Luck plays a big part in creating a winning athlete

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Bruce Dowbiggin

Now is the winter of sports discontent.

National Football League coaches are being primed for the chop. National Hockey League and National Basketball Association coaches, too, are trying to stay one step ahead of the grim reaper as their teams’ rosy prospects dim.

In the NFL, we hear that longtime Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis won’t be back next year. John Fox in Chicago, Bill O’Brien in Houston and Chuck Pagano in Indianapolis are all being primed for the pink slip.

In the NHL, coaches are vulnerable in a half dozen hot spots. Ditto the NBA.

Fans of these teams say we need a coach who can light a fire under these laggards. Unless they’re saying that we need a calm, considered guy to sooth the raging temper of our hot-headed coach.

As for the coaches, they’re as confused as anyone. They’re told they need to be touchy-feely with the modern athlete to get the best performance from him or her. But most will tell you that they get better results when they rip into a high-priced jock after he’s made a costly mistake. Conflicted themselves, how can they convince players to buy into the coaches’ mantra?

Maybe someone should tell them that most of their stem-winders or cozy chats are of limited use in improving the performance of their players. As Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman points out in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, improvement or regression in performance after a motivational talk is rarely a result of the coach’s words to talented people.

It’s most often a matter of luck and statistical probability. Kahneman discovered this disconnect when training Israeli Air Force pilots whose commanders insisted that they got better performance from their young fliers after a tongue lashing rather than after a pat on the back. But they were getting the wrong feedback.

Most often, writes Kahneman, the next performance was likely a product of a concept known as regression to the mean – something first recognized in the 19th century by Francis Galton (a cousin of Charles Darwin). Put simply, in something like sport or flying jets, there’s a tendency for great performances to be followed by a drop in production. Likewise, a sub-par effort by a talented athlete is highly likely to produce a bounce-back effort.

These random fluctuations in performance are simply a statistical reality when dealing with performance. As Kahneman writes, his favourite equation for judging performance is:

  • success=talent+luck
  • great success=a little more talent+a lot of luck

Yes, luck plays a major part in achieving results. Coaches and GMs would like you to think their game planning and motivation are the keys to winning. But as anyone who watches enough sport knows, the soft roll on the hoop or the goal off the foot is a part of winning and losing. Some days, it all works. Other days, the ball falls off the hoop or the puck hits the post and skitters away.

So next time you hear players talk in the post-game scrums about the luck of the bounce or the rub of the green, they’re talking about something real – not making unfounded excuses.

Not convinced? Kahneman urges you to follow the PGA Tour for a couple of weeks. The media tend to overrate the player who puts up a 66 in day one of a tournament, lauding his skill, his judgment and his putting as being the margin between him and the players who shot par 72. They’ll also rip a player who posts a 77, criticizing his shot selection, his distance control and his clubs.

But over the course of the four days of the tournament, the player who shot 66 and the one who put up the 77 on the same course and in similar weather are likely to see their results return to the norm of even-par 72 at some point. The player who shoots 66 isn’t going to torch the course every day, even if he wins. The unlucky 77 shooter makes a great bet to improve the next day – even if he still misses the cut.

The difference?


So if you’re a bettor or a fan, ignore the Golf Channel banter and keep the concept of regression to the mean in your thoughts when you consider whether Jason Day or Dustin Johnson is going to follow his 66 with a 63. (Okay, in their defence, Golf Channel has acres of time to fill so they can’t just shrug and say wait until tomorrow.)

And when you hear the coach of a team talk knowingly of sticking to the process, remember that buckets of luck and regression to the mean play an equal – if not greater – part in deciding winners.

Troy Media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.

© Troy Media

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The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

By Bruce Dowbiggin

Bruce Dowbiggin's career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. He is a two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster

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