Longread: Competence, confidence and experience in risky sports

In a couple of posts last year, mainly my weekly roundups (which I’m not doing anymore, but more on that another time) I referenced some tragic accidents that happened to individuals seemingly experienced and well-equipped to do what they were doing (mainly hiking or scuba diving). Accidents like this are always informative because, as someone who hikes and scuba dives, albeit at a much lower and hopefully less risky level, it is sobering to think that people die despite all their experience and training, and we inevitably want to understand why it happened and what it does to my assessment of the riskiness of my hobbies.

The fact that experienced and well-equipped people die doing risky activities is, of course, true, and nothing I go on to write will change that. So, don’t misunderstand me, I’m not going to argue that actually experienced people don’t or can’t have fatal or life-threatening accidents. They can and do. However, what I do want to do is look at a few case studies and use that to discuss a hypothesis I have that may shed some light on why, in my opinion, the same kind of people often have the same kind of accidents doing wildly different activities.

Kate Matrosova

Kate Matrosova was an experienced hiker and mountaineer who was caught in severe weather while hiking in the White Mountains in New Hampshire and, despite activating her rescue beacon, died before rescuers could get to her.

She is often used as an example of how even a fit, experienced and well-equipped hiker can die in the appalling weather and grim conditions of the White Mountains, and that is certainly one perspective. Some, however, argue that while she had tackled an impressive number of difficult peaks in the past, she was not actually enormously experienced having only been hiking for four years, and that her kit selection and route planning, given the weather, contributed to the situation she found herself in.

Her passion for mountains and wild places was kindled four years ago on an ascent of Mt. Kilimanjaro… She set her sights on Everest and the rest of the Seven Summits, the high points of each continent; she aspired to be the first woman to climb Denali in the winter. _ Chip Brown, Bloomberg

I can only go on the articles I have read, and most seem to take as fact that she was a very experienced hiker. Between the lines, however, I also see an enormously driven woman whose love of the outdoors and enthusiasm for conquering ever more difficult peaks led her to take on a challenge – a solo winter traverse of the White Mountains – that very, very few other people would even consider.

Armin Schmieder

Armin Schmieder was a 28-yr old BASE jumper (or, technically, wingsuiter – the distinction is somewhat relevant) who sadly died attempting a daring jump, which he was livestreaming on Facebook. I don’t know nearly enough about wingsuiting to assess his experience or training, the riskiness of what he was attempting, or any mistakes he may or may not have made. What I do find interesting, however, is the view held by some people in the BASE jumping community that he was one of many wingsuiters who had progressed extremely quickly to doing incredibly challenging stunts, without having built up a base level of experience; first as a skydiver, then as a ‘conventional’ parachuting BASE jumper, and finally as a wingsuiter.

“This guy had barely over 200 skydives, and just a hundred jumps in BASE,” says Pecnik. “He knew so little, and was pushing so hard for his level that it’s no surprise that he’s dead.” _ National Geographic

This is, some would suggest, one of the reasons for the high number of deaths there have been in wingsuiting in recent years; the kit is incredibly accessible and the size of your audience depends only on how exciting your videos are. As a result, it is suggested, people are moving from absolute beginner to doing terrifyingly dangerous stunts with a speed that more conservative members of an already fairly risk-acclimatised community find deeply concerning.

Dr Guy Garman

Dr Garman, known to many as Dr Deep, was a technical diver who died during an attempt to break the world record for recreational diving depth by diving to 370m. He was characterised by some in the diving community, and in particular by his dive club, as being an enormously experienced technical diver who “knew more about technical diving than anyone else on the planet”. While that statement probably does not stand up to too much scrutiny, there is little doubt that he had absorbed a huge amount of knowledge in a relatively short period of time and had moved quickly from initial training to doing dives that only a very very small percentage of recreational divers will ever even attempt.

His progression from learner diver to advanced technical diver was extremely fast, leading to 1/3rd of his dives (200 dives) being below below 60m/200ft. Of these, a mere 35 dives were below 150m at the time of his record attempt. _ Andy Davis, Scuba Tech Philippines

In the references you will find a must-read article from Scuba Tech Philippines which analyses a number of important psychological factors that contributed to this tragedy. I am, however, primarily interested in the issue of experience and most particularly the extraordinary rapidity with which Dr Garman moved to very advanced diving. The fact is that he had done a total number of dives which wouldn’t turn any heads in a moderately-experienced recreational group diving to 30 metres in the Med, and his number of really deep dives was tiny considering the depth he was planning to go to.

What do these case studies have in common, and what do they tell us? I think all three are examples of people who have sadly died doing an activity at which, in some respects, they were near-experts at the top of their game. All, however, ended up in that position through, to a greater or lesser extent, an accelerated advancement from initial learning to the most high-risk activities. Of course, I have cherry-picked ones that serve to illustrate my theory, but I believe that all are representative of a number of other fatalities. There are countless other examples in diving, wingsuiting, mountaineering and goodness knows how many other activities of people whose drive to improve, succeed and conquer lead them to forge a rapid path into the most advanced echelons of their sport where, in some cases, they came to tragic ends.

Four stages of competence

Many readers will be familiar with the ‘four stages of competence’, sometimes depicted as a triangle (though there is no reason why it should be).

It is generally applied to learning a new technical skill. So, take a new driver: in the stage of unconscious incompetence he clearly cannot drive, but neither does he really appreciate the skills involved in driving or understand what would be involved in being a capable driver. He starts learning and enters the stage of conscious incompetence: he is still not a good driver, but he appreciates the skills involved and recognises his inability to currently perform them. As he improves further he enters the stage of conscious competence: he is a competent driver and, by thinking about his actions and driving, is able to drive safely and well. Finally, with experience, he becomes unconsciously competent: he is able to drive safely and well without thinking about it, or necessarily even being aware of what he is doing to drive well.

I think this is a useful model, without a doubt, and it is worth noting that many training courses in technical skills specifically seek to develop unconscious competence, whereby a learner is able to take the right action without thinking about it or having to analyse the situation and the appropriate response. In reality, of course, that generally only comes with considerable experience.

An alternative model

I would like to suggest an alternative model, though, based on my assessment of some of the similarities between some accidents I have considered in various sports. Many, though by no means all, seem to happen to people who are apparently ‘experienced’ and in many cases extremely competent, regularly performing the skills involved in the sport at a very high level and with great success. What they have in common, however, is that their enthusiasm for the sport and drive to succeed and excel have lead them to progress with unusual speed and, when their true experience is analysed, they appear to be attempting activities well beyond what many would consider wise or safe.

Here, then, is my illustration of four stages of skill development, specifically when discussing people learning a moderately risky skill in which technical competence is required but no amount of technical competence can avoid occasional unforeseen circumstances.

I am looking at developing a skill through the simultaneous development of three strands: competence (blue) is the technical ability to do the sport. That could be physical fitness, theoretical understanding of the sport, technical mastery of the equipment and dextrous skills, or anything else required. Confidence (orange) is your confidence in your own abilities and, conversely, your understanding and acceptance of the risks involved. Finally, experience (grey) is simply the time you have spent doing the sport and the experience you have of all the kinds of different situations that could arise.

So, in stage one, the new learner has no competence in the sport and no experience. Their confidence is also low; partly they may perceive it as a ‘dangerous’ activity, and partly they don’t feel they have the ability to master it.

In stage two they have started to learn the skills, and to understand the risks and put them in perspective. Their technical competence has improved, as has their confidence, but they still don’t have much experience.

Stage three is, I suggest, in the period after the initial training when they feel they have mastered the skills and are now ready to take on the world. Undoubtedly their technical skills have improved, and they no longer perceive their sport as ‘dangerous’ but as risky and exciting and something they can master and conquer. As a result, their confidence is sky high – the world is their oyster as they smash through more training courses, buy the niche kit that is easily available online these days, and take on more and more exciting and risky activities in their drive to push themselves and prove themselves. Critically, however, their experience is still relatively low. They probably haven’t yet handled emergencies or experienced all the different conditions their sport could throw at them. In good conditions, their technical ability may be such that they are indistinguishable from a master of the sport, but they may not be as capable of responding when things go wrong.

Finally, stage four is a more developed master of the sport, perhaps an instructor in their own right. Their technical competence is high (but, note, not actually all that much higher than in stage three). Their confidence is perhaps not quite as high as it was though; they have seen things go wrong and have experienced near-disaster themselves. Above all, though, they now have a wealth of experience to match their confidence.

The riskiest stage

What I am suggesting, then, is that it is at stage three when people are particularly at risk. Many, of course, pass through stage three perfectly safely as part of their development into a fully-rounded practitioner of their sport. A few, however, will let their confidence and technical ability, along with the ever-increasing accessibility of extreme sports and people to encourage and cheer them on, drive them into situations where their relative lack of experience could lead to tragic consequences.

The danger is that, in many sports, high-end technical kit is now incredibly easy to obtain, online or in high street retailers. Advanced training courses are often a matter of putting down a credit card, and daring deeds and records are just a mountain, cliff face or boat ride away. Perhaps more than ever, a new generation of high-achieving alpha personalities (male and female) are taking up sports, falling in love with them, and throwing money, time and enthusiasm at them in the same way that they do everything else in their lives. For them is not the slow steady grind up through the ranks, learning at the knees of those more experienced. Instead, force of willpower and sheer drive take them to the very top very fast. Some, perhaps most, come out the other side into stage four; a little chastened, greatly more experienced, and with something of huge value to teach those that follow them through. A few, however, do not make it that far.

Is it useful elsewhere?

I suggest that my model applies elsewhere as well. The traditional hierarchy of competencies is all well and good, but it doesn’t necessarily explain why certain types of people are likely to crash cars; going back to my earlier example. I’d argue (and I say this as a relatively new driver myself) that a lot of the people who the insurance industry have always known are high risk are those that fall into my category three. They have passed their test, perhaps got their own car and gone on a few long drives. They’re pretty impressed with their ability to drive and are excited about the new opportunities this provides. Perhaps, let’s face it, they’ve tried pushing the car up to 100mph on an empty motorway late at night, and nothing bad happened. Their instructor isn’t nagging them anymore, so they’ve started driving with one hand on the wheel and maybe they’ve realised that leaves the other hand free to check facebook. They’re not a technically bad driver, in fact they might even be better than older drivers who’ve forgotten some of what they were taught. They are, however, hugely over-confident and they haven’t yet experienced a skid, an aquaplane, a heart-stopping emergency brake for a child, a minor crash because they weren’t paying attention, driving with black ice on the roads, driving in dense fog, driving tired with kids chatting in the back – all the things that make people re-think how they drive and hopefully really improve.


A Fatal Attempt: Guy Garman | Doc Deep World Depth Record Fatality 2015

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