Tuesday, September 04, 2012
How large a role does luck play in sailboat racing?
Are some people luckier than others?
What should you do about bad luck?
How do you deal with good luck?
What is "luck" anyway?
A very good sailor once told me many years ago that, "Good sailors make their own luck."
That's a variation on another quote about luck: "The harder I work the luckier I get."
The thought has been credited to everyone from Thomas Jefferson to Gary Player.
What the hell does it mean anyway?
Surely, luck is just a away of talking about unpredictability.
The outcome of most sporting events, especially a sailboat race, is usually unpredictable. If you could always predict the finishing order of every race, the sport would be very boring.
In sailing there are so many factors, wind shifts, lulls, stupidity of other competitors, stupidity of race committee, container ship steaming through the fleet (don't laugh - it really happened in the Olympics a few years ago) that you can never really predict how your race will turn out.
So, if something unpredictable happens that makes someone finish lower than they think they deserve, they call it bad luck.
But surprisingly when someone does better than they usually do, they can almost alway explain what brilliant choices they made to achieve the result and how well deserved it was. They rarely credit good luck.
So does your luck really improve, the harder you practice? Can good sailors make their own luck?
Of course not.
If you work hard and improve your skills and your boat tuning, you are just making it more likely that you will finish nearer the front of the fleet.
But there is still unpredictability. Some idiot may still crash into you on the start line. A rogue wave may push you into hitting a race mark. And where there is unpredictability there is "luck." Bad and good.
So how should you think about luck?
At one extreme, attributing the outcome of every race to bad or good luck is pointless. Much better to think about what you learned from the race and what skills you need to work on in order to improve. If every race is purely a game of chance then you might as well sit on the shore and toss dice to determine who should take the trophies home.
At the other extreme, should you resist blaming the outcome of a race on luck at all? Some athletes cling to the idea that nothing should be left to chance. They want to be in control of everything. But then what do they do when something totally unpredictable does ruin their race? How do they explain it?
So what to do?
Go out, have fun, do your best, see what happens.
It's only a game.
So just play.