Perpetual Practice, Perfect Performance

I’m not a huge baseball fan, but I did tune in to the end of Game 7 of the World Series the other night. I couldn’t help but be fascinated by watching how the players, as individuals and as a team, responded to the mounting pressure as the game progressed into the final innings.

Everything was on the line. It was here and now. The endless months of training, a whole season of games—it all came down to those last few minutes of play, with the whole world watching.

How do you put the pressure out of your mind and just do your job?

There are of course all sorts of analogies about sports and “real life.” If you haven’t read Tim Gallwey’s seminal book, The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance, you really should! I’m greatly oversimplifying here, but Gallwey says that every match has two aspects: the Outer Game—the one played against your opponent—and the Inner Game, the one you play against yourself in your mind.

The Inner Game is nicely summed up in the Astronaut’s Prayer: Dear God, please don’t let me screw up! 

It’s tremendously expensive to fly a space mission. If something doesn’t go right, you may never get another shot at it. Everything you’re going to do in orbit has to be ingrained in your brain and your muscle memory. Your crew, the scientists on the ground, your country—they’re all depending on you to do your job. You simply can’t screw up due to a mental lapse or being unprepared.

Astronauts typically spend two solid years training for a mission. They endlessly rehearse every aspect of every moment of a flight. The commander and pilot run hundreds of landings on simulators and in the Gulfstream Shuttle Training Aircraft. Spacewalkers practice with their tools and mockups of the equipment they’ll be working with. They run at least seven full simulations of every spacewalk in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab’s giant swimming pool near Houston. The mission specialists needs to understand how everything on their vehicle works and how all the experiments operate. They simulate the different ways something can go wrong, so that when things go right, it’ll be a cakewalk.

Several times over the course of the coming months, we’ll look at some of the training that helps astronauts and ground crews prepare for missions. We’ll focus on some of the training for STS-107 in particular.

We’ll get a glimpse at how astronauts make it look easy. (Hint: It’s because they’ve performed incredibly complex tasks so many times that they can almost do them in their sleep. It also helps that they’re incredibly smart and competent people!)

The STS-107 crew practices equipment maintenance at SPACEHAB in 2000. (NASA photo KSC-00PP-1838)

Author: Jonathan Ward

Jonathan Ward is an author of books on the history of American manned spaceflight. He also serves as an adjunct executive coach at the Center for Creative Leadership.

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