Managing Stress in Competitions

My lab invited a very insightful speaker, one who specializes in sports and occupational health psychology. Her area of focus is in how athletes and high-stress workplaces (firefighters, police officers) deal with stress, burnout and engage in recovery techniques.

Naturally, I saw a lot of parallels between her research and glider racing. She makes a very strong case for the need to focus on rest and recovery to achieve optimal performance.

Notes from talk:

– There are several models that describe the stress/recovery cycle. Generally, it is a good analogy to view energy as a limited resource. Recovery serves to replenish the resource. If the subject’s resources get expended quicker than they are replenished, the subject will burn out.

– Burnout/overtraining causes diminished performance.

– Symptoms include: racing thoughts, rumination, fatigue, mood disturbances, lowered vigor.

– Burnout is described like dehydration. By the time you realize you’re fatigued, it’s already too late. Must have proactive strategies for recovery.

– Stress/recovery follow an S-shaped curve.

There’s a threshold of stress that a person can handle, above which it is almost unrecoverable, except if one allows a very long time. (Longer than the time available in the contest).

– Recovery methods include: sleep, relaxation, social activity, cognitive processes focusing on self-control and concentration.

– Emphasized psychological detachment during rest. Need to dissociate from the stressful activity (good and bad stress).

– Preoccupation as an athlete and ones’ performance hurts recovery. It is good to appeal to other forms of your identity during recovery stages.

– When mind races when trying to sleep, a good strategy is to write in a journal. Develop a habit; write down those items and then once journal is closed, it’s done and accounted for.

– Habituation of recovery strategies, especially sleep is very important. Develop a sleep schedule and stick to it. No computers 30 minutes before shut-eye.

Actionable goals and items for contest pilots:

Suggested goals:

  • Start the contest with as much energy as possible.
  • Minimize energy lost on each day.
  • Facilitate psychological recovery strategies for the following race day.

1) Start the contest with as much energy as possible.

  • Arrive as early as possible. Bring all essential hardware and equipment with you. Control for all items that can stress you or otherwise fatigue you. Prepare as much as possible before you arrive, including field selection on final glides, review of terrain, etc. Train before you arrive.
  • The objective once you do is to get the equipment ready as early as possible and do several flights in the local area in that first week.
  • No flying within three days of the contest, if not more. Fatigue builds up over time and it can take a while to recover from the training.
  • Crew should not be a stressor. Ideally, the crew should be a person you are closely familiar. Pilots tend to be introverts… dealing with new people is usually a drain. If anything, the crew’s primary responsibility is to minimize anything that could drain the pilot… dealing with the equipment is just the best way to do that.
  • Minimize conversion in instruments and avionics. There is no need to use unfamiliar units or avionics. If standardized avionics are desirable, recommend to train with them for an extended period of time before the contest. Dealing with unfamiliar units or instruments is an unnecessary drain.

2) Minimize energy lost on each day.

  • Plan on flying at 95 percent of your performance in the beginning of the contest; pace yourself.
  • Good days can be as big or a bigger drain that bad days. Be careful about perpetuating that “high”, “rock and roll” state when in flight. It is really fun now, but it will probably burn you out for tomorrow.
  • Recognize this in the context of strategic decision making. “I can make a bold move now, but at what cost to my overall fatigue?”

3) Recovery techniques

  • Finish flight ASAP. After flight is over, goal is to recharge for tomorrow.
  • Each pilot should have recovery strategy
  • Physical activity can be beneficial
  • Emphasize detachment from soaring related activitiy
  • Social activity is good, if it is desired. Some people need quiet time.
  • Write in journal before sleep.

3 Replies to “Managing Stress in Competitions”

      1. Thank you Daniel,
        The reason that I asked is bcz my friends daughter Sara Isakovic is a sports psychologist from Berkley. She did her masters degree with a professor that was doing research with Navy Seals and how their brain functions under extreme stress .
        Best regards,


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