Focus on Your Focus - Part II

Last month we left off talking about attention and focus and emphasized that it’s critical to be “on your game” whether it’s in the cockpit, on the road, or at bat in the bottom of the 9th inning of the World Series. 

We used a few examples of pro athletes talking about focus and since all of our brains are wired the same way the analogy is a good one for pilots. What separates good athletes from extraordinary athletes, and perhaps OK pilots from exceptional ones, is the ability to perform in high-pressure situations like some of the things we face in the air. The best skills in the world aren’t of much value if you can’t pull it off when it matters most, when the pressure is on. Pro athletes have pretty similar training in their respective sports and most pilots also train in their skills in similar ways, but still two athletes or two pilots can perform drastically differently when faced with demanding situations.

As the quotes from last month emphasized, it all comes down to focus. Psychologist Martin Turner wrote a whole book on focus and says that, “the key difference between those athletes who get the gold medal and those who don’t is between the ears.” We all know that some people thrive under pressure while other people seem to crumble. Air Force training data suggests that only about 25% of people are hard wired (that genetic thing again) to be calm in acutely stressful situations. How the rest of us can stay focused is the key to safety in the cockpit.

Turner would agree and says it’s in the way we’re programmed to initially respond to stress. The first response to stress occurs unconsciously and automatically based on our initial rapid evaluation of the situation. His take is that some people are able to respond to stress as a “challenge state” in a way that helps performance and maintains focus. “A challenge state reflects a positive mental approach to pressure situations where our mental resources meet the demands of the situation.” This kind of reaction is positive only if you can control that first adrenal rush of increased heart rate and peripheral blood vessel constriction. We developed that basic reaction back in our caveman days to deliver blood to the brain more efficiently, which helps us concentrate, make decisions, and have control over our thoughts and emotions.

So if you react to the immediate stress of a situation as a challenge the threat can be conquered, but others “lose their cool,” and along with that their concentration and focus, and enter into a “threat state” that hinders performance. If your first reaction to the stress of the emergency is to see a threat you react with that “fight or flight” thing we’ve talked about before. All the negative effects of the adrenal rush scramble your thoughts and lead to mistakes and overreactions. There’s lots of information out there on how to control that first panic impulse and make it more positive to solve stressful situations, and we’ve covered a good deal of it in these pages with our “3-R’s” model.

It’s no surprise that with all the fame and fortune in pro sports world, psychologists have invested so much time and effort into studying how to maintain focus, especially in clutch situations. One sports psychologist who has done a lot of work on this is Professor Sian Beilock, who wrote a booked about it called Choke. Beilock is probably the guy who first coined the term “paralysis by analysis.” His take on loss of focus is based on just that problem, “overthinking,” which he says can destroy our ability to perform up to our full potential in a pinch. Even when attempting tasks that we’d normally consider being relatively easy, his theory is that overthinking things while under pressure leads to failure. Not falling into the “overthinking” trap all comes back to practice and confidence in your skills and expertise so that complex tasks can be executed more reflexively.

Think back to Doug Downey’s advice in the article on Bandit 650 a while back. The takeaway message from Doug is that when you enter into high-pressure situations you need to focus on the task, not worry about how you’re going to perform. That’s only a waste of essential brainpower. Just as Doug said, there’s evidence that your ability to maintain focus and pay attention can be improved by progressively pushing yourself with repetitive training. Repetitive training is certainly something that’s deeply embedded in our pilot lives and why athletes do so many “reps” to perfect their game. All those practice sessions actually enhance your levels of sustained attention and increase your capacity to stay focused, since you don’t have to think through and analyze each step of your task.

Another method pilots can practice to keep a sharp edge is to stay positive and not approach stressful situations by telling yourself, “don’t mess up,” or “don’t fail.” It would be like descending out of a clear blue sky cruise into the clag and setting up for a foggy IFR approach, but instead of devoting your brain power to focusing on the air speed and glide slope you just keep repeating to yourself “don’t mess up.” The problem with that kind of negative attitude is that telling yourself “don’t fail” actually increases the chances that you will fail according to Harvard professor Daniel M. Wegner. He came up with something he calls the “ironic process theory” and writes, “telling yourself not to do something actually, and ironically, increases the likelihood of doing it.”


Wegner has done a lot of research into this with his “white bear” experiment. It was a simple mental game where he repeatedly told test participants not to think about white bears. But the more people expended conscious mental energy trying to avoid thinking about white bears, the more they did just that and soon recognized the task was impossible. Try it out yourself; pick something not to think about right now, keep repeating, “don’t to think about...” and you’ll see how hard is to not think about it! Overthinking, imagining failure, and telling yourself not to fail rob your brain of the mental bandwidth you need to focus on your task and are symptoms of Wegner’s mental conundrum experiment. It all leads to the very failure you’re trying to avoid and that’s pretty much the definition of “choking.”

Sports psychologists have put all this kind of research to good use and come up lots of other training methods to program your brain to avoid “choking,” those lapses of focus in our world that lead to real disasters. Whether it’s kicking the game-winning field goal in last few seconds of overtime in the Super Bowl or batting in the World Series, athletes use these tools and we can too in order to ramp up our own game to maintain our focus in the cockpit. One of their strategies to help with focus under intense pressure is with the use of “trigger words.” These are short, vivid, positively phrased verbal reminders such as “this ball now” that pro athletes have said improve their ability to focus on a specific target. It’s sending a positive message to your brain to succeed. This is kind of the flip side of Wegner’s white bear experiment, but instead of negative thoughts that lead to failure it’s positive words that lead to success. You can develop your own “trigger words” to say to yourself at those times when perfect skill execution is essential. The phrases you use might vary from task to task depending on the circumstances. On that approach and landing in the fog it might be saying to yourself things like, “maintain airspeed,” “stay on the glide slope,” or “track the VASI lights.” This kind of “mindfulness” training is all about focusing your mental energy and attention on executing the skills needed in the present moment. Data from neuropsychologists at Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital has shown that mindfulness training can actually rewire your brain so that focus and attention are stronger during those critical moments.

There’s even more we can do. Two months ago we talked a little about healthy lifestyles and how things like good sleep habits and exercise have been shown to help attention. According to recent studies also from Harvard there’s a direct link between healthy lifestyles and cognitive ability, focus, and attention. Dr. Kirk Daffner says that “when you exercise, you increase the availability of brain chemicals that promote new brain connections, reduce stress, and improve sleep, reduce stress hormones, and clear out protein compounds that injure the brain.” The opposite is also true; depression or sleep disorders (like sleep apnea) have been shown to impede your focus and concentration. Age related deterioration in vision or hearing diminishes focus and concentration, as it requires spending precious and limited cognitive resources just to get information from the environment in order to process and make sense of it. It also takes away some of the ability to filter and prioritize all that incoming noise and distraction that we covered last month. Medication side effects like anticholinergic medications (used for prostate problems) and over-the-counter allergy treatments can slow processing speed and your ability to think clearly. That’s why the FAA has such an extensive list of “no fly” medications that pilots need to know, and right here at the AOPA Pilot Protection Service we provide guidance. Alcohol impairs thinking and causes interrupted sleep that also affects focus and concentration.

We started off this topic last month with song lyrics and might as well wrap it up with them too. I know I’m dating myself by quoting Pink Floyd but they nailed it in another song appropriate for aviators, “Learning To Fly.”

Into the distance, a ribbon of black
Stretched to the point of no turning back
Ice is forming on the tips of my wings
Unheeded warnings, I thought, I thought of everything
No navigator to find my way home
Unladened empty and turned to stone
A soul in tension that’s learning to fly
Condition grounded but determined to try

It’s hard to “think of everything” and even harder to always think of a positive message but it’s an important thing to do. It will filter out distractions and help you focus on what’s important throughout a long flight and anxious “soul in tension” moments like a low IFR approach. Focus on your ability to focus, focus on being positive, practice it repeatedly, and practice it hard. It’s a skill you can master and it’s critical to your safety in the air.

Kenneth Stahl, MD, FACS
Kenneth Stahl, MD, FACS is an expert in principles of aviation safety and has adapted those lessons to healthcare and industry for maximizing patient safety and minimizing human error. He also writes and teaches pilot and patient safety principles and error avoidance. He is triple board-certified in cardiac surgery, trauma surgery/surgical critical care and general surgery. Dr. Stahl holds an active ATP certification and a 25-year member of the AOPA with thousands of hours as pilot in command in multiple airframes. He serves on the AOPA Board of Aviation Medical Advisors and is a published author with numerous peer reviewed journal and medical textbook contributions. Dr. Stahl practices surgery and is active in writing and industry consulting. He can be reached at [email protected].
Topics: Pilot Health and Medical Certification, Pilot Health and Medical Certification

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