Sports Psychology and Paragliding: Here and Now.

Evolution is not out friend

We are engaging in a activity for which evolution did not equip us and has potentially life threatening consequences. What nature did equip us with was a sense of ‘this isn’t right’ and the thought of dangling below a collection of lines and fabric (especially in less than stellar conditions) is a pretty sure fire way to trigger that instinct.

Sports Psychology to the Rescue

There are elements of sports psychology that can be adapted over time to allow a pilot to free up mental energy that would otherwise be wasted on irrational fear (the ‘this isn’t right’ feeling with no identifiable cause). I briefly mention the difference between rational and irrational fear in my blog post ‘Fear Factor’ along with one way to convert the irrational variant into a rational one and then address. But if the fear still remains irrational, even though we know we are up to the challenge, then we can begin to leverage some psychological tools to help alleviate that fear.

The Reset

I am not much of a tennis fan, but my wife is and especially of Rafael Nadal. One thing I noticed is that he has a routine to how everything is done and where everything is placed. Some may write this off as simply being OCD, but it can also act as a means of mentally hitting the reset button. We see it time and time again with athletes who cannot hit this ‘reset’, they can’t seem to let go of the last point or last play, especially if the outcome was negative. A negative mindset establishes itself and becomes self reinforcing. Any fan (though I suspect there are not many these days) knows this all too well with the Vancouver Canucks hockey team -> an absolute mental train wreck. This was a team that was in the finals a few short seasons ago and now cannot even make the playoffs.

Being able to reset brings us into the ‘moment’ and enables us to get our minds back on task. Preflight presents an opportunity to do this -> I go off to the side, away from everyone, and focus on sorting through every piece of kit in a specific order. I am putting myself in ‘flying mode’, blocking off any thoughts or concerns that are not involved in a successful flight. Once laid out and ready to launch, I give one last check of leg straps, brakes and A’s, reset my mind with one controlled deep breath, and go. I don’t give doubt a chance to enter the equation from preflight through launch and it manifests itself with launches that others have described as ‘zen-like’. 


I am in my zone and doubt has no place here.

Active Reset: Breath Control

If doubt does enter, the use of breath control as a means of reset can help. Most forms of mediation begin with breath awareness – inhale for a fixed number of counts, hold for a few more, then control the exhale. As an example, I was taught inhale for a slow three count, hold for two and exhale for two. By using a conscious slow count, we are focusing on our breath and bringing our attention to the immediate – away from what has either just happened (regret) or what might happen (fear). This technique can also help bring under control a stress induced climb in heart rate, reducing the chance of going full on ‘Condition Black’ where rational thought and fine motor skills go out the window (also known as ‘Fight or Flight’). 

Passive Reset: Totem

On a more subconscious level I have a ‘totem’ (for lack of a better word) on my flight deck. This totem is a Mil-Spec Monkey velcro morale patch, a big red Staples ‘Easy’ button. It is my reminder that when things get a little challenging (and/or dicey) that paragliding is ‘easy’. I envision myself, like an idiot, hitting the big red Easy button and everything becomes as if I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night. The point of the ‘totem’ is to take my mind off of whatever just happened and to get me back in the moment.


Now that the reset has allowed our mind and body to settle, we can begin to plant a positive mindset and refocus our attention to the task at hand. 

Now Reboot

The reset has made our mind as calm as a moonlit lake (or at least we’d like to hope). Now it’s time to get back on task. If we leave this too long it is quite likely whatever yanked us from our ‘zone’ previously will do so again, requiring yet another reset. So being passive at this point will not do, it requires active intervention.


Enter self talk.

Active Reboot: Self Talk

By using self talk, we are forcing ourselves to focus on the idea we are trying to plant in our mind. The key to this is to focus only on the positive, as any negativity will quickly become self defeating. It also needs to be quick and to the point, as focusing on the reboot is taking time and effort from the actual activity we want to return to.


Easy to recall, to the point, and positively focused.


A paragliding flight has four phases: launch, landing, thermalling, and transition. Each phase can have it’s own unique self talk.


Again, easy to recall, to the point, positively focused.


Example: Thermalling Self Talk


For thermalling, I compressed the lessons learned from Austrian Arena to, “Smooth and Relaxed. Four for ninety. Open the turn, close the turn.“.


Smooth and Relaxed.


Thermals, by their nature, are turbulent. If we are stiff in our body or jerky in our movements, we will not be able to get in sync with the air and will end up with a less than pleasant experience (likely necessitating yet another reset). Or worse yet, commit the cardinal sin of swinging through and accomplishing nothing more than thermal wingovers – converting altitude into speed. 


Four for Ninety.


Many pilots are guilty (myself more often than I would like) of not banking a wing up sufficiently when working a thermal. This element reminds me to be aggressive and to really get into the core.


Open the turn, close the turn.


The core of a thermal rarely makes itself immediately known to us. It shifts, slides, and changes shape. By opening and closing the turn at the appropriate time, we can reduce how long we spend outside the core as we try to centre on it. In a subtle way, this self talk is telling me, “yes you have lift, but are you sure this is the core? Keep looking.”

Prior Practice Prepends Perfect Performance

In other words, don’t expect to read this and have it magically work for you the next time out. 


Find somewhere quiet and begin to work on your breathing exercises. Focus on your breath count – inhale for 3 (or 4 or 5, whatever works), hold, exhale. The key is to let whatever distractions, internal or external, to come and go by focusing on the breath. Bring yourself into the moment.


Go find a totem for your flight deck. Perhaps a particularly politically incorrect morale patch that cracks you up, a memorable quote to stick to your vario, or a keychain sized stuffed T-Rex. Something visual that can help break a prior train of thought.


Develop your self talk. Pick a positive phase (or phrases) that will get you focusing on what you need to be doing right here, right now. 


Put it all together. Visualize which component of flying you are engaged in – the sight, the sounds, the smells, the sensations. Reset with a controlled breath. Visualize glancing at your totem. Mind is clear. Reboot with self talk. Smile, it’s amazing day to be in the air.


Notice there is no mention of a negative event triggering the reset/reboot. The reality is, I use this every time I am not on task or I am changing tasks – be it taking a collapse, falling out of a thermal, entering a new thermal, leaving a thermal to go on glide, or setting up an approach with a cold beer waiting in the LZ.

It’s all in your mind

Paragliding is easily a 90% mental activity. Knowing this, it would be foolish to ignore the wealth of sports psychology tools that have already helped countless athletes attain the top of their mental game. No one solution works for everyone, and frankly half the fun is discovering what will work for you.

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