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.

Emotion Regulation And Decision-Making

Image result for angry cartoon
Cartoon sourced from here.

Being strapped down in a tin can while racing and experiencing things that are not working out for you is emotionally challenging. You see a competitor slip ahead, you fall out of the band, the sky starts deteriorating; all these situations can have powerful emotional effects that can distract you from dealing with these challenges. Being able to minimize negative emotions is therefore quite advantageous to one’s soaring performance.

Psychological research in Emotion-Regulation has some useful insights in this respect. Two commonly studied emotion-regulation techniques are suppression and reappraisal.

Suppression is the act of taking a negative emotion and attempting to minimize it. This is the equivalent trying to contain yourself when you get angry. Studies had shown that trying to minimize the effect of an emotion after the fact is an ineffective strategy.

Reappraisal is the act of reframing your situation in a different light. For instance, if you see high cloud cover move in, you might think that this is an opportunity for you to excel at your weak weather flying while everyone else is going to be scared and suffering.

Research has shown that reappraisal is overwhelmingly a much more effective emotion-regulation strategy. This is because reappraisal has a tendency to take the bite out of the emotional response before it happens; it minimizes the total emotion experienced. As a result, reappraisal strategies could greatly improve performance.

The risk management work that John Bird and I did actually relates to reappraisal. It helps the pilot look at the sky ahead and reason that due to the risk level exceeding a certain threshold, that they must change their strategy. By being able to base risk strategy on something measurable, it allows the pilot to easily reappraise a situation. When it comes time to get into a “risk-minimizing” mindset, it isn’t painful to watch a couple other pilots drive ahead and leaving you behind. Sure, you might be missing out on an opportunity, but looking at the sky ahead, you can just write off those pilots as taking an excessive gamble. As a result, you don’t feel the emotional pain associated with them leaving you behind.

Like many things in aviation, emotion-regulation and reappraisal is part of overall situational awareness. If you judge your priorities correctly and are ahead of your situation, then you will not be as emotionally affected. Conversely, if you are experiencing strong emotional reactions in the cockpit, this is likely to be due to a lack of situational awareness at an earlier point in the flight.

Using Condor to Judge Glide Angles

One of the most important skills to internalize as a glider pilot is intuitively judging glide angles. Beginners often have trouble with this and fly by using calculations or by rote to compensate (X altitude over the barn, Y altitude over the lake, etc.)
Condor is actually quite good at teaching this skill. I came up with the following exercise for a fellow who is having trouble with this skill and figured others who have Condor 2 might also have a little fun with it.
Blairstown Scenery can be found here:


With more experience, you will get better and better at judging glide angles. When we are making glides, all that matters is whether we are making it or not. If it’s a low performance ship and you’re in good air, if you’re in a high performance ship in sink, or you have a tailwind or a headwind, in the end it all outputs to an achieved glide angle.
The way you judge it is by looking ahead and picking a point in the horizon and you watch its change. If it is rising in the canopy, you are coming up short. If it is falling, then you are making it.
In this way, glider pilots are able to judge their glides without any need for instruments or doing any calculation.
You can use Condor to learn this skill. Take a look at the picture attached below.
Look at the top of the yawstring from the first frame to the second. Notice how the horizon has risen in the second frame… we are coming up short.
As a gliderpilot, you will learn to be very sensitive to these changes. You should be able to look out front and within several seconds be able to judge if the point is rising or falling. Of course in reality it rarely remains static… if you hit some sink you’ll see it rising, lift, it falling. But with even more experience you’ll be able to precisely track the rolling average too.
You can use Condor to practice this skill.
I have attached the FPL file to use.
To be clear, this is an exercise to teach a skill. It’s just easier to learn how to do it with a mountain in front of you since it is harder to judge a flat glide to a point in the valley. In case it’s not obvious, in real life you should not be doing a dead glide over to the other side of the ridge for a while as this puts you out of gliding distance of Blairstown airport.
(Note: DO NOT use Screen 3 on the glider computer for this exercise.)
– Start with a K-21
– Point at the Upper Reservoir (the turnpoint is in the PDA)
– Make a prediction within three seconds. Is the terrain rising or falling in relation to the yawstring? Am I going to make it?
– Execute the glide. Did you make it?
Next, put in 10 knots of wind from 315. Increase Airborne Start to 3000ft. Repeat.
Next, take a 1-26. Make wind 5 knots from 290. Repeat.
Next, take the Genesis. Airborne start at 2300ft. Wind 15 knots from 340. Repeat instructions.
Practice until you can take any glider in the Hangar in any wind condition and immediately judge if you can make it to the other side of the ridge.
To change things up, move the turnpoint at the upper reservoir to another point along the ridge (more to the North or South). Repeat the game.

Don’t Make a Flat Final Approach

Last Sunday, I got to witness a lot of approaches and landings. One consistent observation is that many were coming in low, flat, and slow over the fence.

I feel uncomfortable doing that. The ground is rather hard and unforgiving and I like to give myself more margin clearing obstacles if I can. Obviously sometimes you can’t if the field is exceptionaly short, but this is not the case at Blairstown. Even more so because folks are not taking advantage of their effective spoilers to shorten up their approach.

Instead, come in higher and steeper, aiming for the middle of the runway. When you’ve “got it made”, then lay in the brakes and shorten up the approach. Clear the fence ~ 25-50ft with lots of spoiler and keep the brakes open into the flare. Then ease off the brakes a bit when you’re in the flare to avoid hitting the tail and then stabilize into the float. Once established in the float, start opening up more brakes slowly. Once you touch down, bring the spoilers to full, stick all the way back for taxi and clear the runway.

Doing this, you will land short while clearing the fence at a steeper angle.

I’ve set this up in Condor as a visualization. For folks who have the sim, you can also practice it… fpl file attached below. The red curve is what I saw a lot of people doing. The orange curve is what I like to do.