by Keith Aksel
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.
by Chris Foss
Most successful athletes have a pretty similar career trajectory. They find a game that they love, they work hard at it, and along the way, they discover that they have some sort of talent that distances themselves from their peers. They go on to a big-league career, and then eventually the gift disappears, and they fade away. All of this happens in a single summer to precocious 12-year old Henry Rowengartner (played by a pre-American Pie Thomas Ian Nicholas) in the 1993 comedy Rookie of the Year, one of my favorite childhood films.
by Chris Foss
The New York Knicks are the NBA’s holiday darlings, having played in more Christmas Day games than any team in league history since the NBA started its annual tradition of playing on Christmas back in 1947. Today the Knicks are such shorthand for ineptitude that they aren’t even on this year’s Christmas schedule. In the mid-1980s, however, they were involved in a string of memorable contests. In 1984, Bernard King poured in a Christmas Day-record 60 points, a mark which still stands. A year later, rookie Patrick Ewing led the Knicks to a 25-point comeback win over the eventual champion Boston Celtics. In 1986, Ewing’s buzzer-beater knocked off Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
by Keith Aksel
The scene is the 1998 World Cup Final between host nation France and defending world champions Brazil. The French hold a 2-0 advantage in second-half stoppage time, and are just seconds away from hoisting the World Cup Trophy for the first time ever. The Stade de France, engulfed in a sustained, deafening roar, seems like it is on the verge of spontaneous combustion.
While fans sang and counted down each moment, the French mounted a three-on-two counterattack against a lagging Brazilian back line. From the left wing French great Patrick Viera sent in a finesse through-ball to Emmanuel Petit in stride, who hit the ball home past Brazilian goalkeeper Claudio Taffarel. With that, French spirits hit a new high. Euphoria in the Stade de France reached its zenith, Petit’s goal a perfect cap to an already dominating performance.
Move to 7:30 to see the third goal.