Psychology of Luck In Sport

How much does luck play a role in sport? Mentally, how do you deal with good and bad luck? Gareth looks at the psychology of luck in sport.

“The Harder I Work, The Luckier I Get”

Samuel Goldwyn
Which way will the ball go?

Luck in sport! I recently rewatched the 2006 Woody Allen movie ‘Match Point’. The film starts with slow motion footage of a tennis ball hitting the net and then going straight up. The voice over says ‘there are moments in a match when the ball hits the top of the net, and for a split second, it can either go forward or fall back. With a little luck, it goes forward, and you win.’

During the days after I watched the film two of my sporting clients mentioned luck during the our Zoom sessions. One spoke about ‘good luck’ and the other about ‘rotten, filthy luck’. One even asked me ‘mentally, how should I deal with luck?’ The question came at the end of the session which luckily allowed me to do a little reading up before replying via email the following day.

First of all I wanted to consider the question of what exactly is luck. More specifically what is it in the context of competitive sport. And is there a healthy way to interpret what luck really is from a mental toughness point of view?

Before we go through some common examples let’s try to define luck in sports as a generic concept. Luck would appear to be the word most commonly used to describe the variances in outcomes most impacted by chance. Lexico define luck (the noun) as ‘success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one’s own actions’. For sport I would adapt this to something like the following. Luck (the noun) is ‘success or failure apparently brought more by chance than than through one’s own actions’.

So some sports have a greater luck component than others then? And indeed this is the case. The below video shows the results from Michael Mauboussin’s research on this very question.

Examples of Luck In Sport

There are too many sports and too many examples to choose from to do any justice to the section. So I will simply go through three scenarios that I have found quite common in my work as a sport psychologist.

Example One

Let’s go back to the footage that was used at the beginning of the movie Match Point. But let’s make it more specific. You are a tennis player who is serving to stay in match that is of great importance to you. Having lost the first point of the game the second point turns into a slugfest from the baseline. An attempted cross court winner from you results in the ball smashing into the top of the net where it bounces right up. It then drops down millimetres onto your opponents side of the net. You win this point and the game. You then go on to win the set as well as the match. 

Example Two

You are a young baseballer who decided to specialise as a pitcher early on. You live for your fastballs and your curveballs. When you finally make it onto your Division One college squad you realise that this particular team has a much better pool of pitchers than batters and fielders. It feels like rotten luck that your place in the team will probably depend on others either getting injured or under performing in the upcoming season. Dirty, rotten luck.

Example Three

You are a cricketer who picked up a significant ankle injury just before the coronavirus turned into an official pandemic. In normal years this injury would have resulted in you missing the first ten games of the season. However due to measures introduced to contain the virus you were able to complete a full rehabilitation program during lockdown. This resulted in you missing no games at all. The coronavirus turned out to be a very lucky break for you.

Spectrum of Influence

There are many ways that we can try and see the role that luck plays, not just in sport but in everyday life. But I have a favourite, a preferred way. For those of you who have seen the thought shaping module from any of the recent Metuf programs you will be aware that one of the “mentools” we use is all about influence. Basically, how much influence do you have on various different aspects of your sport? This involves two tricky considerations. First you have to be able to mentally separate things that don’t normally get separated. For example, the rain and putting up an umbrella or someone shouting at you and you walking the other way.

The art of mental separation is a vital pre-requisite in being able to manage Lady Luck in the most effective way. The second skill is knowing what aspects of training and competing you have lots of influence on and which you have little or no influence on.

Try It Now …

Go back and read through the three examples above once again. This time pick out which aspects are contributing to the good and bad luck scenarios. Now try and mentally seperate these from one another. And finally, put them into order from most influenceable to least. In doing this does it change the way you look at the situation in you mind’s eye? Let’s go through them together.

Example 1: The tennis ball hitting the top of the net.

So the main elements involved in this are:

  • the player (me)
  • the ball
  • my racket
  • the net
  • the winner of the point (also me)

For the sake of simplicity let’s assume weather played no part at all. No breeze helped push the ball the right side of the net. In order of most influence to least I would suggest the following:

  • me ~ most influence
  • my racket
  • the ball
  • the result of the point
  • the net ~ least influence

So you could say I have a lot of influence over my shot (intended shot) and none over the net (the height, what it’s made of etc). With this in mind there is a strong argument that your mindset wants to be more orientated towards the yourself. In other words instead of thinking you won that point because of luck of a net consider the amount of power you managed to get on the ball that still allowed it to make it over – albeit by the smallest of margins. Maybe a better mental response in the moment is a change of game plan that would allow you to hit less shots so close to the top of the net.

Example 2: The baseball pitcher who is completing against other excellent pitchers for the first time.

In this vignette, the issue is mentally joining (fusing) the desired outcome (to be one of the starting pitchers) with the abilities of others and the decisions of the coach. Teammates, other baseballers and coaches are just other people. How much influence do you have on them? None, a little, some or lots? I would lean towards some for those you are close to and only a little for the rest. Although I can totally understand why the abilities of teammates can be perceived as a threat (bad luck) the data actually suggests it will have the opposite effect.

In others words, as you will have to work harder (lots of influence) due to the healthy competition it will likely make you even better. So it might easily be said that the above example (#2) is actually a good luck scenario rather than a bad luck one. Regardless, the best mental responses will always be similar. Direct your limited mental energy towards the “stuff” you have a lot of influence on. Elements such as your own effort, your own plans and your own actions. Don’t get too caught up in the abilities of others.

Example 3: The cricketers who got lucky due to Corona Virus.

This is the trickiest vignette as it seems the most innocent. But there is a mental gremlin hiding. Can you find it? Go back and read it and ask yourself what it the danger of this situation?

As a practising sport psychologist I can see the issue from a mile away. The player in the example is potentially giving too much credit to this once in a lifetime (we hope) pandemic. In fact the majority of the credit wants to go to how the player responded to the setback. This is different (mentally seperate) from the setback itself of course.

You can imagine, depending how how luck or chance is perceived two very different statements from this cricketer at the end of the season.

“I got really lucky you know. The virus gave me an extra ten weeks of rehab. In fact, due mainly to the pandemic I didn’t miss a match in the 2020 season.”

Verus …

“At the start of 2020 I picked up ankle injury. As soon as I had my rehab program I was determined to stick to it no matter what. In the end I managed to actually regain full fitness by the start of the season. Oh, and the season started late that year from what I remember.”

Luck in sport and/or life is probably best thought of like the weather. Yes, it varies. Sometimes it will help and sometimes it will make things harder. Just get on with it.

Want Some Help With That?

If you’d like to receive details about our sport psychology services then you can get in touch a number of ways.

Author: Condor Performance

Condor Performance is a team of Sports Psychologists who have been providing Sports Psychology Services and tailored Mental Toughness Training since 2005.