac expedition.
Pilots, as a general rule, have slightly lower boredom thresholds than some other people and often thrive on achieving goals. These goals should be reasonable (safe), achievable, specific, worth the effort, and ideally measureable. Crucially, you must also be committed to them. Goal theory states that performance is determined to a great extent by the participant’s commitment. This is why a goal you set for yourself is preferable to one that has been imposed by someone else.
An overall goal might be to be a better pilot, but this isn’t very specific or measureable, so intermediate goals or objectives are needed as well. These could be a daily goal, a goal for your next flight, or just something to achieve in the next few minutes.
An example might be to always set a target spot when starting a landing approach and strive to be accurate every time. You can then further define what accuracy you are aiming for: 20m, 10m, or right on the spot.
But the fastest way to make measurable progress is to work on stuff you aren’t very good at. So if you always reverse launch, make yourself improve forward launching; if you usually thermal to the right, make yourself go left (although of course obey the rules of the air, and if joining other pilots in a thermal always thermal in the same direction as the others).
Daily goals are well worth thinking about on the drive to the site or the walk up. It will also keep you focused. Need top-landing practice? If you’re at a good soaring site try doing at least ten today, using three different approaches. Usually use S-turn approaches when bottom landing? Practice a constant aspect approach. All these skills will pay dividends and take you towards your overall goal of being a better pilot.
As an important fringe benefit, concentrating on these external, positive goals will also leave you with little spare capacity for those negative thoughts. And at the end of the flight or the day, you will know that you have truly achieved something.