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Luck vs. Skill in Pro Sports

Science has demonstrated time and time again that we live in a world of randomness. If you don’t believe me try picking the next hot stock or try your “skills” at the blackjack table and , I assure you, you will be utterly disappointed. In the realm of the sports world, how spot on was your NCAA tournament bracket this past spring? I’m sure Warren Buffett was quick to write you that billion dollar check.

You don’t need me to tell you that the odds of prediction are likely always against you in the above scenarios. The odds are just so vast, it is nearly an impossibility to achieve optimal prediction with activities where randomness or “luck” as we commonly say, is so high.  What about predicting the winner in a professional sporting event, say a basketball game or a soccer match? You either pick a winner or loser, so it can’t be that hard, right?

I am here to say that luck matters more than we have ever thought in the world of professional sports. I specifically pick professional sports here because of greater parity among teams due to salary caps (NFL, NBA, NHL), the worst teams picking the highest college prospects (NFL) or through a lottery (NBA, NHL) – and really, the fact that these are the best of the best at their craft. I don’t focus on college sports here, due to the different division levels and level of talent across universities. Go ahead and insert your Appalachian State jokes here Buckeye fans…

If you take the worst NBA player (insert who you wish) vs. the best, there is of course a difference in skill and overall performance but believe it or not, the difference is not that vast, relatively speaking. If I were playing against the NBA’s best, it wouldn’t matter if I had all of the luck in the world, my skill set is not even close, and therefore, skill would overcome the role of luck. If you think back to your statistics class (thrilling days, I know), performance, including athletic performance, exists on a bell-shape curve. In other words, there are very few really bad athletes (think Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang Theory) and very few really good athletes (pretty much any professional athlete) and most of us are in the middle. Overall, the standard deviation of skill level among professional athletes is extremely small.

Take American football for example. How many tipped passes do you see either turn into an interception or a completion for a touchdown? What about if you happen to slip one step behind and are a millisecond too early or too late, you will likely miss the tackle, over run your route, or be at the wrong place at the wrong time. When you analyze all of this data, it starts to look random. Sure, the more you practice, the better your skill; the better your skill, the likelihood of you committing an error is decreased, but only to an extent. Eventually this levels out and no matter of practice or skill development will add any incremental increase in performance (or decrease in errors).

Author Michael Mauboussin (2012) calls this the “paradox of skill”, in that as skill increases so does luck in a competitive environment. Based on this, the team with slightly more skill may benefit, unless all the nuisances of random processes adds up against that team (a ball is tipped and intercepted, a punt bounces around and lands on the 1 yard-line multiple times, a 3 point shot rolls around on the rim that day, due to the tightness of the rim, that particular ball used, the cleanliness of the court, etc.).

Al Pacino sort of pointed to this idea in the movie Any Given Sunday where he says “the inches we need are everywhere around us. They’re in every break of the game, every minute, every second… Because we know when we add up all of those inches, that’s gonna make the difference between winning and losing” (in a fiery scream sprinkled in with Pacino’esque expletives of course). Imagine if Pacino was like “you guys practiced hard and now it’s time to see if it the summation of random processes fall in our favor or theirs”. I can hear the team’s inspiring chants now…

So, are professional sports really a group of men or women coming together to face off with similar skill levels with slight differences in strategy, waiting to see if luck falls on their side? I would not put it that bluntly, but yes. The players have direct control over what is going to happen or at least it seems that way. Yet there is research out there that shows luck is more prevalent in sports than perhaps we ever thought. Last week, John Tierney of the New York Times touched in this notion when he referenced The Numbers Game, by economists Chris Anderson and David Sally (2013). In their book, the authors claim that performance in soccer is about 50% skill and 50% luck. Yes , HALF! This notion is corroborated in other sports as well such as basketball (Moorhead, 2014) and baseball (Adams, 2006) although luck is less prevalent in basketball and even more prevalent in baseball.

So, is this such a bad thing? Luck always favors the underdog. Why do we tune in even when our team is having a bad season? We are in love with the one small chance of success or continued success. It is practically the American Dream we are tuning in to see. I don’t know about you, but it seems the more luck is involved, the more exciting the game. I know I wasn’t going to touch on college sports but the NCAA tournaments really are the perfect examples. The NFL Playoffs, the NBA Finals, the World Series, the World Cup – the list goes on and as long as there is some element of chance, we will be watching and loving every minute of it.

You know the old adage of luck is where success meets preparation, right? Maybe this should read luck is when performance among competing bodies levels out and becomes a fluctuating mess of unpredictable chaos. I guess it doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it? Desiring to understand a rational world as you do, I also want to refuse to believe it as well.

 

Photo: Adapted from “skill vs. luck continuum”, courtesy of Michael Mauboussin

References

Adams R. (2006 June 24). Baseball confront the luck factor: Is that team good – or just lucky? Using
research randomness that’s shaking up other fields, number-crunchers say they can answer the
question. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved
http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB115109391791589205

Mauboussin, M.J. (2012). The success equation: Untangling skill and luck in business, sports, and investing. Harvard Business Review, Press.

Moorhead, C. (2014). On luck and basketball. NBA.com Heat News. Retrieved http://www.nba.com/heat/news_recap/luck-and-basketball

Tierney, J. (2014 July 7). Soccer, a beautiful game of chance. The New York Times. Retrieved from
http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/08/science/soccer-a-beautiful-game-of-chance.html?_r=0

 

Justin Gregg

Justin Gregg

As a Senior Research Scientist and professor of statistics, I simply love numbers and get to apply this passion to my other love: sports. If you liked the book or movie "Moneyball" then you should love my work!
Justin Gregg

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