Will’s World: The Fine Print

By Will Carlin

There is a trope that medical researchers use to explain why it is sometimes impractical or unnecessary to perform a full randomized controlled trial: there’s never been one for parachutes.

Such a trial would be silly and unethical because it would involve randomly assigning test subjects either a parachute or a non-working substitute and then – to prove parachutes work – having all those volunteers jump out of a plane.

In fact, when researchers argue that a randomized trial is not necessary for a practice of clear benefit, they frequently refer to the practice as a “parachute.”

Perhaps this helps understand the stunned surprise that researchers worldwide felt when The BMJ – one of the most respected medical journals in the world – published a study this past December on the efficacy of parachute use in a randomized controlled trial.

It turns out it was for real. Sort of.

In 2017, cardiologist Robert Yeh, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and attending physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, had an outrageous idea: what if someone actually attempted the parachute study?

Through personal connections, he was able to convince researchers from Harvard, UCLA (where Yeh’s brother is a surgery professor), and the University of Michigan (where a buddy works) to help him.

Despite giving participants a 50/50 chance of wearing an empty backpack instead of a parachute before jumping from an airplane, they convinced twenty-three people to participate in the study whose stated objective was “to determine if using a parachute prevents death or major traumatic injury when jumping from an aircraft.”

Not only were people flabbergasted that the study was actually conducted, but they were even more shocked by the outcome which was publicized throughout the world with headlines like “Researchers show parachutes don’t work.”

The study determined that there was no difference in outcome between those who jumped with a parachute and those who jumped with only a backpack; every single participant survived with absolutely no injuries whatsoever.

Eventually, people did what the researchers who conducted the study hoped they would do; they read the fine print. This is the critical paragraph:

“… participants were … on a biplane or helicopter (0% v 100%; P<0.001), were at a lower mean altitude (0.6 m, SD 0.1 v 9146 m, SD 2164; P<0.001), and were traveling at a slower velocity (0 km/h, SD 0 v 800 km/h, SD 124; P<0.001).”

In case all those parenthetical details, mathematical expressions and use of the metric system made your eyes glaze over, here’s the translation in plain English: the participants jumped from aircraft (a biplane and a helicopter) that were parked on the ground. The jumps were less than two feet in height.

While some thought that this was all a prank conducted by silly scientists, the researchers actually did the whole experiment (which perfectly followed rigorous standard protocols) to prove a few points, one of which is that all of us are guilty sometimes of reading a headline, drawing conclusions, and not reading further.

Which brings us to this provocation from Richard Millman: “‘Get to the T’ is one of the worst pieces of advice in squash.”

That’s the headline. It’s easy to stop listening because you know getting to the T is one of the core principles of the game, it’s the best position on court, and pros work hard to be there as much as possible. Getting to the T is a parachute.

In order to understand Millman’s point, it helps to know all of his teachings are built on one core principle: the single most important thing in squash is the same as it is in life: you must survive. In life, if you aren’t alive, things that seem important (eating, drinking, and getting good shelter) are all a moot point; in squash, if the ball isn’t still in play, your ability to hit a straight drive, move quickly, or hit the nick are irrelevant. You must survive.

Once you truly internalize this, it starts to affect everything. If your top priority is to survive, then your shot selection should keep in mind your ability to defend your opponent’s response and allow you, from where you are now, the time to get into the best position to defend that response.

The question is: where is that spot?

Imagine, for example, that you have just retrieved a boast, and you have hit, in response, a beautifully delicate drop shot that’s short and tight to the sidewall. Now, imagine that time stops for a moment, and you can position yourself anywhere on the court before your opponent strikes the ball.

It should be clear that you want to choose a spot that considers your opponent’s tendencies, the angles of possible shots, the distances those shots would force you to cover, and the time it would take the ball to bounce twice (a drop shot is going bounce twice more quickly from the moment it leaves your opponent’s strings than a drive and far faster than a lob).

So, where are you putting yourself?

Answers might vary slightly, but one thing is clear: it’s not back there at the T. In fact, if you are trying desperately to “get back to the T” after your drop shot, you are going to be in big trouble when your opponent hits another short ball.

Millman’s phrase is to “get into a good position (to defend the next shot).” Sure, that position is sometimes around the T, but it’s about a lot more than the red paint on the floor.

After all that, it’s likely that you now might think Millman’s headline isn’t entirely unreasonable. You might even think it makes sense.

You just read the fine print.