Mindsets, Flow, and Learning

The Pilot Having the Most Fun

            Mitch Riley,


I can’t imagine getting to a level in our sport where I don’t have a lot to learn.  The opportunity to spend my entire life learning and improving at our sport is the most appealing aspect of this pursuit.  The constant improvement I see in my flying keeps me motivated, and having fun.  Lets explore how to learn more effectively and more actively with a story about a flying day in Santa Barbara, California.


The winds aloft are light, the day is forecasted to be sunny, its a flying day.  I post a meet time to our club web board and go on my morning run.  During the run through blooming flowers and dew soaked grass I visualize turning my glider into a tight little thermal core.  I imagine myself weight shifting into the loaded side, pulling enough brake to slice into that hard edge, but not so much that I spin my glider.  The visualizations, combined with the run have me pumped up and ready for action.  I find myself in joyous anticipation of the sharp, tight little cores I’m likely to find.  Bring it on.


Old friends and new meet in the LZ.  Many pilots in our community have just returned from Columbia.  I listen in fascination to their stories of high bases, personal bests, and touching clouds.  Arron LaPlante arrives, with his usual infectious smile, and his absurdly awkward stuff bag.  Arron, as usual, is pumped on the day.  His typical MO is to show up , totally stoked, during his “lunch hours” and fly a respectable xc flight back to work.  Greetings are exchanged all around, the gliders are fastened to the roof, and the van, squeaky brakes and all is on its way up the hill. 


In the van the radio is playing catchy modern rock.  The stories, reuniting questions and discussion flow like beer at the SBSA christmas party.  The general mood is energized, light hearted and fun loving.  This is not the time or place to talk about crashes, collapses, or uncle Ted’s predictions of strong afternoon valley winds.  This is the time to cultivate an excited, fun and relaxed mood, a mood that is going to help us achieve a flow state.


Flow:  Named my Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.  Flow is a single minded, full immersion in our present activity, and produces the ultimate personal potential an our present activity.  In flow emotions are positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand.  In order to enter flow we must be in an environment thats positive, energized, and fun.  If we achieve flow state while flying our entire being is going to be completely focused on the flight.  Thus we will be more successful at achieving our free-flight dreams, and safer while doing so.


We get to our take-off, EJ Bowl.  The grass in green, the flowers are blooming, and I’ve got a catchy song in my head, “Billy Jean”.  Life is good.  There are launchable cycles coming into to take off, as well as weak cycles coming over the back.  Arron is laid out on launch before I’ve even unzipped my backpack, that absurd stuff bag of his comes in handy.  The cycles coming in all but fizzle out, and the cycles over the back begin to increase.


“Its a good thing you practiced your light wind launches the other day”.  I say in reference to an impressive display of running reverse inflations Arron demonstrated at the road cut launch days ago.  “Im great at forwards, get out of my way and Ill show you boys how to do it.”  A visiting pilot says as Arron is waiting.  Soon, we see two vultures catch a climb out front and below us, they climb to our level and seconds later a light cycle comes up the hill.  “O, I got this”  Arron says just before a perfect running reverse inflation to a smooth launch.             


Stanford phycology professor Carol Dweck, in her book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”, outlines two basic mindsets and how they relate to learning.


Fixed Mindset:

            Students believe their abilities, intelligence, talents and skills are fixed traits.  They prefer activities and challenges they believe they have talent in, and avoid challenges they believe they have a disability in.


Growth Mindset:

            Students believe their abilities, intelligence, talents and skills can be developed through effort, good training and tenacity.  They tend to view deficiencies or failures as results that can change with perseverance in learning.


Most of us cycle back and forth between these two mindsets.  Once we learn the language and thought patters associated with them we can strive to spend more time in a growth mindset and less time in a fixed mindset.  Here are some examples of the two mindsets and how they will effect out flying progression. 


Fixed mindset: “Im bad at light wind launches.”

            When a pilot in fixed mindset is presented with a light wind launch he will feel stressed and tense before he even puts on his harness.  The stress may make it more likely that he forgets a thorough preflight check, notices the bird thermaling, or sees the dust devil rising up the hill.

            If the launch goes well the fixed mindset pilot will think; ‘I got lucky on that one’, or ‘the wind must have come up, because I’m bad at light wind launches’.  If the Launch goes badly the fixed mindset pilot will think; “Of course that was shit, I suck at light wind launches”

            Years down the road this pilot will still be bad at light wind launches because anything that reinforces their definition of their talents is seen as truth, and anything that undermines their belief is explained away as luck or circumstance.


Growth mindset: “I can improve my light wind launches.”

            When a pilot in a growth mindset is presented with a light wind launch she will think about the actions she needs to take to execute a good launch.  Most likely she has sought out advise and done visualizations, and will be at a heightened state of concentration and awareness, a flow state.  This flow state will help her perception of time slow down, and her awareness increase.  She will be more likely to notice subtle changes in the wind, to notice the bird out front, the knot in her lines, or the unbuckled legstraps on a friends harness.

            If the launch goes well she will think; “What did I do right to make that so smooth”, then she will replay that launch in her mind and her skills will improve.

            If the launch goes badly the growth mindset pilot will think; “What can I do differently to have a better takeoff?”  She will ask for advise, and integrate that advise into her visualizations, next ground handling session, and her next light wind launches.

            The growth mindset pilot will be improving their light wind launches each and every time because wether they had a success or a failure they will analyze their (in)actions and strengthen the skills that lead to success, while discouraging the actions that lead to problems. 


I find myself laid out on takeoff for more then five minuets with no sign of a upslope cycle and the over the back wind increasing.  When the over the back wind is kiteable I ball up my glider and suggest we drive down the Skyport Launch which is 700 ft lower and more likely to be anabaticaly blocked from the light north (back) wind.  While Im walking off takeoff with my balled up glider I notice that its completely possible and reasonable for me to launch off the backside, and shoot the gap through a saddle, to search for thermals on the south facing side.


As I choose my takeoff cycle Im energized, loose, and bobbing my head to “Thriller”.  My launch goes great, and the turbulence I encounter just south of the saddle is easily managed, I made a good call.  I am completely focused on the task at hand, under my glider, and feeling very good.  I get on the radio to let the launch crew know that only pilots with a desire to fly through some turbulence should think about repeating that move, and begin searching the usual places for lift.  Nothing, yep I mean nothing, up high, searching the usual triggers I find no lift.  Not until I am way lower and out front near a feature we call the Antenna Farm do I find a tight little usable thermal.  


My mind is completely in the present, and taking on all the information it can gather to help me achieve my goals and desires.  Right now my goals and desires are to stay in the air.  Aaron is in another sharp little core nearby when we learn that the thermals are not going over 2,200ft.  We make a move to a ridge further East.  We are flying about 1000ft lower then we would be on a decent day, but there is some height to play with, and we are both completely in the zone, focused on the task at hand.  The risk is not a lack of good LZs, or wind, or turbulence, the risk of going to the next ridge is landing out and having to find a way back.  Landing out will just take one wrong turn, our height is so low that mistakes will mean landings.


We start completing micro out and backs, challenging ourself’s to continually make low saves, and choose the best glide lines.  Soon Arron flies out to land, back to work, and I am flying by myself.  The crew that drove down to Skyport come out and fly, and land.  I am totally in a state of flow, and really enjoying myself, so keep challenging myself to catch that thermal lower, or try this glide further out front.  Each and every decision is based on years of creating and testing theories, allowing my conscious and subconscious mind to absorb data, then being in a state of flow allows me to be open to what my conscious and subconscious mind think I should do.


Eventually I find myself in the Parma LZ, where the Skyport launchers are just finishing packing their equipment.  I am absolutely stoked on the flight, huge smile, gushing about views, birds etc.  I soon catch myself and notice that the other pilots are kinda bummed.  One of them says “Your really good at thermaling Mitch, of course you could make those shit conditions fun”, “I practice a lot” is my reply.  “Im better at flying when the conditions are good” another pilot says.  They walk off the landing field, while I still have a smile on my face.            


We can help our flying buddies cultivate a growth mindset with the language we use both in praise and in constructive criticism.   In multiple studies, Carol Dwek and her colleagues noted that mindset could be altered by praising the process through which success was achieved.  Lets look at some examples;


“Nice flight, your great at thermaling.”

            This statement is an example of fixed mindset praise.  The pilot is likely to think ‘Im great at thermaling’.  If the pilot falls for this fixed mindset jargon he is likely to stop seeing any reason to challenge and improve his thermalling.  Any future evidence of the pilot thermaling less then great is going to be explained away as a situational fluke.  Their deficiencies in thermalling will not be, or be slow to be, corrected because they will blame something other then their learning effort.  Any success at thermaling will reinforce their belief that they have an inherent skill at it, and will not lead to learning or improvement.


“Nice flight, you were thermaling really well today, looks like that tour to Colombia is paying off.”

            This statement is an example of growth mindset praise.  The speaker is linking success with effort and diligence.  The pilot is going to think ‘I am thermalling well because I’ve been working hard to improve my thermalling.’  Any future evidence of the pilot thermalling less then well will be seen as evidence of a lack of learning effort, and will quickly be corrected by putting in more effort.  Evidence of the pilot climbing well will buttress the work they have done.


I recently moved out to California and restarted surfing after a sixteen year hiatus.  On one of my first days out I was flailing in biggish surf, kinda getting my butt handed to me.  Out in the line up I mentioned to another surfer that I had a lot to learn and relearn about surfing, his response stuck with me.  “You know who the best surfer out here is?”   He asked me.  “Who?”  I asked, looking around for the likes of Kelly Slater.  “The one having the most fun”.  He said as he caught a big wave.  Lets strive to be the pilot having the most fun!