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Most of us are creatures of habit, in at least some area of our lives.

Maybe we tend to gravitate towards the same section of the parking lot at the grocery store. Or still eat the same kind of jam we grew accustomed to as kids. Or consistently sit in the same row and section of the movie theater (although, sometimes we may have good reasons for doing what we do – ala Sheldon ).

There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of predictability, of course. Whether it’s having a consistent warmup routine, or setting up an area of the house devoted just to practicing, it’s nice not to have to reinvent the wheel every day.

But there are times when a dose of unpredictability is exactly what we need. Especially when it comes to learning skills that must be executed in the messiness of the real world.

How so?

Up, up, and away!

A team of researchers in the Netherlands recruited twenty airline pilots to study the effect of surprises on flight performance.

All participants were employed as pilots and had flown at some point in the previous week. Their level of experience varied, but on average, they had 12.4 years of flight experience and 6986 hours of flying time.

Recovering from a stall

After receiving a briefing on what to expect, each pilot participated in a 20-minute training session on a flight simulator, in which they practiced recovering from stalls (here’s a quick primer on stalls, if you’re wondering what that is) in eight different scenarios (i.e. different altitudes, angles, speeds).

After ensuring they were able to successfully recover from stalls using the FAA’s recommended stall recovery procedure, the pilots then participated in a second 20-minute flying session.

They were told to expect that something would happen 3 minutes after crossing a specific landmark, causing the plane to stall.

And for half of the pilots, this is exactly what happened (the anticipation group). But for the others, the stall happened unexpectedly, 5 seconds before even reaching the landmark (the surprise group)1.

How did they perform when surprised?

Given that these were experienced pilots who fly for a living, the researchers were curious to see how much of an impact (if any) the unexpectedness of the stall would have on the execution of the recommended recovery procedures.

So how’d they do?

Well, while all of the pilots recovered from the stall successfully, and nothing catastrophic occurred, there was a significant drop in performance when the pilots were surprised.

Their response time was slower, they lost more altitude before recovering, and most importantly, the majority of pilots failed to perform the recovery protocol as accurately as they did when the stall occurred at the expected time.

As lead author Annemarie Landman later explained, “…being skillful when you are not surprised and being skillful when you are surprised are two very different things.”2

So what lessons might we be able to take from this study and apply to audition or performance preparation?

Takeaways

1. Plan for the inevitable mistake (or two)

I never gave any thought to what I’d do if I had a memory slip. Or how I’d refocus my attention after missing a big run. Or how I’d slow things down if I found myself starting to rush uncontrollably.

Why not? Well, on some level, I think I was afraid of jinxing myself. That acknowledging the possibility of mistakes might make them more likely to happen.

But actually, learning how to respond to mistakes in the moment is an essential skill. A big part of which involves learning how to ignore mistakes (what?!), as former NFL quarterback Oliver Luck explains here: Teaching kids to flush mistakes

2. Develop a “mistake ritual”

Many athletes develop a “mistake ritual” to help them rebound more effectively from bad plays or poor shots. A way of moving past the mistake and getting back into a better head space. Because as tempting as it is to dwell on what just happened, the time to do that is after the performance, not during.

So what does a mistake ritual actually entail? Here are some tips from former NCAA tennis coach Kathy Toon: Bounce Back from Mistakes with “The Flush”

3. Practice using your mistake ritual (when you’re least expecting to need it)

Mock performances or auditions are perfect opportunities to practice cruising right past surprises or mistakes. Whether it’s a playing-related mistake, or something environmental (like the room being much warmer or colder than expected, or having to wait longer than expected).

And if you really want to make things more interesting, consider asking your pianist to surprise you with unexpected tempo changes or a sudden lack of responsiveness, when you’re not expecting it. Like in some rehearsals, but not others. Or (with your teacher’s permission) in a lesson. Or…maybe even in a studio class???

Footnotes

  1. To ensure a fair comparison between groups, the pilots subsequently experienced a second stall, the anticipation group then encountering a surprise stall, and the surprise group then encountering a stall exactly when they were told to expect one.
  2. Source: Study of airline pilots highlights the danger of relying on predictable scenarios for training