Man and woman in a cockpit of an airplane. They are  both looking at the camera.

Seeking to optimize performance: Southern Illinois University Carbondale faculty Eric Lee, left, assistant professor in psychology, and Irene Miller, assistant professor in aviation management, are involved in research to examine whether sports psychology skills and techniques can help student pilots get in a good mindset and optimize their performances. (Photo by Russell Bailey)

September 26, 2022

SIU researchers pioneer use of psychology to optimize student pilots’ success

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Researchers at Southern Illinois University Carbondale are examining whether sports psychology skills and techniques can help student pilots get in a good mindset and optimize their performances.

Starting this fall, a cross-disciplinary collaboration that involves the School of Aviation and the School of Psychological and Behavioral Sciences, both within the College of Health and Human Sciences, will aim to improve flight students’ scores on rigorous practical examinations, or check rides. Working with four clinical psychology graduate students, eligible aviation students who volunteer for the approximate 16-week online program will learn to increase their psychological flexibility, motivation and performance.

“We are looking at performance psychology that has been used in professional sports for many years, where simply they get athletes in the right head space for optimal performance,” said Irene Miller, an assistant professor in aviation management, adding that utilizing performance psychology is new to the aviation field.

The goal is to have 120 aviation flight students — 60 each in the fall 2022 and spring 2023 semesters — with varying amounts of flight experience participate. Students will participate in six, one-hour sessions via Zoom. The research study proposal has been reviewed by the Federal Aviation Administration, and officials there, along with the U.S. Naval Training Command, are eager to see how the study turns out, Miller said.

Eric Lee, an assistant professor in clinical psychology, is supervising and implementing the study.

Rigorous demands

Students can experience many stress factors in college and that can be even more significant when coupled with passing FAA written exams and mastering flight skills needed to pass practical exams to obtain pilot licenses and ratings. A check ride is a 3- to 4-hour practical exam involving an oral and flight evaluation, usually to earn an FAA rating.

Miller explained students at times might make a seemingly minor error during a check ride but then dwell on that rather than focusing on the tasks at hand and anticipating the tasks ahead. The primary consequence of dwelling on a minor error is not passing the FAA practical exam (check ride). Ultimately, if the student’s performance continues to degrade, then they will risk the chance of not completing the flight training program.

Simply telling someone to “not be nervous” doesn’t work, said Miller, but giving them skills so they can cope and “thrive very well in those situations” is the goal. Faculty also involved in the research with Miller and Lee are Mike Robertson, a professor in aviation flight, and Ken Bro, an assistant professor in aviation management.

“Pilots have to take check rides throughout their careers. It is a part of the job that never stops,” Robertson said. “Often this causes stress, especially in the student population. If they can learn the skills to enhance their performance now, it will only benefit them as they continue their piloting career.”

Psychological flexibility

Lee explained that the sessions will be focused on skills and strengths and less on symptoms.

“What we are doing is teaching these acceptance-based cognitive behavioral skills,” he said. “We are focusing on flight checks, but they are broadly applicable skills.”

Having psychological flexibility allows people to move away from a mind’s natural tendency to look back at something that was off rather than focusing on the task at hand. Students will practice skills to help them achieve that, he said.

“Being psychologically flexible in the moment is to be present and aware,” he said.

Graduate students who are involved in the project will benefit from gaining clinical hours and having direct contact with students under his supervision, Lee said. The students discussed the study’s design and methodology over the summer.

The goal is to have preliminary results by fall 2023, he said.

Lee is also excited about collaborating with another area of campus.

“I think most disciplines are this way,” he said. “We can often feel kind of siloed and that we kind of just talk to ourselves and that we are only helping ourselves in some ways. In psychology especially, we are always trying to reach people who could benefit by this; what more can we do? There is a real possibility here to be useful.”