I just finished teaching an XC clinic with Keith and the Muller Windsports crew, great conditions in Golden (14,000 foot base!), good group, fun times. Whenever I teach a course in climbing or paragliding I invariably learn something new myself. Sometimes just a bettery way to present an idea, sometimes a new way to look at a movement or mental pattern, always something interesting.
I always try to teach students in whatever sport I'm working with to look at the mountains and themselves and try to see things as they actually are, not as they at first think things are or as they want them to be. This is a basic Buddhist idea (never mind that everything is also supposed to be an illusion, haven't figured that out yet. Wait, maybe if we see everything as an illusion then we're seeing the world as it is? Nah, couldn't be that simple...). Anyhow, another way to look at "seeng thing as they are" is to analyze how aware we are in any given situation. Are we really looking at conditions and watching them change, or are we just running an already-created movie in our minds and ignoring what's actually happening right in front of our eyes?
The most important part of doing any sport safely is knowing what to look for in any situation, and being aware of those clues. For example, a novice paraglider pilot may not equate lenticular clouds with potential high winds. Or a novice back country skier standing at the top of a nice-looking north-east facing slope may not notice that every north-east facing slope on the whole drive to go skiing had slid the night before... I like to think of situational awareness radiating in rings from me. My first ring is my mind--how I feel, what my attitude is, why. If I have a "bad" feeling then usually I'm missing something in my wider rings of awareness, or haven't connected something consciously yet. I don't believe in "mystical" mumbo jumbo, "premonitions" are just my mind trying to reconcile a small clue...In my "immediate" exterior ring are things like my harness buckle, rock quality under my hands, my harness knot, all the holds I'm going to climb up etc. A little bit farther out is the "action" ring, which is about the length of a rope, a rapid, or a glide on a paraglider. This represents roughly the next "unit" of action in whatever sport. Then there's the "big picture" ring, which includes the day, past conditions in the season (gotta remember that November rain crust in the snow pack), what I read in the winds forecast for paragliding that day vs. what I've seen that forecast mean in the past, etc. All of this is "situational awareness." I think many very good athletes have excellent situational awareness, while most novice athletes don't. For example, a novice climber's situational awareness field is can shrink down to the size of a coffee can--the six inches of rock directly in front of their eyes. Anyone who has taught climbing will relate to the novice with the leg shaking like a sewing machine needle--with a two-foot flat ledge just below their foot to stand on. A novice driver may not see all the brake lights going on a half K down the road...
Over the years I've been at with several master athletes in different sports who were past their athletic prime but still had excellent situational awareness. I especially remember being out with an old guide on an easy climb about 20 years ago. I was loving the climb and the day, and totally missed the black clouds brewing over a nearby peak. We bailed when he mentioned them, and arrived back at the car and cold beer as hail pounded the walls of the canyon... I've now seen this same difference in situational awareness in many different sports, I think it's the most important or defining mental aspect of adventure sports.
Next time I teach that Cross-Country flying course I hope to do a better job defining how to see things as they are through developing better situational awareness.