I was reminded this week of the phenomenon that is sometimes called Pilot Induced Oscillation.
When I lived in London, I spent some time training to fly Microlights from a small field north of the city. The aircraft I was training on was visually flimsy but actually very robust and capable; a mixture of a hang glider, a wheelchair and a lawn mower.
During my training the amount of stuff to learn was huge. There were definitely times that I felt overwhelmed and barely able to cope. The instructor I had was very experienced but perhaps a little more impatient and direct than I would have liked.
During one training session as we flew over the Blue Water shopping centre I found myself caught in some rough turbulence. I felt I was coping well and fought the controls manfully. As the aircraft was pushed one way I responded quickly and pulled it back into the centre, at which point it would be shoved the opposite way, but I reacted well and dragged it back on course. This reactive wrestling went on for a while and I became increasingly tired as I continued to work and hope the turbulence would ease off. If anything the erratic movement seemed to get worse and I felt myself sliding towards panic. I was determined to prove to the trainer behind me that I knew what I was doing and I was anxious about any criticism he might level on me. I started to struggle and was putting all of my strength into the controls.
At this point I heard the sharp voice of my trainer in my ear. “Stop helping! P I O. Let go you idiot!” He emphasised the point by slapping me on my helmet from behind.
The shock helped me loosen my white knuckle grip on the control bar and I let go of the controls completely Immediately the aircraft levelled out and flew on smoothly. The effect was miraculous. I felt like a fool. I gently placed my hands back on the controls and allowed myself to feel the natural motion of the wing, without fighting every little jiggle. Still turbulent air, but much easier.
How did this happen? Well, the aircraft is designed well and will automatically rebalance itself and fly in a straight line when left to its own devices. The main thing that stops it is the well meaning but misguided person in the control seat.
The relevance of this story to Coaching is that people are also designed to exist in a stable state of well being, when left alone. However, our thoughts and feelings have the effect of throwing us off balance. We react to these in a desperate attempt to get back on track, only to find ourselves swinging too far the other way.
The challenge we face is to learn to let go of the controls and let ourselves return to our steady flight path. Less is more.