by Keith Aksel
In this series’ previous article, I argued that luck is a more influential factor in determining sports outcomes than most are willing to admit. Luck comes in forms familiar to fans, like injuries and officiating moves that arise totally out of the control of the teams or athletes involved. But, luck also comes in forms not usually seen as uncontrollable by observers. One of those forms is athletic skill.
One of the most commonly-mistaken perspectives in sports is that skill is somehow unrelated to luck. In the world of sports and motivational writing, we see the “luck vs. skill” dualism discussed as if they were somehow opposites on a spectrum. I argue that skills in sports are traits due in equal parts to luck and controllable factors. The point to this article is that tougher training regimens, more effort, and dedication are not the most important keys to building an athlete’s skill. Rather, one’s skill is firstly predicated on some level of genetic luck that an athlete then builds on with their own effort. Certainly, years of training can refine one’s abilities, but one does not simply work their way into superstardom. Otherwise, we would have seen Rudy Ruettiger as an All-American. God-given ability matters.
Basketball is perhaps the best sport to identify how God-given talent can dictate sports outcomes. The small number of players on the court at the same time magnifies the importance of the God-gifted individual when they enter the game. Before drafting LeBron James, fans of the Cleveland Cavaliers had little to celebrate in their entire franchise’s history. Drafting James in 2003 immediately turned Cleveland into a contender in the Eastern Conference. Game after game, James asserted his dominance with his physical gifts. With a supporting cast of lesser-gifted players, James willed the Cavs to the NBA Finals in 2007. The path to the Finals that year was marked by his Game 5 performance in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Detroit Pistons in which his physical gifts were clearly the deciding factor in the contest.
With a 6’ 8” frame, shelves of muscle, and point guard-like agility, James was the reason the Cavs won Game 5. With his devastating dribble-drive, James consistently scored or drew vital fouls that kept Cleveland in step with Detroit. His vision and body control contributed to his deft shooting touch, which delivered clutch jumpers in both the fourth quarter and in overtime. With these God-given gifts, James delivered the final 25 points for Cleveland in a double overtime victory that still stands as one of the finest postseason performances in league history.
How are we to deal with how that game’s outcome was determined? Certainly both teams were hard-working and dedicated, but it was very obviously the skill of a God-gifted individual that determined the outcome. The greatest athletes on the planet are typically figures that were born to play a certain sport. LeBron James and his ideal body type for playing basketball as a forward is not something he could control. He was born with a genetic predisposition to be good at sports, and his play in the NBA has proven that few can match that level of physicality even at the highest levels of the sport. In short, LeBron’s physical gifts are at least partially a lucky break.
LeBron had undoubtedly worked very hard his whole life to hone his skills on the court. His effort and preparation were keys to his ascendance since they allowed him to make good on his God-given gifts. But, if such efforts were the key to greatness, we would have more examples of simply dominant figures like James coming out of every corner of the sports world.. The determining factor in LeBron’s greatness is his God-given gifts, not hard work or belief in oneself.
Another less-noticed lucky break in sports is what is often termed as “chemistry”, or the working relationship among groups of athletes and coaches. Typically, championship-winning coaches point to how athletes play hard for each other instead of themselves, resulting in performances that may not have been as good without that bond. In his book Above the Line, Urban Meyer discusses the importance of a squad that plays for one another above all else. Despite coaching successful teams throughout his career, Meyer states that he only has experienced a full team-first atmosphere (what he calls “nine units strong”) a handful of times. He recounts stories of pushing certain players into a next-level leadership role in order to make his team chemistry more dynamic, but it is ultimately up to the player to buy in. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t, but Meyer has luck to thank either way.
Great team chemistry comes about organically, and cannot be imposed, which is why so few teams are able to build and harness that sort of characteristic all the way to a championship. Coaches can attempt to create chemistry on their teams by imposing the usual team-building exercises in camp, or foster a team-first environment with statements of purpose and team mottos. But, chemistry building does not always work when coaches want it to. For those teams that can create and harness great chemistry, luck is always a part of the equation. The ability for a bunch of athletes to get along, especially with the outsize egos that exist in the sports world, takes more than just great coaching leadership. It takes a certain level of selflessness and faith from the athlete, traits that can only be hoped for by coaches, not created. This is a process ultimately out of the control of coaches, even for those who are noted as great leaders and motivators. Chemistry is thus a lucky break.
These are just two examples of how luck seeps into the sporting world in sometimes unnoticed ways. In the next and final installment of this series, we will discuss the implications of how luck affects the sports world, and the importance of big-picture thinking for fans and observers. Meet back here next week.
 Urban Meyer, Above the Line: lessons in leadership and life from a championship season (New York: Penguin Press, 2015).