Black Swans, White Swans And Overcoming Overconfidence 

Haitian steeplechase man, Ryan Gousse of High Performance West Elite, readies for the day's next workout rep.

Haitian steeplechase man, Ryan Gousse of High Performance West Elite, readies for the day's next workout rep.

Track & Field is a beautifully simple sport. The standardization of implements, distances, equipment, and competition venues allow for a clear-cut comparison of results. The height a high jumper cleared in New Hampshire can quickly be compared to another athlete’s jump in Qatar. It truly is a universal game. With numerous athletics results available via internet databases, we can compare marks in an instant. This cements track & field as a globalized industry. And if we can relate the sport to the marketplace, then we can apply rules and biases which govern international economics. My aim with this piece is to examine overconfidence in athletics by employing market strategies used to mitigate losses on Wall Street. Namely understanding graded stocks, black swans, and our own confirmation bias tendencies. 

Graded Stocks

Overconfidence in athletics begins with overvalued and/or inflated assets - namely athletes. Let’s assign the modern letter grade scale and further investigate their ranking. 

An athlete is a failure in such a way it limits or omits their ability to compete. This can include: Fails to absorb training and improve ability and/or physical condition. Fails to stay healthy. Fails to stay eligible. Fails to show up to competitions. 

Athlete’s efforts are insufficient to produce competitive marks. 

Athlete’s marks are competitive in the majority of competitions, may even win on occasion at local or conference level meets, but hardly in the mix at highly competitive events such as national championship meets or various high-end invitationals. Non-factors at and/or non-qualifiers to regional and/or national championship meets. 

An athlete is highly competitive on a variety of stages. Capable of winning majority of their competitions including local and/or conference level meets as well as being in the mix at regional and national championship meets of various intensity. Non-factor at global championship meets. 

An athlete is ultra competitive at the highest levels of competition. A hands-down favorite to win national championships in their event and possessing the capability and marks that make them a top contender to win a global championship. 

Black Swan: 
An athlete is so unexpectedly, radically, and unprecedentedly dominant in their event it forces everyone else to compete for the pride of runner-up honors. We usually see an athlete of this magnitude only once in a lifetime in each event area. In an unmatched class of their own. Typically, they significantly improve the world record in their discipline as well. 


With clearly established criteria set, go ahead and grade the athletes you coach. How many A athletes? B? C? D? F? Any black swans? The sobering truth is the majority of athletes are, at best, mediocre — a C. And this is OK. What about your star athlete? Are they even a B? Or maybe a B minus? C plus? The reality is most track & field stars are only a very slight step above mediocre. 

Now, I am not aiming to be overly harsh or pessimistic, merely honest and straightforward. For, if you were like me a few years ago, as a coach you would have inflated the grade of your athletes out of overzealous enthusiasm and overconfidence bias. I’ve been very fortune and lucky to coach at nearly every level in some capacity in my short coaching career. And one truth experience and exposure has taught me is successful coaching is more about how you relate to your athletes than what supposedly scientifically proven training methods you employ. The truly gifted athletes are endowed with higher baseline skill proficiency than the rest of the crowd. The coaches job, in this case, is not to blunt the athlete’s natural gifts by coaching the talent out of them.

Contrast this with coaching the common athlete (which is the vast majority of athletes) who need to work their butts off simply to be in the shouting distance of the gifted ones. Truth be told I very much enjoy coaching the common athlete as they are an inspiring and invigorating lot and full disclosure, in my racing days I was mediocre, at my best. When fully invested, the common athlete gets the most out of every ounce of themselves. And while it will never be a bravo performance of international repute, nonetheless it is the embodiment of why I enjoy my profession — witnessing and guiding athletes on a path to full realization of their own personal excellence.

Once you accept that coaching is a people first profession, then it allows you the space to realize that an athlete’s happiness, trust, security, and a sense of belonging are of a higher magnitude of importance than any periodization model, workload prescription, or clever sequence of physical actions will ever be. When I was a novice coach I had such a certainty that my training methods of the physical would produce predictable performance outcomes at the apex race. Now, after a decade of exploration and learning, I understand there is no perfect model just as there are no perfect people. This realization would have been unfathomable by my younger self. And in hindsight, I am disappointed I was unaware of this fundemental truth. 

Overconfidence can blind us to the truth. And the truth can be crushing in some cases, it can be cause for sobriety. However, a sharply honest outlook is much more likely to produce actions of impact. As a coach, if you assassinate your overconfidence tendencies, you will be in a much better position to fully develop a black swan athlete should you ever luck into coaching them.  

Black Swans

The term black swan was coined by Antifragile author Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2007 book Black Swan: The Impact of the High Improbable to explain unforeseeable events in finance. In essence, a black swan is an unpredictable event of severe magnitude that no amount of planning or prediction can prepare us, even though in its aftermath logical explanations are generated to explain its appearance. Think 9/11 terrorist attacks, the 2008 sub-prime housing bubble collapse, the 1929 stock market crash, etc. 

In athletics, Black Swans are the highly dominate superstars of their sport. Micheal Johnson, Kenenisa Bekele, Yelena Isinbaeva, Carl Lewis, just to name a few. In addition to being dominant during their generation, at their prime these athletes would still be ultra-competitive today. A black swan is easily identifiable in track & field, they are world record holders and/or Olympic gold medalists whose performances are still relevant generations later. 

If you coach long enough, you may be privy to guide a black swan. These athletes are very rare. We coaches are extremely lucky if they we're afforded even one opportunity to work with such an athlete. And if overconfidence in one's coaching abilities is muted it creates space to enjoy some of the most exciting competitive coaching memories of a career. However, if self-importance is too high, there is a risk of ruining precious talent before it fully blossoms. 

How do you identify a black swan in athletics? Simple: they are naturally very, very, very good without much conditioning, training, or technical work. Their baseline of competency is extremely high. Thus, there isn't a need to overwork or over drill this athlete. Instead, be much more cautious with training prescriptions. With a black swan the coaching job is to instill a sense of enjoyment and enthusiasm for the process of personal improvement. Coincidently, this is a coaching posture which all athletes can benefit. With a process driven approach the black swan will thrive into a truly magnificent dominate competitor. By keeping them healthy, happy, and excited a coach simply needs to roll the ball onto the court, sit back, and appreciate watching them play. 

Plain White Swans

While black swans are a once in a lifetime occurrence, plain white swans are an everyday thing. However, we often mistake our best white swan for a black swan. Why? I’m not entirely sure, but my quarter says the root cause is ego. 

Many very talented and gifted athletes have graced the playing arenas of sport. They are champions, Olympians, record holders, etc. But not game changers. While they are very good and the best of a generation, we cannot call them black swans, even though it is very tempting to do so. Truthfully, they are the only best of their day. Someone has to win the contest. And all that means is the victor is the better athlete that day and/or year.

Yet, some athletes, coaches, agents, pundits, family members, etc. overvalue the prowess of the contemporary champion athlete. While we want to believe the current title holder is the best ever, the reality may be they are only the best right now. Look at the men’s long jump or women’s triple jump. The current state of competency on a global scale in those events is not very high compared to generations past. Not to take anything away from those athletes and coaches, but their marks would be marginally competitive to athletes 30 years ago. Mike Powell was a black swan, so was Carl Lewis. But the competitors today are (very good) plain white swans - champion of the day, but to date, nothing more. And that is OK! In fact, it is to be respected and admired. 

There is nothing shameful in being the best of your day. But in our overhyped media climate this is blasphemy. These athletes have the best shoes, gear, equipment, facilities, and coaching that has ever existed, so they must be the best ever, right? We often forget the simple approach, firmly rooted in the fundamentals yields the most consistent and competitive results. However, that doesn't really grab headlines or makes its way onto SportsCenter these days. 

When we come to peace with our normalcy as coaches and the athletes with whom we work only then can we truly refine our craft and better those we guide. This is the ultimate goal of education and athletics: strive for a better version of you. Nothing more. Nothing less. And it is this sobering of humility which best overcomes overconfidence. 


Thanks for reading. I'm glad you're here. // jm 

*note: a previous version of his post was originally published by Jonathan Marcus on on April 6, 2016. It has since been revised and updated.

Jonathan Marcus