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RCAF student pilots receive mental performance coaching like pro athletes


To help students navigate the stresses of pilot training, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) has turned to the world of high-performance sport.

Drawing on techniques widely used by professional athletes to manage stress and focus attention during challenging situations, the Air Force is providing pilot candidates and aspiring Air Combat Systems Officers (ACSOs) and Airborne Electronic Sensor Operators (AES Ops) mental performance coaching during the early phases of their training.

Moose Jaw PSP Mental Performance Specialist, Zoran Stojkovic, coaches and interacts with a student pilot at 15 Wing, in Moose Jaw, Sask. 15 Wing Imaging Photo

“Everyone we select is a top caliber candidate, but sometimes they get in their own way,” said Maj Paul-André Comeault, personnel selection advisor with 2 Canadian Air Division (2 CAD) headquarters in Winnipeg, Man.

To mitigate what Comeault called “helmet fires,” performance coaches provide “techniques largely taken from sports psychology, to help [students] collect their thoughts, prepare for their training, and keep up with a steep learning curve, because we are throwing a lot of material at them in a short period of time.”

The Air Force had been contemplating the potential of high-performance coaching for over a decade. More recently, though, instructor pilots at 15 Wing Moose Jaw, Sask., noticed some students deliberately grounding themselves due to the stress of their training. That in turned spurred an idea already percolating with Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) for a comprehensive study of student and instructor pilot challenges.

The deep dive into the experiences of both laid the foundation for the current program.

A mental performance consultant was brought on board in Moose Jaw in 2019 and the program officially launched in January 2020, shortly before the COVID pandemic disrupted pilot training. Since then, the program has expanded to two high-performance coaches, Jamie Bunka, a mental performance consult, specializing in performance psychology, who serves as the mental performance manager from Winnipeg, and Zoran Stojkovic, a mental performance consultant, specializing in sport and exercise psychology, based in Moose Jaw.

The program was developed by 2 CAD, which oversees all RCAF initial training, while the specialists are provided by Canadian Forces Morale and Welfare Services.

A blend of required courses and optional workshops and one-on-one coaching, the program is delivered to students in the first phase of training at 3 Canadian Forces Flying Training School in Portage la Prairie, Man., the second phase at 2 Canadian Forces Flying Training School in Moose Jaw, and to ACSOs and AES Ops at 402 Squadron at 17 Wing Winnipeg.

Mental Performance Manager Jamie Bunka conducts mental skills training at Barker College with student pilots. S1 Megan Sterritt, 17 Operations Support Squadron Photo

At the outset, the program focuses on foundational tools such as visualization, tactical breathing, positive self-talk, and goalsetting that are rooted in research and would be recognizable to any high-performance athlete. As students advance, they are exposed to concepts of mindfulness, progressive muscle relaxation, focus and distraction control, and recovery and setback management.

“We teach [students] the foundational skills right from the start, as soon as they get into their flying training,” explained Bunka. “As they progress, we allow them to individualize and target mental training tools that are specific to them.”

Mindfulness may not be well understood, noted Comeault, but “basically it’s clearing your head and making space to just focus on the task that’s right in front of you.”

The aim is to have students develop the cognitive ability to recognize and respond to stress triggers well before they get into a simulator or cockpit, so that when they are executing the technical and tactical demands of the job, they are not also “having to firefight any of those stressors that can come with having a demanding profession,” said Bunka. “They have some foundational cognitive skills and tools to put into practice right away.”

During individual coaching sessions and what Stojkovic called 15- to 30-minute power sessions, “we work on whatever is important to them, whether it’s energy management, or pre-flight routines, or how to maximize their time in their debriefs,” he explained.

“We know from applied science and the research – and this is shown in sports psychology – that 40 to 90 per cent of a person’s elite level performance comes down to what’s between the ears,” Bunka noted. “So, we are really working on including that mental training alongside the technical, tactical, and physical training that pilots are being trained to do.”

The expense of flying an aircraft with an instructor is considerable, so an investment in “chair flying” that removes some of the anxiety will save time and money, said Comeault. Without mental performance coaching, students may continue to struggle with stress, even in simulators. Thirty minutes of mental practice “can create a huge improvement and is a lot cheaper in a mock-up cockpit, where you can also visualize being in a better emotional space, where there’s less adrenaline pumping, and your brain is working better.”

Student and instructor pilots at 15 Wing Moose Jaw, Sask. Brent Hallman Photo

Sharing the craft

Like the rest of the Canadian Armed Forces training system, 2 CAD went online when the pandemic struck, making the first sessions of the mental performance program a virtual experience. That may have delayed uptake as some students are hesitant to seek professional help. But a majority are taking advantage of the program.

The division conducts a post-course survey of its pilots and now seeks to understand whether students made use of the mental training program, said Comeault. Roughly 80 per cent of respondents rate the value of the program favourably.

The program also collects anecdotal feedback on how students have used the techniques, added Bunka. “Essentially, that snowballs into students recommending the program to other students.”

Some students still arrive with some hesitation, she observed, “but I think what really shows the success of our program is that we can change those minds quite quickly – educate them about the program, about the scientific foundations, and how other people are using these skills in their elite performance domains.”

In fact, pilots in a training program may be a better target audience than pro athletes, said Stojkovic, who has worked with both. “[The buy-in] is even better than the sports space. I think there’s a lot of stigma in the world of sport, of it being attached potentially to playing time and because the [performance coach] is usually hired by a club and there are questions about where the personal information is going. Here, they know it’s fully confidential, what they say stays with us, and it’s not going to affect flying time, they’re not going to be constrained by talking to us.”

Pre-flight inspection by an instructor and student pilot at 15 Wing Moose Jaw, Sask. Brent Hallman Photo

Bunka and Stojkovic also provide an overview of the mental performance techniques to the instructor pilots, which helps ensure they are using the same terms with students. “If they see someone struggling with a particular manoeuvre, one of their first recommendations is, ‘Have you talked to the performance coach?’ Having that buy-in from the instructor side is really good,” said Bunka.

Given the number of changes that have been introduced to the RCAF training system in recent years, some as a result of the pandemic, it’s too early to claim the program is contributing to student pilots successfully navigating the first phases of training, said Comeault. But “I think students are getting through with less stress, with a better sense of being supported.”

To better prepare its pilots, build resiliency, and address some chronic musculoskeletal injuries, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) Air Education and Training Command in 2020 introduced a comprehensive human performance curriculum, called Comprehensive Readiness for Aircrew Flying Training (CRAFT). In addition to cognitive performance, it focuses on nutrition and strength and conditioning.

While the Canadian Forces Morale and Welfare Services provides candidates in the training program with health promotion and fitness instruction, the CRAFT program is more integrated, Bunka acknowledged. “That is what we are working towards. We have specialists in the reconditioning and strength and conditioning programs that will be working specifically with the pilot trainees on that.”

Mental performance coaching has helped students with simulator training in Portage La Prairie, Man., before they step into an aircraft cockpit. Brent Hallman Photo

Bunka and Stojkovic have met with their USAF counterparts to share program highlights. Both teams came away with “additional processes that we can both utilize and benefit from,” she said. “From the CRAFT program, we’ve learned a lot about some of the tech that we could potentially implement.”

As both air forces transition to more and more sensor-driven aircraft with digitally enabled cockpits, mental performance training could be critical to helping students prepare to manage the onslaught of data they will soon face.

“We’re not yet doing this, but the next bound we have planned is to incorporate technology that helps work on attention control and multitasking,” said Comeault, drills that could help “prepare people for this high-tech environment.”

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