Insights on Decision Making from a national champion

The key to successful competitive cross-country gliding is decision making. Which route to take through the sky, which thermal (a column of rising air) to circle in, which one to reject.

It was day 4 of the competition with 635 km already flown over the first 3 days, and I was in the lead. The task was a flight of 310km into East Anglia and back. It was during a very hot spell and I had not had a good night’s sleep. As I was gliding towards Ely I could see a large field of crop burning, with a column of smoke drifting towards the turn-point and casting a shadow over the ground. It would be important to avoid the area on the return as the shadow would be reducing the heating of the ground and the generation of thermals.

Research has shown that we are not at our best when tired. We can still function, but are more likely to have difficulty with subtle decision making in our frontal cortex.

I did not seem to be doing very well with my decision making and as I rounded the turn-point I could see I was falling behind the other competitors. The decision that needed to be made was which direction to go in order to avoid the smoke. There was no obvious good route to follow but somehow, I ended up flying directly through the wisps of smoke left by the now extinguished fire and losing valuable minutes searching for lift. How did I get there? Why did I not make a clear decision to deviate?

The best description of how I felt was weary. Not so tired that my flying was affected, but tired enough that clear tactical decision making was affected. Not a disaster but a loss of 130 points for the day.

Why is decision making more difficult when we’re tired?

Research has shown that we are not at our best when tired. We can still function, but are more likely to have difficulty with subtle decision making in our frontal cortex. It is as if there is interference affecting our thought processes. As if the Limbic system sensing that all is not right is trying to take control and keep us safe.

The solution for me was not about marginal gains, it was about sorting out the basics: making a positive decision to get better rest. Eat dinner early, avoid blue light, get into bed earlier, and employ relaxation techniques to clear the mind. The next day I regained the lead and went on to win the competition.

How many of us turn up for work feeling a bit weary and below par? Seemingly still able to function but not at our best. In safety critical areas it is important that we get the basics right. The recommendation is 7 to 9 hours sleep per night. How many of us consistently fail to achieve this? What might the consequences be of a sub optimal decision?

“Just sort out the basics,” sounds simple but remarkably difficult to achieve.

Written by Denis Campbell – Medled Senior Trainer and former National Champion – Cross Country Gliding.

Denis provides a huge depth of experience, having delivered Human Factors Training and Train the Trainer Programmes to front line professionals in risk industries for over 25 years.



Leave a Reply