Waking up this morning was a little dreary. Even as I write this I am still rubbing my eyes as I try to get them to stop stinging. To say that yesterday was eventful, would be putting it lightly. But as Hunter S Thompson said, ‘Buy the ticket, take the ride’. 

In the last few reflections I spoke about the need for feedback and the immediacy of that feedback to create action. Well we found out the hard way yesterday that these decisions can have a great impact on outcomes. For those familiar with the works of Nassim Taleb you will know that he speaks heavily of asymmetry and understanding decision making in positions of uncertainty in relation to the assessment of the upside and downside risk profiles. He discusses concepts of concavity and convexity of situations and their outcomes and how this is part of the process of deciding how to behave in such scenarios. Now I won’t get into the technicality of his works (it is way beyond me and my very limited statistical analysis skills) but I will say that essentially the premise is that if you have more to gain than you have to lose in a situation then it is a good decision to proceed with it. If you have more to lose than you do to gain, then it is a bad decision to proceed with and finally if the payoff and the downside profiles are similar, you better be very clear that the risk of downside is of high probability and to proceed with caution. 

What does this have to do with day 2 of competition? 

It was a day of highs and lows and the need to maintain the ability to think clearly, reason openly and effectively assess cost benefit in asymmetric situations. And whilst there were some really smart, well reasoned and intelligent decisions made along the way ,there were also some significant errors.

Decision 1: The day started with the need to reason through a significant cost/benefit decision. Minutes after finishing writing this reflection I received a text from an athlete that had spent the whole night and most of the morning vomiting. He had eaten something that did not agree with him and he wanted to know my thoughts on proceeding with the competition. Whilst he physically could have been at the start line (he had stopped vomiting by late morning and had kept down some fluids and food), it was clear that the risk of poor performance and potentially injury would likely be exponentially higher. Is that a risk that he or I was willing to take? In this situation, we both felt the downside risk was too great and the upside was just not there. Did we get that decision right? It is hard to say as we did not proceed with action, but he does have competitions coming up in the next month and that made our decision to scratch a hell of a lot easier.

Decision 2: An athlete that only just returned from long term rehab, had competed in her first sprint race of the season in the heats the day before and upon beginning the warm up for the semi final had alerted me to some tightness on one side. We completed further physio treatment and she was able to complete her warm up at full intensity. However as she completed her race she pulled up with a strained hamstring. For her emotionally it is distressing to have only just completed one rehabilitation process only to begin another. And whilst in this game it is a shared process of decision making, I do feel a significant level of responsibility to my athletes to protect them from potential injury. In events such as sprinting there is no margin for you to err. These people are gunslingers and sometimes the event gets the shot off before you even pull your gun from your holster. Knowing this I feel that I needed to be clearer about this asymmetric risk decision making with the athlete. I had asked the athlete specifically to report if she felt that she was not confident to run due to the tightness, but I made the mistake of forgetting that she is a gunslinger. She said she was ready and knowing her, she was not likely to withdraw from a contest, that is just not how these athletes are built, they will go as hard as they can at every opportunity. In this situation the downside risk was larger than the upside gain, and clearly we found that out the hard way. It was the wrong decision. 

Decision 3: When we speak about upside risk, the decision to be aggressive with a race plan at a chance to win a national title seems like a worthwhile payoff. If it does not work, the worst that happens is you run an average time, maybe blow up, but you live to fight another day and as I discussed yesterday it is potentially a good outcome to know what happens when such a tactic fails. Now this is not to say that the tactic we employed was not planned well ahead of time. We have been working on the race model for this athlete for the last few months and practicing often in races to get the pacing right for her 400m segments. She has only started running 400’s more seriously this season and her understanding of race pacing for the event is still heavily underdeveloped. She just lacks the race exposures to have a good understanding of what the right level of effort, pacing and pressure points of the race are. But as the season has developed and we have practiced, she has been gaining valuable understanding. After the heats, where she had let nerves alter her performance significantly, we felt that we needed to double down on the race plan that we had been crafting over the last few months. It was worth the risk to take her maiden national title and graciously I will say that she nailed the execution in the final. Her positioning and pacing was perfect and she was rewarded with the win, a pb and a gold medal. 

Coaching is many things, but it is clear that decision making in time sensitive, emotional and  pressure filled environments is key success in this domain and sometimes the objectivity of looking at risk profiles and probabilities of outcomes, as banal as that seems, might just keep you out of trouble, and even win you a national title. 

This concludes the coach reflection series from the 2023 Track and Field National Championships, thank you to those that have taken the time to read along. 

John Nicolosi 

Physiotherapist / Director of Melbourne Athletic Development and Head Coach for MAD Track Team.