Decisions, Delays and Djokovic

I read a great article in the Financial Times yesterday by Frank Partnoy where he explains that we could learn about improving our decision making by observing the Wimbledon tennis that starts next week. The document is a little long and runs to 7 pages., so I will summarise the main points – although I do recommend reading the article itself if you have the time.

Given a ball is traveling at 100 miles per hour and the distance from baseline to baseline is 78 feet, then we have to react and return the ball in about 500 milliseconds. There are three phases to our return:

  • The first phase taking about 200 milliseconds is needed to visually register that the ball is on its way.
  • The second phase is to physically prepare to return the ball – position, back swing and so on.
  • The third phase is then to swing and hit the ball.

Djokovic does not have any visual processing speed quicker than you and I and so the 200 milliseconds is pretty much a given. However, his physical speed in preparing to hit the ball (the second phase) is that he does this quicker than almostĀ  any other human being alive. Therefore, if he delays his decision to prepare himself to return the ball, he has more time in the phase that coaches call “ball identification”; and so is able to gather and process information about the ball coming at him: speed, spin and the other dimensions. That gives him an edge in making a superior return.

It is this preconscious time management and his extraordinary ability to delay that 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. The author admits that delay is not always good and obviously many decisions have a time limit by when a delay starts to reduce the likelihood of a good decision. But generally, if you have 60 minutes to make a decision, you should wait 59 minutes before making it. Or you have 7 days to decide, then wait 6 and a half to make the most of gathering and processing valuable information about the decision and the scenario in which it will be enacted.

Frank also talks about positively managing the delay to make better decisions and gives examples of how the financial services industry has gotten into trouble in the past through too hasty reactions. He mentions (and I did not know this) that Lehman Brothers executives had been given training in decision making by Malcolm Gladwell and Max Bazerman (a Harvard Professor) in the Autumn of 2005 to help them understand their biases – obviously too little, too late! However, it is not too late for your organisation as we at Genesis offer a similar decision making training service – call me now!

The 7 page article is rich in examples and advice that includes thoughts from Warren Buffet, Jon Stewart (a comedian) and “Its Just Lunch” – an international dating service.


The FT article: Waiting Game.

If you are interested in ways to improve your decision making and/or that of your management team, contact me at to discuss our programmes.


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