Sunday, July 7, 2013

Funnel Cognition: How Macrocognition can inform Successful Adaptations in Competitive Tennis

Megginson (1963) citing Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in the context of business management observed “…it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is best able to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.” This applies equally well when the ecology is no longer the natural habitat of a species but a tennis court on which the competitive tennis player (singles) finds himself at the appointed hour for a duel with his opponent. The tennis player on this occasion encounters a few invariants (personal racket, balls, court dimensions, rules, etc.) but also is confronted with a large number of variables. They range from exogenous variables (e.g., wind speed, crowd support, opponent’s physical & mental states, including his tactics and strategic intent, etc.) to endogenous variables (e.g., one’s own physical and mental states, fluency in execution on that particular day of practiced perceptual-motor skills, among others). Needless to say, the player has to rapidly make sense of these variables and develop strategies to overcome them through adaptations, without any external assistance, as no coaching is permitted in professional tennis. The ultimate goal obviously is to use these adaptations to his advantage to increase his likelihood of winning the match.

The 2013 Wimbledon Finalists Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic who are known to be Deep Thinkers and the most Adaptive Pro's to the Circumstances on the ATP Tour

I will discuss how a player can make such dynamic adaptations, not at the tactical level (e.g., whether to hit a drop shot vis-à-vis a top-spin ground stroke in a particular situation), but at a strategic level – i.e., by utilizing the information contained in the aforesaid variables to make advantageous adjustments. It will be shown that this could be accomplished by building a set of macrocognitive skills, specific to tennis, which are referred to as “funnel cognition” (as opposed to “tunnel cognition.”) This is tantamount to integrating information from a wide range of input variables (akin to the inflow-mouth of a funnel) to develop a hypothesis on current system state, which is a form of pre-kinetic, situation assessment (even before a ball is hit); this would be used to develop a specific strategy that is apropos to the situation on hand (the outflow from the funnel’s stem). Next, during the post-kinetic periods – brief breaks between points, games or sets – the player may reassess the situation again at a macro cognitive level by making suitable assimilations and accommodations (Klein, Moon & Hoffman, 2006) to redefine or refine the strategy. At least two well known approaches from Human Factors sciences – Sensemaking (Weick, 1995) and situated cognition (Suchman, 2007) – used in the context of human-systems design are applicable to sports such as tennis, where the embodied athlete has to solve high level problems without the assistance of an external agent (coach or technology). These formalized approaches and applicability to tennis have received little attention. Most of the analyses, that can be considered cognitive, has been done do develop and hone tactical skills for the kinetic phase in tennis (Teltscher, 2006; Elderton, 2010). It should also be noted that these macrocognitive skills discussed in this talk differ from the microcognitive, perceptual-cognitive skills – centered around direct perception of a projectile (Iacoboni, 2001), its effective anticipation (e.g., Singer, Cauraugh, Chen, Steinberg, Frehlich, 1996) and decision making (Elderton, 2010) – which usually fall under the rubric of “game intelligence” (Stratton, Reilly, Richardson, Williams, 2004) in sports research and literature. The latter have been widely studied by sports psychologists (for a review see Casanova, Oliveira, Williams, Garganta, 2009). Finally, how macrocognitive skills can be formally inculcated to competitive tennis players through methods such as Instance-based Learning Technique (Gonzalez, Lerch, Lebiere, 2003) will be discussed in a future article.

The science of human performance under high stakes and stressful situations discussed in this article shares many characteristics in domains such as first response, warfighting, piloting, emergency medicine, process control in abnormal situations, among others. 

Although, sports does not have life and death implications it can serve as a live laboratory to study cognition and decision making under high stakes and time stress. Knowledge gleaned from this may even contribute to the field of "comparative cognitive engineering."  Ultimately, the this will not only inform sports training and technology, but can also facilitate "antifragile" (cf. Nassim Taleb) approaches to design human-technology interaction in mission critical systems (first response to healthcare). So that the human agents such as first responders, pilots, emergency physicians -- and systems, particularly smart technologies that "learn" in real time -- adapt to stress and even gain from it. Much like an athlete getting stronger from the stressors (real and simulated) imposed on him / her during training and match play. 


Casanova, F., Oliveira, José, Williams, M., Garganta, J. (2009). Expertise and perceptual-cognitive performance in soccer: a review. Revista Portugesa de Ciências do Desporto, 9(1), 115-122.

Elderton, W. (2010). 21st Century tennis coaching: Learner-centered principles for the game-based approach: manual by Wayne Elderton, available from ACE coach

Gonzalez, C., Lerch, J.F., Lebiere, C. (2003). Instance-based learning in dynamic decision making. Cognitive Science, 27(4), 591-635.

Iacoboni, M. (2001). Playing tennis with the cerebellum. Nature Neuroscience, 4(6), 555-556.

Klein, G., Moon, B., & Hoffman, R.R. (2006). Making sense of Sensemaking 2: A macrocognitive model. IEEE Intelligent Systems, 21(5), 88-92.

Megginson, L. (1963). Lessons from Europe for American Business, Southwestern Social Science Quarterly, 44(1), 3-13.

Singer, R.N., Cauragh, J.H., Chen, D., Steinberg, G.M., Frelich, S.G. (1996). Visual search, anticipation, and reactive comparisons between highly-skilled and beginning tennis players. Journal of Applied Sports Psychology, 8(1), 9-26.

Stratton, G., Reilly, T., Richardson, D., Williams, A.M. (2004). Youth soccer: From science to performance. London: Routledge.

Suchman, L. (2007). Human-machine reconfigurations: Plans and situated actions (2nd Ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Teltscher, E. (2006). Keep your strokes, change your game. Tennis Magazine.

Weick, K. (1995). Sensemaking in Organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

About the author:

Moin Rahman is a Principal Scientist at HVHF Sciences, LLC. 

He specializes in:
"Designing systems and solutions for human interactions when stakes are high, moments are fleeting and actions are critical."

Monday, July 1, 2013

Preventing Tragedies in Wildland Fire Fighting

We mourn the loss of 19 of the very best and brave wildland fire fighters, the Granite Mountain Hotshots*, at Yarnell Hill (Prescott), Arizona. As painful as this loss was, it behooves us, the scientific research community, to advance our understanding of fire science and fire fighter human factors to prevent such future tragedies. 
*Hotshots are an elite group of wildland firefighters, with a demanding regimen of physical and fire science training. They carry around 40 - 50 lbs. of gear, food, water, fire shelters, etc., and are dropped-off as a small group, where they fight the fire on their own. For example, they create a fire line, by starving the fire of its fuel (getting rid of brush, dry chaparral, brittle oak brush etc.) to keep the fire from spreading. They have a lookout who observes the wind patterns, weather, progression of fire, etc., on the fireground in real time, to help the firefighters develop their strategy and tactics -- and keep them safe. (A video of the Granite Mountain Hotshots that was filmed in April 2012 is available below this article.)

Started by a lightning strike on Friday, the fire spread to 8,000 acres. (Via NY Times)

Given the nature of the events at Yarnell Hill -- a burnover where the wind radically shifted suddenly and the flames changed direction without warning engulfing the Granite Mountain Hotshots -- posing the following research questions and finding answers may close the gap in our current knowledge on wildland firefighting. Thus enhancing risk assessment, situation awareness and decision making of firefighters and their commanders, supplemented with advances in communication, sensing and computing technologies that truly deliver utility, usability and safety to the crew on the fireground.
  • Computational modeling of fire fighting by treating it as a physical & socio-technical complex systems. This complex system will consist of various heterogeneous agents (physical and human) -- fuel source (for the fire), heat intensity, oxygen levels, wind patterns and fire fighters' characteristics (knowledge, skills, abilities, training, physical fitness, cognitive readiness, experience -- i.e., capabilities & limitations). Furthermore, the human / organizational (socio-technical) element will encompass operational strategies and tactics (protocols), equipment and machines.  Thus these various agents produce their own signals and interact with other agents at the boundaries (a.k.a., signal-boundaries of a "dynamic generated systems" in complexity and chaos theory). This modeling may enable the commander and his/her crew to predict in near real time the behavior of the fire and effort/resources needed to starve it off fuel and oxygen to bring it under control; advise received, as needed from a central command center, who develop a macro level situation awareness with computational model providing proactive decision support;
The above picture from

  • Advance research in fire fighter (human) sensemaking, situation awareness and naturalistic decision making of complex scenarios in volatile, high stakes and complex settings to understand the fidelity and validity of situation assessment. Understand how firefighters / commander makes a decision on how to engage or disengage from a fire and how do they perceive risks (loss / gain) and probabilities to inform their decision making in real time.
Note the communication gear, the 2-way radio in front -- and inside the radio pocket -- of the harness on the Fire Jacket. 
(Communication and Computing technology is discussed in the next bullet point)
"Rick Cowell, the 55-year-old superintendent of the Tahoe Hotshots, addressing his crew during the Stafford blaze." *Photographer:* Kyle Dickman  via Outside Magazine
  • Signal and imaging technologies (aerial and geospatial sensing and analysis), including command and control (radio communications and computing), that best integrate human and systems to enhance safety. The design of radio communications between the "lookout" and the "hotshots" on the fire ground -- as well as group communications between centralized command & control, lookout and hotshots (shared situation awareness) -- are vital to enhance situation awareness. In other words, comprehend the current conditions, particularly risks and hazards arising due to the fuel source and wind/weather patterns; and, more importantly, project the future trajectory and progression of the fire. Furthermore, the utility and use of large screen, data / computing devices on the fireground for use by the lookout or the hotshot squad leader, where data is fed from ground / aerial sensors (e.g., dropsondes) and video/images from central servers, should be investigated. Even though, this technology may provide valuable thermal and weather intelligence, it also poses the danger of cognitive / attentional tunneling and information overload causing the firefighters to loose situation awareness of dangers in the immediate physical  vicinity.
Thus it is vital to formulate the right research questions, find answers in terms of training and technologies, to prevent future tragedies resulting from volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous factors, time stress -- that are inherent to wild land fire fighting.

Video: Granite Mountain Hotshots


This video of the Granite Mountain Hotshots was filmed in April 2012. Chillingly, it shows the crew practicing the deployment of their fire shelters (aluminum foil and silica sacks that reflect radiant heat). Prior to this tragic and wicked conflagration the Prescott Fire Department -Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew had never before been forced to deploy shelters in a fire. The LAST RESORT... Fire shelters have saved the lives of nearly 300 firefighters since 1977. Story credit: Stand with Arizona 

Thanks to -- and via -- Brotherhood of Fire 

News Articles

NPR: "19 Firefighters Killed In Ariz. Wildfire Called Deadliest In Decade"

PBS Newshour Video Report:  
Part 1: Ariz. Inferno Kills Elite Firefighters
Part 2: Firefighters Who Perished in Arizona Faced High Heat, 'One of the Hardest' Tasks

AZ Central: Wildfire experts: More than 1 factor spawned Yarnell tragedy

Further Reading:
Outside Magazine, on being a Hotshot: IN THE LINE OF WILDFIRE 

About the author:
Moin Rahman is a Principal Scientist at HVHF Sciences, LLC. He specializes in:
"Designing systems and solutions for human interactions when stakes are high, moments are fleeting and actions are critical."