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Are You a Skilled or Lucky Athlete?

Michael Phelps and Killian Journet are both amazing athletes, but they occupy opposite ends of the spectrum. Where do you fall?

Are You a Skilled or Lucky Athlete?

Does your sport allow you complete control or are "acts of God" part of the norm? Photo: JBPhotography/iStock

Skill and luck are intertwined in nearly everything we do. But the degree to which they influence the outcomes of our actions varies.  

In some activities, skill is clearly the overwhelming arbiter of success. In others, luck sways results, sometimes in a big way. Just look at Michael Phelps and his string of gold medals in the pool—a skill-dominant arena—versus the few climbers that summit a mountain like K2, an endeavor involving a lot more luck. Understanding the extent to which luck impacts your pursuits can help you set better set goals, train smarter, and more objectively evaluate your performance.  

You’re Skill Dominant

In skill-dominant activities, an athlete has a high degree of control and few, if any, outside variables impact success. Past results are highly indicative of future ones, and performances tend to be fairly consistent over short periods of time. (Like if you ran an all-out mile in six minutes this week, you won’t run much faster or slower the next). If you participate in sports like pool swimming, track and field, or track cycling—each a skill dominant activity—set concrete goals, focus on deliberate practice (highly structured training that mimics your event), and evaluate your performance based on end-results.

Skill-dominant sports “are perfect for people who crave tangible results and are willing to put in the time and effort, and tough out the pain,” says Michael Mauboussin, author of The Success Equation: Untangling Skill and Luck in Business, Sports, and Investing.  “It’s all about cause and effect, input and output.” Given external factors are minimal, “if your results are not improving over time, outside of genetics, you should really reconsider how you are training.”

Luck Is Creeping In

In events where luck creeps in, it's more likely that a handful of variables outside of an athlete’s control will affect end-results. Even if you execute perfectly, a flat tire, choppy water, or dropped nutrition can all derail a performance. Athletes who compete in sports with an element of luck—such as triathlon, open-water swimming, and long-distance running—benefit from focusing on the things they can control, and not wasting energy agonizing over those they cannot.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be prepared for bad-luck events. There is a difference in not stressing about a flat tire, and not knowing how to quickly change one. Having a checklist-like plan for unfortunate circumstances—and practicing its execution—can minimize stress levels before an event, as well as the damage if shiz actually hits the fan. “Bad-luck is naturally accompanied by negative emotions that run counter to the kind of rational thinking needed in times of duress,” says Mauboussin. “Having a plan allows you to keep your balance and focus, helping you to get out of a problem effectively and in a hurry.”

Athletes that thrive in sports where luck plays a modest role are excellent problem solvers, able to separate effort from result, and bounce back fast when the cards don’t fall in their favor. With a steady dose of gumption, the best eventually rise to the top.

You’re Lucky

In luck-heavy pursuits, an athlete can do everything right and still come up short, over-and-over again. This is the realm where “acts of God” are not infrequent, and success is contingent on countless things converging at a single moment in time. Even the most skilled climbers and adventure racers often fail repeatedly due to a myriad of factors outside of their control. “I will try again,” as mountain-running superstar Kilian Jornet recently said after a failed attempt on Mount Aconcagua, maybe the most important words for athletes who play in this space.

Given the unpredictability of sports in this domain, Mauboussin says it is critical to “singularly focus on developing a process you can trust, stick to that process, and release from worrying about outcomes…with a recognition that luck can play a big role.”

It’s no surprise that athletes who excel in luck-heavy pursuits often nurture mystic-like qualities, show unwavering resilience, and are absorbed in their act, not their results. As the late John Bachar first told Climbing Magazine many years ago, “Every day I go out and climb, like a dancer works on his dance. He probably has some goals, some pieces he would like to perform, but his main goal is to work on his dance. This is how he expresses himself. Both he and I are interested in the same thing. It’s the dance that counts.”

So are you a skilled or a lucky athlete? Bust out a pencil, take the following quiz, and tally up your points to get your result.

1. In my sport, the weather is…

a. A non-factor (1)
b. Something I’m a little concerned about (2)
c. One of the only things on my mind (3)

2. When things go wrong…

a. I can generally get myself out of trouble (2)
b. I’m totally screwed (3)
c. Things rarely go ‘wrong’ (1)

3. I…

a. Rely on my teammates, partners, etc. a fair amount (2)
b. Compete on my own and am mainly focused on beating myself (1)
c. Generally have an entire crew working with me (3)

4. At the start of my event…

a. I can tell you exactly how I’ll finish, basically down to the second (1)
b. Your guess (as to how I’ll finish) is as good as mine! (3)
c. I’ve got a pretty good hunch about how things will play out (2)

5. From week to week my results…

a. Fluctuate a bit, but trend in a similar direction (2)
b. Are pretty stable (1)
c. Are like a Miley Cyrus song—all over the place (3)

6. Heading into my event…

a. I know what to expect and am completely focused on the task at hand (1)
b. I’m praying, even if I’m not religious (3)
c. I’m going through mental check-lists (2)

7. When I’m unhappy with my results...

a. At least it was completely out of my control (3)
b. I’ve got nobody to blame but myself (1)
c. I should have prepared better for the ‘what-if’ scenarios (2)

8. And when the dust has finally settled...

a. I grab a beer with fellow competitors (2)
b. I’m thankful just to be alive! (3)
c. I analyze my results and adjust my training accordingly (1)

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