Factors that inhibit learning

One of the most valuable skills you can develop as an instructor is recognizing factors that might be inhibiting the learning process of your students.
A common aspect of human behavior is that we use defense mechanisms to protect our ego when confronted with a threat or not progressing toward our goal.

Defense Mechanisms

Reaction FormationAggressionFlight / FantasyFreeze


Denial/Minimization is a refusal to accept reality because it is too threatening to the “story” we believe. Instead of accepting reality, we deny or minimize it.

Example: A student is struggling with forward inflations by continually overpulling the A’s with straight arms or “Superman” arms. The instructor points out the issue, but the student denies or minimizes the scenario and blames it on the wing, wind, or something else.

Potential Response: “Let’s film your next attempt and then we can watch/analyze what’s going on with your technique.”


Compensation is what happens when we try to hide a weakness by emphasizing a strength.

Example: A student is not quite proficient with reverse kiting skills, so they choose to compensate by only doing forward launches even when the conditions are more suited for a reverse launch.

Potential Response: “Your forward inflations are looking really solid. Let’s spend some time on your reverse inflations to see if we can help get you more comfortable with them.”


Projection is when someone relegates their shortcomings or mistakes to someone or something else instead of taking personal ownership.

Example: A student hasn’t quite mastered the timing of the flare for landing, so they occasionally land a bit harder than expected, and when confronted about the timing/technique of the flare, they blame it on “hitting unexpected sink” or “the wind suddenly changed direction.” 

Potential Response: “Sinking air is a real thing, but it’s very likely that the timing of your flare is something we can work on and get it dialed in. Next time why don’t you try…[insert advice].”


Rationalization occurs when we can’t accept the real reasons for our behavior.

Example: A student that’s struggling to learn airspace will say, “airspace is too complicated to learn unless you have a background in aviation,” instead of admitting that they weren’t paying attention during the ground school lesson on airspace. 

Potential Response: “Airspace can feel like a difficult topic to master; let’s try breaking it up into smaller modules and really focus on paying attention to the most important details.”

Reaction Formation

Reaction Formation is when a person fakes a belief opposite to the true belief because the true belief causes discomfort. It’s common when a person acts in a way that causes a reaction by others that was not expected.

Example: During training, a visiting local pilot flies in a way that scares the onlookers below. Upon landing, your students express concern by saying “Wow, that really spooked us. We thought you were going to crash” The visiting pilot dismisses the concern and pretends to not care about the reaction.

Potential Response: You can talk to the students and explain what you saw from your perspective and talk about what can be learned from what they saw.


Aggression is a defense mechanism to help overcome a perceived threat or stressful situation. It also manifests as a combative attitude when struggling to learn.

Example: While learning to ground handle a wing in strong wind, it’s common for students to become more aggressive in their inputs and reactions as they try to fight against the wing/wind.

Potential Response: The instructor can demonstrate/explain the technique/skill. The skill can be broken down into smaller steps that can be mastered individually.

Flight / Fantasy

When confronted with a perceived threat, some people will use fantasy as a defense mechanism to “get away” from the discomfort of the situation.

Example: A student is struggling with a specific skill or task during training. Instead of focusing on the task, they pretend they are ready to move on to the next skill and avoid the current one.

Potential Response: This might be a good time to spend some one-on-one time with the student to ensure they are making progress on the required skill.


When confronted with a perceived threat, some people will freeze and feel a sense of resignation due to the stress of the situation.

Example: Your student is learning to reverse kite and continually does the wrong brake input, causing the wing to fall. In an effort to avoid the wrong input, the student begins to freeze and not do any inputs whatsoever.

Potential Response: When a student is struggling with resignation, give them a “win” by assigning another skill. Teach them to hand kite the wing or switch to another task temporarily.