Strive To Be Lucky
Strive To Be Lucky
Luck, says Dr. Stuart Walker, is a fundamental, but manageable element of every race. "Strategy" from our October 2009 issue.
Consider the start of a race in the U.S. Soling Championships on Biscayne Bay, Fla., in the 1970s. I approached the line on port intending to tack ahead of Buddy Melges, to start on starboard tack at the pin and to go left. But Melges bore away, forced me to go astern of him and to start on port. I found a hole in the fleet of starboard tackers and, all alone, headed right. I was the first to reach a progressive velocity veer in the strengthening sea breeze, rounded the weather mark with a big lead, won the race easily, and beat Buddy, who had sailed as I had intended to do, to the left and away from the shift.
Consider that Stig Winnerstrom won the Soling European Championship at Alassio in 1975 by winning or finishing in the top 10 of the 80-boat fleet in five races, the only five, of the 20 races that were started, that finished. In the other 15—those that in the prevailing light air were cancelled before the first boat reached the first mark or that ran through their time limits— Winnerstrom had been far astern.
Sailboat racing, because of its marked complexity, is more subject to unpredictability, surprises, and fun, the variations that are often termed luck, than almost any other sport. The factors that vary the length of the course sailed, the speed of the boats, and their relationships when they meet are not predictable by the participants more than 60 percent of the time. The losers of sailboat races, not wanting to admit that they were controlled by the winners, will tell you that racing is all a matter of luck. The winners will tell you that sailboat races are won by strategy, speed and skill—by control—and that luck has nothing to do with it.
Luck, or destiny, or fate can also be used as a scapegoat. When a straight denial seems insufficient, luck can be used on either side of our ambivalent approach to competition. This device is called rationalization, or better, irrationalization, as it is irrational to believe, as many do, that luck explains the outcome of human interactions.
If we are fearful that someone will notice our excessive interest in control, we point to luck. “I wouldn’t have won, if not for - - - . We were just lucky.” Or if we are fearful that someone will notice our inability to attain the control we seek, we also point to luck: “It wasn’t our fault; we were just unlucky.” The concept of luck is so deeply ingrained and so widely accepted that its attribution, no matter how irrational, is typically considered rational and is accepted. And because we all have the same need to excuse our drive to control and to attribute our success or failure to something other than our efforts to attain control, we have a mutual interest in accepting the concept.
At Merion, at the age of fourteen in his First U.S. Amateur Championship, Bobby Jones played so impressively that Grantland Rice said, “He is the most remarkable kid prodigy we have ever seen.” But a few years later Bobby remembered his quarter final defeat: “I felt I had been badly treated by luck. I had been denied something that was rightfully mine.” Control was what he had demonstrated, what he had sought, and what he was unwilling to admit he had lost. Rice aided and abetted the irresponsibility by writing that Bobby’s missing a third birdie putt in a row “would have broken the heart of any golfer alive.”
Our inability to control every aspect of our games does not justify the presumption that the outcome was preordained by luck or some higher power. Achilles’ belief that the gods had determined his fate was not a rational excuse for sulking in his tent. There are enough variables in any sport to ensure that, no matter how skilled and competent the attempt, no one will ever be able to predict or predetermine its course and outcome completely. That, of course, means every sporting event contains surprise and unpredictability, and surprise is what makes sport fun and some sports more fun than others.