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Wednesday, 27 March 2013 13:44

Mental power in aerobatic flight

Written by  Snap&Roll
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It doesn't matter how many hours we practice and train in our aerobatic programs, or how many competitors we have and their skill-level, if we are not capable of facing and overcoming our greatest enemy: our mind.  

In top-level aerobatic competition, being the discipline that it is, the line that separates success from failure is extremely thin due to the nature of the sport.  A small error in one key moment of the competition can remove all possibility of success. 

There are several cases of aerobatic pilots of the highest caliber who are usually at the top of the board during international competitions, but surprisingly, in certain flights and for some "apparent reason", commit a small error and receive a Hard Zero (HZ) on a figure, falling to the bottom of the board and losing any shot at the podium. What provokes them to commit "this error" is almost always related to the mental state of the athlete.

In any sport 90% is mental force, and being mentally strong is what separates the winners from the losers, and those who persevere from those who surrender, according to sports psychologist and worldwide triathlete Joann Dahlkoetter of San Carlos, CA. 

So writes James E. Loehr. Ed. D. in his book The New Toughness Training for Sports. He calls mental strength "the ability to consistently reach the highest rank of talent and skill of any athlete regardless of the circumstances of the competition.

At the company EMPSI, they are very clear that for an athlete to have success, he should have great mental strength and know how to eliminate his limiting beliefs. EMPSI is a center with locations in Madrid and Barcelona (Spain) that specializes in providing solutions to any problem that impedes improvement in any area for the athlete through an appropriate methodology. A method that combines the techniques of the most-advanced psychotherapy with ancient techniques, which has helped many great world athletes of tennis, soccer, athletics, basketball, motor racing, martial arts, and fitness.

"When an athlete, whether professional or amateur, goes out to the 'track' he goes with all of his worries, joys, etc. whether or not he's conscious of it. For this reason, if we want to be really effective, in addition to caring for the athlete, you have to care for the person," -says Edu Toledo, Product Manager of EMPSI SPORT and sports coach (www.empsi.es)-.  What we do first is let go of all the limiting beliefs that he has, whether or not he knows he has them. The simple act of freeing him from the limiting beliefs he may have increases his mental fortitude. It's like the sun, it's always here when the clouds disappear; you don't have to do any thing for it to rise.

A good example of a limiting belief and what we can understand about eliminating it can be seen in the case of Sir Roger Bannister, a retired athlete who specialized in middle-distance running.   He is recognized worldwide for having been the first athlete in history to run a mile (1.609 m) in less than 4 minutes. When he was a medical student at Oxford, he heard a professor say to his class that if a man ran a mile in less than 4 minutes, his heart would explode. He wondered why 4 minutes and not 3:59 or 4:52, and that limiting belief disappeared from his mind. He began to train, and the result is in the sports history books.  Once he beat that record, other athletes began to run the mile in less than 4 minutes, and in a little over a month, another runner beat his record. Today the record for the mile is 3:43. 

There are many examples like the previous one in the world of aviation, particularly in its beginnings, but we want to highlight a clear example of the overcoming of a limiting belief. Peter Nesterov, despite the incredulity and skepticism of his friends, was able to eliminate his limiting beliefs and perform the "dead loop" for the first time in 1913. A maneuver which for many was physically impossible and extremely dangerous, but which he was capable of making a reality and establishing as one of the most known and utilized maneuvers in the aerobatics of the future. 

According to Edu Toledo: "limiting beliefs don't have to do with the sport, but rather with the athlete and the important thing is to act not only as far as the sport is concerned, but rather in all aspects of his life.  To understand better, if for example you have an infected hand, you can't cure only a couple of fingers and leave the rest of the infection, you have to cure the whole hand. Sports is only one part of the life of an athlete, and if the aerobatics pilot goes to fly and do his sequence, he goes with everything that's happening in his life. So if we want to bring about significant change in our sports practice, we have to attend to all aspects that surround the life of the athlete. This is achieved with Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) and energy psychology. We don't act to try and reach the unconscious through the conscious like conventional techniques, rather we skip the conscious, in this way getting very rapid and permanent results.

In EMPSI, the types of messages the trainer gives the athlete before his performance can also affect the result. Not only are verbal messages important, but also non-verbal messages, their thoughts, etc. 

When we ask him about the performance of certain aerobatic athletes that prefer not to see the flights of their rivals during the competitions because they believe that it can affect their state and the performance of their flights, he responds emphatically, "it all depends on how each athlete channels what they are seeing." However, with appropriate help it is, without a doubt, much better to see the performances of our rivals."

Examples of limiting beliefs that usually appear in the mind of the pilot during the competition are things like: "I can't fly like this pilot," or "I committed an error in this sequence, and even if I do well in the next flight, now I don't have any chance." Messages like this come to the mind of some pilots in decisive moments of tension. So what is important, Edu tells us, is knowing how to channel these toxic messages/limitations and turn them around, saying and convincing ourselves of things like: "I can fly better than him, and I'm going to do it," or "Yes!  I have made this mistake, but it's no big deal, I can do much better on the next flight."

We remember a specific case that happened during the 2007 World Championship in Granada (Spain).  During the Q program (one of the most trained-in programs of the year for the majority of pilots), Spanish pilot Ramón Alonso surprisingly got a Hard Zero on a tailslide figure, because he apparently left from the opposite side.  Although the Q was only qualifying and ultimately did not count in the final results because of doing all the planned flights, in that moment, nothing was clear, and Ramon, if he wanted any minimal opportunity to fight for the title, had to risk the most aggressive flying and give his best.

So he did it, he flew as he knew, going into position flight after flight and taking the World Champion title in one of the most emotional and even competitions seen in recent years.

With this result and unfavorable situation, where others could have been negatively impacted in the results of the following flights, he was able to eliminate all toxic and limiting beliefs and adversities to focus on doing just the opposite. A good example of mental strength based on experience and fierce technical, physical, and mental training during the years.

We can see that the aerobatic pilot, as with any athlete of the discipline, should prepare not only technically and physically, but should also "train his mind" to be able to have the strength and optimal mental maturity so that his competition flights, regardless of the circumstances or situations he finds himself in, are as precise and spectacular as possible for the judges. The mental state we have at the time of our performance plays a crucial role. Knowing how to undo limiting beliefs that are generated in our mind, as well as those that surround us that can change our performance; being sufficiently mentally strong in order to be optimists in moments of adversity; looking for resources to get the maximum motivation; and being able to appreciate each movement in detail during the flight; these are the key elements to mastery that contribute significantly to our flights being closest to what we look for in this sport: drawing our figures perfectly in the sky. 

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"Aerobatics is the hidden rythm of our soul..."