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Performance Anxiety

by Darren Smith
Getting the Most from Your Flight Training, November 2006
Smarter Student Series: Researching Flight Schools | Managing Your CFI | Annoying Students | You're in the Driver's Seat! | Why People Quit Flying | Being a Better Aviation Consumer | You Get What You Pay For | Performance Anxiety |

Flying is a performance art.  Its the classic struggle man against the machine.  As pilots, its our job to coerce the machine to do our bidding.  The true nature of being an aviator is knowing exactly what the machine should do at any given moment.  Let's face it -- not everyone is a natural. I'm certainly not and most of the students are not.
  1. The first key is recognizing what needs to be done. 
  2. The second key is having the skill to do it at the right time.  In other words, not too soon and not a second late.
This article is about the second point above -- its the pilot's "performance" that we'll explore.  Skill is the result of flight instruction so by its very nature, it comprises the bulk of what CFIs do.  As part of that responsibility, there are endless struggles that appear which hinder skill.  For our purposes here, we'll define skill as a combination of physical and mental abilities to perform a task. 

Assuming the pilot has the physical and mental abilities gained through their efforts with a flight instructor, what remains is "the performance."  Whenever a pilot has to perform a skill in front of another person (which is about 90% of the time in aviation) additional psychological pressures enter the equation.

Here's what it feels like:
  • You start to wonder if you're really getting it.
  • Your flight instructor is about to yell at you for sloppy flying.
  • Your hands are sweaty, shaking, or you're holding the controls with a death grip.
  • You start thinking maybe you're not cut out for this.
  • You know what you should be doing but you screw it up and then you feel like a piece of ....
Sound familiar?  You're not the only one who has had these thoughts.  These anxious thoughts affect everyone who seeks pilot training.  Its almost a rite of passage.  It starts when we are distracted either by stimuli that we can't process or by thoughts of our own poor performance.  The result is decreased concentration (nervousness & discomfort) and decreased performance (technical error and skill lapses) .  If you let it get too far, this nervousness will eventually result in fear.  Most students react to this fear by quitting.  This is especially true after a string of bad flight lessons.

So here are my tips for beating performance anxiety.

1.  Focus on the goal.  Don't let yourself become distracted from minor setbacks.  In fact, use them to your benefit.  Face them and talk about them with your flight instructor.  Most experienced flight instructors have seen it before and probably already know you're feeling disconcerted.

2.  Focus on the task.  When you know what you're supposed to be doing, the only thing that remains is to recognize when it needs to be done, then do it.  Sounds simple right?  It really is.  If you're still having trouble maybe its that you don't recognize when a task needs to be performed (flaring to land for example).  If this is not the problem then the only thing that remains is your concentration on the task.

3.  Repetition.  All skills can be learned given time and money.  Sometimes it takes longer to achieve parts of the larger goal than other parts.  It bears repeating: we're not all natural pilots.  Some of us (myself included) need a little extra time and effort to get it right.

4.  Get a clue.  Sometimes it seems like those darned flight instructors keep repeating stuff.  The reason you keep hearing the same crap over and over is because you're not doing it.  Remember, flying is a performance art and you've got to perform in the right way to ensure your flight is safe.  His corrective advice is primarily for safety and then to perform the task correctly.  If there is something that is a weak spot for you, make it your priority next time.  If you don't know what are your weak spots, make your flight instructor earn his salary and tell you.

5.  Self-evaluation.  Go easy on yourself when you're reviewing a flight lesson in your mind.  When I was doing my training, I was particularly hard on myself and probably could have gotten through it all easier had I not been so judgmental.  Negative self-evaluation while you're performing the task is sure to lead you to disaster.  I've had about 24 checkrides over the years and one of them stands out in my mind as particularly rough.  It was to be at 8am and I had been kept awake until 4am by noisy neighbors.  When I awoke 3 hours later to get to the checkride, I was dead tired and I knew my performance wasn't going to be at its peak.  I passed the oral exam but when it came to flying 2 hours later, I felt I would never pass.  When I got to the flying, I flew poorly and screwed up quite a few things.  I told the examiner I wasn't at my best today and I was concerned.  I knew I had failed the checkride.  My flying was clearly not up to the standards required by the PTS.  Surely fatigue was partly to blame, but the biggest enemy was myself and the self-doubt I brought to the checkride before it even started.  Don't fall into this trap -- its a self-destructive thinking pattern which will destroy your confidence and lead to poor performance.  Leave your self-evaluation for the debriefing at the end of the flight.

6.  Don't second guess.  Part of that failure could also be attributed to my second guessing the examiner's reaction to my poor performance.  I immediately put doubt in his mind when I told him I was concerned.  That sealed my fate.  The same is true during your flight lessons.  Don't second guess your flight instructor's reaction to your performance.  You must display confidence in your "performance" as a pilot.  By second guessing others' reaction to your performance you may have actually changed their impression for the worse.  This is another self-destructive thinking pattern.

7.  Be a pilot.  A pilot is the do-er not the observer.  You're the one on the hook for the safe conduct of the flight.  As Chevy Chase said in the 1980 movie Caddyshack, you must "be the ball, be the ball, you're not being the ball."  What he was trying to say is concentrate on the task and be "in the moment" rather than being distracted by internal or external influences.  Especially those influences that haven't even happened yet.  Let the passenger, flight instructor, or examiner be the observer.  You focus on being the performer and get the job done.

8.  Enjoy what you're doing!  Why did you get involved in flying anyway?  Was it for pain and heartache?  I doubt it.  Freud says, "Avoid pain, seek pleasure."  That advice goes directly against taking flight instruction.  As such, you need to look hard for the pleasure in what you're doing.  Let your excitement for aviation be your guide during the flight lesson and don't get discouraged easily.  Those who let themselves get discouraged easily are probably not cut out of aviation in the first place.

So there you've got it... my best eight tips for beating performance anxiety and reaching towards higher performance as a pilot.  For further reading, take a look at Characteristics of Successful Pilots.  For some advanced discussion on anxiety and fear during checkrides, take a look at The Checkride Mindset.

Reader Comments

Date: Wed, 28 Mar 2007     Name = Q
Comments = You know, I am RIGHT at this point in my CFI training and this article opened my mind up.  I appreciate it beyond words.  Thanks!

Date: Tue, 29 May 2007 21:01:32 Name = flyboy
Comments = Just thanks. Good article. We all struggle with this from time from time.

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