Mental Models That Rock

In 2010, Flight 32 was headed to Sydney from Singapore. Just a few minutes into the flight at about 7,400 feet, the crew heard a loud boom, followed by another, and then what sounded like thousands of marbles being thrown against the hull.

The pilot, Richard de Crespigny, had nearly every alarm going off and warnings displays and sirens on his instrument panel. 21 of 22 systems were in critical condition and engine two was gone All hydraulic controls, fuel hoses, fuel tank, and electrical the left wing were destroyed. Investigators later determined that an oil fire inside of the left jets had cased a massive turbine disk to detach from the drive shaft, shear into three pieces, and shoot outward, shattering the engine. They would call it the worst midair mechanical disaster in modern aviation.

Within minutes, the plane had become capable of only the smallest changes in adjustments. No one was certain how long it would stay in the air.

In the past decade, technology has increasingly entered every aspect of our lives. We have instantaneous access to smart phones that can provide anything we care to ask for, in a matter of seconds. Notifications from email, social media, messenger, and other apps are constantly asking for our attention. All of this information can be extremely useful, but knowing when and how to direct our attention is becoming increasingly critical.

You can think about your brain’s attention span as a spotlight that can go wide and covering everything, or tight and focused. Our attention span is guided by our intentions. We choose, in most situations whether to focus the spotlight, or let it be relaxed.

However, as we become increasingly reliant on technology to tell us when and where to focus, it becomes harder for us to control that spotlight. Our brain is wired to go into standby mode whenever possible. It saves energy, and allows us to think about bigger things, make plans, and be creative instead of constantly having to focus on mundane tasks. Then, when that automation or technology goes away or is not available, our spotlight needs something to focus on and will often choose what we know best, or what we’ve practiced the most without us even realizing it.

We become what we practice.

What does this have to do with skiing?

Well, think about a time where you were maybe going too fast, or had a make a quick save move, or hit a patch of ice. What happened?

I see this happen a lot when athletes are freeskiing. They’ll be cruising a long skiing fine, then hit a patch of ice and instantly go into ‘scared cat’ mode and stiffen up, go back seat, and lean in.

What do you think that athlete has spent the most time practicing?

Stiff skiing in the back seat and leaning into the turns.

I’ve also seen the other side. When an athlete is ripping turns in a course, makes a tactical mistake, and ends up late, in order to save their line and the race, they’ll huck their skis away from them, drop their hip, level their shoulders, and make the gnarliest turn ever to make it back into the course.

What do you think that athlete has practiced the most?

You’re true skiing ability shines when you put yourself into these extraordinary situations. You’ll revert to the ‘model’ of skiing that you’ve practiced and envisioned the most.

So let’s make sure it’s the right model.

Even before Captain Richard De Crespigny stepped on board Flight 32, he was drilling his crew in the mental models he expected them to sue.

“I want you to envision the first thing we’ll do if there’s a problem,” he told his copilots. “Imagine there’s an engine failure. Where’s the first place you’ll look?” The pilots took turns describing where they would turn their eyes. De Crespigny conducted this same conversation prior to every flight. He quizzed his copilots on what screens they would stare at during an emergency, where their hands would go if an alarm sounded, whether they would turn their heads to the left, or stare straight ahead. “It’s our job to think about what might happen, instead of what is.”

As Flight 32’s situation worsened, the crew decided to slowly turn the plan around and head back to Singapore. The men relied on their mental models they rehearsed pre-flight, following the plane’s instructions to fix the constant barrage of problems. But as the problems cascaded, the instructions became overwhelming that no one was certina how to prioritize or where to focus. De Crispegny felt himself getting overwhelmed.

As he was trying to keep track of their dwindling options, he was creating a mental picture of the plane as he learned more and more of what was wrong. Everywhere they looked, they saw a new alarm, another system failing, more blinking lights. De Crespigny took a breath, removed his hands from the controls and placed them in his lap.

“Let’s keep this simple,” he said to his copilots. “We need to stop focusing on what’s wrong, and start paying attention to what’s still working.”

One of the copilots began ticking off things that still worked: Two of the eight hydraulic pumps still functioned. The left wing had no electricity, but the right wing had some power. The wheels were intact and the copilots believed de Crespingny could pump the brakes at least once before they failed.

The first airplane de Crespigny had ever flown was a Cessna, a single-engine, nearly noncomputerized plane.A Cessna is a toy compared to an Airbus, but every plane, at its core, has the same components: a fuel system, flight controls, brakes, landing gear.

What if, de Crespigny thought to himself, I imagine this plane as a Cessna, what would I do then?

“Most of the time, when information overload happens, we are not aware it’s happening,” says Barbara Burian, a research psychologist at NASA. “And that’s why it’s so dangerous. So really good pilots push themselves to do a lot of ‘what if’ exercises before an event, running through scenarios in their heads. That way, when an emergency happens, they have models they can use.”

“Picturing it that way helped me simplify things” de Crespigny said about his mental model of landing an ‘oversized Cessna’. “I had a picture in my head that contained the basics, and that’s all I needed to land the plane.”

If he hit everything right, he would need 9000m of runway. The longest available was 4,000m. As de Crespigny approached the runway, he ignored various warnings that pertained to the Airbus, not the ‘oversized Cessna’ he was flying in his head. With the wheels down, he made touchdown amid a claxon of warning sirens. He knew he only had one pump on the brakes and slammed his foot on them as soon as they hit the tarmac. The sand dunes and sagebrush at the end of the runway were rapidly approaching, at 2000m on the runway, he thought they might be slowing down. The end of the runway was approaching fast. The wheels left long skid marks on the asphalt. Then the plane slowed, shuddered and came to a stop with one hundred meters to spare.

Being able to create a robust, and detailed mental model of anything is becoming an increasingly critical skill, not just for skiing and ski racing, but also for life. Having an expectation of what’s going to, or what could happen will help us be more confident in our decision making process and leadership skills. Envisioning details of what could happen or certain scenarios that we’d like to see happen, but then not happening, will help us prepare for anything coming up. The more detail, the more we envision happening, or people saying, or events occurring, the better our mental model will be able to help us.

Sometimes, as in Flight 32, that mental model will need to shift and change to something completely different. But without a model of any kind to fall back on, then our spotlight will swing around like crazy until we can latch on to something, anything, even if it’s the wrong thing. So having prepared for a situation by creating a mental model for it will help your spotlight be able to focus on what needs to be focused on in order to succeed in that situation.

This all takes practice, but anyone is able to do this.

Practice by using imagery in your skiing. Going up the lift ride, imagine yourself skiing the run you’re about to ski. How do you look? What do you do? What turns do you make? What line do you choose? If someone’s in the way, where do you go? If you hit a jump, what do you do?

The best thing you can do is to create a mental model of what you would like to look like when you ski. Watch World Cup skiers and find one that you like. Study their skiing until you can envision it in your head. Then use that model to contrast your own skiing.

No, you won’t look exactly like them, but you’ll have a model to compare against when you watch video with your coach. You can then adjust your own skiing to start to match that model one piece at a time. You’ll then have two models to evaluate. One that includes what you look like currently, and the other of one small thing you can adjust to look more like the World Cup model. Maybe you can lift your inside hand up on each turn, or drop your hip a little more each day, or level your shoulders at the end of the turn, or transition with your hips forward, etc.

The key is to just choose one thing to change at a time. Of course, use your coach to helo you decide what that could be. There’s nothing better than an athlete coming up to me saying, “So I’ve been thinking, I noticed that I drop my inside shoulder on each turn, I was thinking I could do pole draggers to help fix that, what do you think?”


Having a mental model will help make things simple. You’ll be better able to problem solve our complicated sport and figure out what exactly you can do right now to fix one small thing. You’ll also be a better judge on your progress by comparing your previous model of yourself, to the new one for that day. You’ll want to look for any small change, or big change, but a change is critical. We want to see something different. Without doing something different, you won’t progress and will stay the same for ever.

But how can you know you’re doing something different if you don’t have a mental model to compare it against?

This is one of the best things you can do as an athlete, and a Higher Level Human, to improve and make some drastic changes in your skiing. It’s also great skill to have for life. Work on it constantly. Always have a mental model of what you would like to do for the year, month, week, day, and even each run. The lift ride is a perfect time to build that model. Talk about it with your teammates and see what they come up with. It will all help you to get better and be the best skier possible.

- Coach Tyson