I gasped sharply as the sailplane rose from the ground. A tension shot through my body like a flash of lighting. The sky opened up above my head as the ground vanished from my sight. All I could see were grey, deep hanging clouds.
Why had the start taken me by such a surprise? A bare week lay between now and my previous glider flight – and yet it felt just the way it had the first time I climbed into the cockpit.
It was a decent start. I gently increased the angle of our climb, factoring the heavy drops of rain in, which were weighing down our wings. I slightly turned her nose into the wind, as gusts pushed us towards the East, and released her in 300 meters height.
The fear of not doing justice to your own or someone else’s expectations.
Yet, it felt different. It could be of the memories of last week’s misfortunes, or the rainy weather, it could be exhaustion from a busy and eventful work week, which had just brought me back from Brussels and Madrid, or the different flying instructor. None of it seemed likely to make me feel so uneasy though.
A word crossed my mind: Prestationsångest. A Swedish expression summing up the fear of not doing justice to your own or someone else’s expectations. “How many starts do you have? Ok, so you should be flying solo soon”, today’s instructor casually told me. The teeny flying before me is well on his way, will most likely fly his solo during the summer camp. A newbie excited a seasoned pilot – a natural talent, he exclaimed.
It might not be a race and teenagers might be little Ninjas – but that does not prevent that every casual remark directed towards my first solo, every success of a 17-year-old, increases the pressure I put on myself. And competitive as I might be, pressure is rarely the way to get the best out of me.
I can still see my coach turning, wordlessly, as I take of the mask after my final fight.
Memories start welling up. I am standing on the piste, directing the tip of my epee towards my opponent. At the far end my coach waits, his heavy chin resting in his hand. It has been a long competition and it’s the last encounter of the day. If I win, I enter the knockout tomorrow. If I lose we drive home.
I lose. As I did so many times in my final active fencing season. I cannot overcome the hurdle past the third round. It’s not a lack of skill or fitness. I have won against many of the opponents before and my body is trained from top to toe. It’s prestationsångest – the fear of not standing up towards my own, my coach’s and my father’s expectations.
I can still see my coach turning, wordlessly, as I take of the mask after my final fight. I can still sense the ice-cold silence in the car on our way back home. I felt left alone, angry and frustrated, tired and hopeless.
While my flying is taking a summer holiday, my mind will get trained towards overcoming any fear of not matching expectations.
As I come home from the airfield, I go straight to my bookcase and pull out a brightly colored book. “Bäst när det gäller” (loosely translated to: being at your best when it counts) – a book about sport psychology, about mental preparation before competitions. My mum gave it to me in that last season. It might not have helped my fencing, but now, some 15 years later, I want to give it another chance.
Once I actually start believing in that I can fly solo, I might come closer to that goal. So while my flying is taking a summer holiday, my mind will get trained towards overcoming any fear of not matching expectations – my own or my instructor’s, or anyone else’s.