Thin-Slicing: The Power Of Simplifying In-Game Decision Making

Tufts v. Oregon in the semifinals of the 2013 Stanford Invite.
Photo by Scott Roeder —

“The power of knowing, in that first two seconds, is not a gift given magically to a fortunate few. It is an ability that we can all cultivate for ourselves” – Malcolm Gladwell, Blink (16).

Earlier this year, Glenn Poole wrote an article about how handlers could employ a mental technique called the checkdown to improve their decision making in game situations. If you have the disc, he argues that you should go through a predetermined list of options downfield, starting with your highest priority and going down the list. I agree with Glenn, but he used a more subjective approach, drawing from the checkdown’s use in football along with his own experiences. Luckily, there is also research which provides more insight into how the brain can handle this fast paced decision making and more importantly, how it can be improved.

The part of your brain that makes the snap decision of whether to throw or not to throw, and which throw to throw is called the adaptive unconscious. There’s evidence to suggest that complex information can be processed in as little as two seconds, although it is obvious (but unfortunately immeasurable) that things work significantly faster than that, potentially in the region of 25 to 35 milliseconds.1 There are certain key factors which appear necessary to make these snap decisions correctly, and improving the focus on these factors is the base for improving decision making.

Malcolm Gladwell presents numerous examples of this decision making in Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, where he refers to the subconscious ‘thin-slicing’ available information. Thin-slicing allows us to make complex decisions with incredible speed by utilizing relevant information that the brain filters out for us. The checkdown is simply a mental technique that focusses these decisions into a set order of options to be checked. As we will see, there is some very simple logic to this method.

The human brain is fantastic at providing answers to complex yes/no questions quickly, but it starts to break down when the questions being presented are unbounded.2 Gladwell provides many examples in Blink of complex snap decisions being made correctly when phrased as yes or no questions.

And this is where I believe the checkdown as a mental decision-making tool starts to distinguish itself. Instead of asking yourself: What should I do on this play? The Checkdown gives you a predetermined option and asks: Should I take this option? The yes/no phrasing of the second question limits the information that the brain has to process and can provide a better answer faster by ignoring irrelevant data.

The part of the brain which is critical to this analysis is the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Neurologist Antonio Damasio conducted research involving patients with damage to this area of the brain. “People with damage to their ventromedial area are perfectly rational,” he said. “They can be highly intelligent and functional, but they lack judgment.” (Blink 59)

Judgment, or the ability to act on a decision of the subconscious, is a critical skill in Ultimate as plays develop far too fast to let conscious decision making influence our actions. This is particularly evident with new players who second guess themselves and are prone to what I call ‘double-pumping,’ where they start to move for a throw (in line with a decision made in their subconscious) before something pulls them back mentally and they just fake that throw, before realizing it was a good option and throwing it. More often than not this ‘double-pump’ gets turned over because the defender knows the throw is coming and the new player is now acting on ‘old’ information, again ignoring the up-to-date decision of their subconscious.

Once again, the checkdown trains our minds to remove lapses in judgment, because it suggests that as soon as we receive a ‘yes’ decision from our subconscious in response to an option being considered, we act straight away to take that option. ‘Double-pumping’ ceases to exist, as does another common cause of turnovers, second guessing.

While the checkdown looks to provide answers to two common psychological causes of turnovers, those mental processes can always be improved. As Gladwell suggests in the opening quote, we can cultivate these abilities. The first is simple, and involves self-trust, and trust in the mental processes outlined above, which removes second guessing. The second is to become an ‘expert,’ and provide your brain with as much unconscious information as possible that it can draw upon.

In Ultimate terms, this is important because there may be times when you pick up the disc at the brick mark playing with six people and against seven people you’ve never met. It’s very difficult to make snap decisions about potentially 50/50 calls because you have no idea about the players’ abilities. You might instead make decisions based on their height, weight, or even what cleats they are wearing. While some decisions will be correct, the majority won’t be because your brain simply doesn’t have enough relevant information to make a correct decision.

Obviously, all club players who attend training and are even somewhat attentive could be considered experts on their teammates, but making an informed decision on an option involving a contest requires information on the opposing player who is, at least at first, an unknown. However, the more you watch that player your brain picks up a huge amount of information about them which is filtered by your subconscious to allow you to make a better decision. For example, consider a situation in which the second option on your checkdown list was to huck to a deep cutter. While the player going deep has yards on his opponent, you notice that Beau Kittredge has come off the back of the stack to assist. You’re throwing into the wind and know that the disc could sit up, would you still throw it? Obviously your decision depends on many other factors, but your knowledge of Beau as your opponent means that you know that any disc that floats is a turnover. Your status as an ‘expert’ on Beau’s jumping ability means you’ve chosen ‘No’ to that option on the checkdown and saved a turnover.

To this end, video footage and actively watching games during breaks in your tournament schedule becoming musts for any handler wanting to improve the efficiency of their decisions. Additionally, cutters and defenders can gain immense amounts of useful information which is also employed by their subconscious during a cut or chase situation.

While the checkdown process is slightly more complicated in ultimate than in football due to the fluid nature of possessions, there is solid psychological evidence that it does focus the brain and result in better decision making. Although it requires time and self-discipline to plan, refine, and adopt the checkdown for given situations, I believe there are significant gains to be made by adopting the technique. Credit to Glenn Poole and those handlers who have adopted the technique for pioneering a mental approach in ultimate which I believe will become a feature of all future great handlers.

  1. There is a large body of research from other sports, most notably Baseball and Cricket, that suggests that batsmen are able to read the pitch/ bowl and react to previously gathered information (field placement) with muscle movements in less than half a second. 

  2. Steven Keen, a Behavioural Finance professor at the University of Western Sydney explains how this is evident in economics as the idea of a ‘rational consumer’ (one that obeys the economic principles of completeness, transitivity, non-satiation and convexity) breaks down as consumers are presented with more and more options. Referencing a paper by Reinhard Sippel (Sippel, Reinhard. “An Experiment on the Pure Theory of Consumer’s Behaviour.” 1997), Keen showed that when consumers with 10 different budget constraint problems with 8 commodities to choose from, 11 out of 12 subjects failed to satisfy the Weak Axiom of Revealed Preference (that if A>B, then never B>A). When asked to find the ideal combination of goods and services under budgetary constraint, most people failed the simplest test of rationality. 

  1. Peter Adam

    Peter Adam is a recent graduate of the University of Western Australia, living and playing in Perth between knee injuries. He has played since 2008 and spends his professional life as a corporate advisory analyst in the worlds most isolated capital city.

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