What determines an outcome of an athletic contest? Is it a team’s level of talent, chemistry, or preparation? Could home field advantage or perhaps a team’s health on a given night play a determining role? The reasons for one team or athlete coming out on top in a contest are myriad. And yet, one explanation receives significantly less attention by sports observers: luck.
What I am suggesting is that various types of luck determine sports outcomes more often than acknowledged. This sort of explanation runs counter to what we are taught about sports. From participating in sports at a young age, we are told that “practice makes perfect” and that “you get out what you put in”. Applying in “110%” is the key to sports success, and we respond strongly to stories of athletes who will themselves to overcome “the odds” to become a success in a given sport.
Books about sports motivation are especially prone to framing sports as an activity that depends on willpower and effort over all else. In one such recent book, the author argues that sports is “not about luck or superstition,” and that “it is important to understand that luck does not exist.” From the author’s perspective, one’s mindset and effort determine outcomes, not luck. In the media, there is a tendency to marginalize luck’s role in sports outcomes in favor of playing up a certain characteristic of the winning party (we’ll get into this more later in the series). Overall, sports observers seem convinced that luck is only a small part of the winning equation.
If elite athletes are all (relatively) equally talented, put in 110%, dedicate all their time to improving, and prepare effectively, what explains the outcomes of contests between athletes at the highest levels? That determining factor is luck, and it comes in a number of forms. Over the next weeks we will propose some arguments for how luck emerges in the sports world, all in an effort to show that luck matters perhaps as much, if not more, than controllable factors in determining sports outcomes.
Tune into The Tattered Pennant beginning in the new year to see how this argument pans out. We may be right or wrong in suggesting that luck matters to such a degree, but we look forward to seeing your thoughts on this important topic. Have a happy New Year!
 Lee Ness, The Sports Motivation Master Plan, 2015.