What do aviation and elite sports have in common? At first glance you may think not a great deal, but recently I was asked to speak at the annual Leaders Sport Performance in London along with Arsenal FC manager Arsene Wenger and former England cricket coach Andy Flower.

Although I am now NATS’ Head of Human Performance in External Safety, in my past career I was part of the sports psychology team for the New Zealand Commonwealth, Olympic and Paralympic teams, so I had ideas as to how the aviation industry could provide an insight for the audience about how to extract the best out of human performance in the field of sport.

My talk, ‘If Nike ran air traffic control, what would it look like’, explained how NATS uses techniques associated with elite sports to help its people keep the skies safe; performance management is utilised in aviation to ensure a safe and efficient operation in the critical environment of air traffic control. By considering the type of aspirations you’d associate with a brand such as Nike – innovation, smart design, research, brand leadership – and combining this with our top priority, safety, NATS is able to deliver optimal service.

There are three things that NATS considers as the foundations of a safe operation: people, teamwork, and that, as much as you try, you can’t predict an accident.

NATS has an embedded safety culture and proactive safety methodology by using rigorous selection, training and assessment to maximise the performance of our people, with particular focus on social support and visualisation techniques. Mental rehearsal is also a key element in the success of top sports people. Similarly, we prepared the team at Edinburgh Airport for their move to a new tower by giving them ample time to get used to the new view from the tower prior to transition.

Team work is vital, for example, NATS has worked with the likes of Formula 1 greats McLaren to learn from both their approach to driver psychology and from the efficiency of their pit crew operations.

Feedback from the presentation has been highly positive. I talked to a number of delegates afterwards who valued the chance to get a different perspective from a completely fresh field. Although at first glance they appear completely different there are in fact many similarities between sport and aviation, especially air traffic control. It is important to learn from each other so that we can help the people, who are key to both sectors reach their full potential, safely and efficiently.



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