The Situationist

The Waiting Game

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 23, 2012

From Financial Times (snippets of an article by Frank Partnoy inspired by his latest book):

During the two weeks of play that begin on Monday, professional tennis players at Wimbledon will return thousands of first serves. Many of those returns will be entertaining. Some will be remarkable. But all will give spectators an opportunity to improve on the personal and professional decisions we make in all aspects of our lives: by helping us learn to manage delay.

Watch Novak Djokovic. His advantage over the other professionals at Wimbledon won’t be his agility or stamina or even his sense of humour. Instead, as scientists who study superfast athletes have found, the key to Djokovic’s success will be his ability to wait just a few milliseconds longer than his opponents before hitting the ball. That tiny delay is why most players won’t have a chance against him. Djokovic wins because he can procrastinate – at the speed of light.

During superfast reactions, the best-performing experts in sport, and in life, instinctively know when to pause, if only for a split-second. The same is true over longer periods: some of us are better at understanding when to take a few extra seconds to deliver the punchline of a joke, or when we should wait a full hour before making a judgment about another person. Part of this skill is gut instinct, and part of it is analytical. We get some of it from trial and error or by watching experts, but we also can learn from observing toddlers and even animals. There is both an art and a science to managing delay.

* * *

A tennis court, baseline to baseline, is 78ft long. First serves are launched at well over 100mph. Some volleys come even faster. That means a player returning a shot has just 400 to 500 milliseconds from when the ball leaves their opponent’s racket until it hits his or her own. Just half a second.

Hitting a tennis ball at this speed is a paradoxical act. On one hand, it is a largely unconscious physical reaction. It has to be, given the speed of the ball. There is not enough time to consider spin or angle. Conscious contemplation takes at least half a second, so anyone who even tries to think about how to return a shot will end up helplessly watching the ball fly by.

On the other hand, tennis involves a range of sophisticated and creative responses. Ideally, a player should react to both the placement and trajectory of an incoming ball. The position and movement of an opponent are also crucial. Great tennis returners respond to the information cascade of an incoming ball as if they had taken time to process it consciously, even though we know that is not possible.

Professional tennis players are no faster than we are at pure visual reaction time. Imagine that you and Novak Djokovic are playing a video game. We can measure visual reaction time by having both of you simply press a button when you first see the ball leave an opponent’s racket. Both of you would take about 200 milliseconds. Most people are about that fast, and no one is much faster.

That means virtually anyone who can see a distance of 78ft can react visually to any tennis serve or shot in plenty of time. As even the slowest video gamer can attest, if all you have to do is “see” and then press a button to swing — if you don’t even have to get off the sofa — anyone could return a professional-speed serve.

In real tennis, the difficulty arises in the second stage of the service return. The remaining period of, say, 300 milliseconds is the time players have to react physically – to adjust themselves to what they know about the ball’s flight and then try to hit it how and where they’d like.

Having just 300 milliseconds to hit a ball is a serious problem for most of us. Amateurs cannot move to the correct spot and produce a swing with accuracy or power in 300 milliseconds. Most of us can barely adjust our rackets by a few inches. Many solid professionals cannot do much more.

Even Djokovic does not successfully return every shot. But for most returns, he has plenty of time. He is so skilled and practised that he can produce near-instantaneous muscle contractions to move his body and execute a swing in perhaps 100 milliseconds. For him, the physical part of hitting the ball is almost as easy as pressing a button.

Djokovic’s physical speed frees up time for him to prepare during the phase tennis coaches call “ball identification”. This is when he absorbs the crush of data generated after the ball leaves his opponent’s racket. He splits up the time available during a return shot; because he is so fast, he has extra time to gather and process information. Finally, at the last possible instant, he commits to his choice and swings. He can sandwich a lot of preparing between seeing and hitting.

Because Djokovic needs less time to hit, he has more time to gather and process information. He sees, prepares and, finally, only after he has processed as much information as possible, he hits. His preconscious time management and his extraordinary ability to delay enable him to stretch out a split-second and pack in a sequence of interpretation and action that would take most of us much longer.

* * *

Partnoy’s terrific article goes on to review the science of delayed reaction and to connect that research to all sorts of decisions, including investment decisions.  Better yet, Partnoy suggests how the underlying research may help explain the financial crisis.

Partnoy’s book, Wait: The useful art of procrastination’ will be published by Profile Books on July 5.

Related Situationist posts:

Why Goalies Often Dive To The Right

Image from Flickr.

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