The Role of Luck

I’ve been writing for a while on the impact of cognitive bias in decision making – looking at the systematically flawed judgements that human beings are hard-wired to make. And working as a commentator and strategic analyst for the Volvo Ocean Race is certainly throwing up plenty of meaty examples as seven boats try to deal with the vicissitudes imposed on their round the world odyssey by oceanic weather and currents.

My most recent Strategic Review explained how – as the fleet exited the Doldrums – the Hong Kong entry, Team Sun Hung Kai / Scallywag went from 80 miles behind to 80 miles in front. They did it by watching the leaders sail into a hole, and then swerving around it.

In contrast the overall race leader MAPFRE – skippered by Xabi Fernandez – came off worst of the lead group. Boats sailed away from them on either side leaving them with a 175 nautical mile deficit to the leader.

The moment when it all went right for Scallywag and wrong for MAPFRE  ©Geovoile

The moment when it all went right for Scallywag and wrong for MAPFRE ©Geovoile

I’m not going to take anything away from the girls and boys on Scallywag: the weather presented them with an opportunity and they grabbed it with both hands. However, the inescapable truth is that they would never have got that opportunity if they hadn’t been so far behind. And they got that far behind by almost hitting a reef that they saw at the last minute, subsequently taking a fifty mile detour to get around it...

Sometimes, luck does play a role in sport (as in life) and the trick is not to get fooled into making some poor decisions because of it. Football is a great example, in their 2013 book, The Numbers Game, Chris Anderson and David Sally established convincingly that luck was at least 50% of the result of any top flight game of football. So everything else, all the sound and fury surrounding players, managers, transfers, tactics, strategy... all taken together, in summation, has barely equivalent impact on the final result of any given game than… chance.

This doesn’t mean that we should stop bothering about all those things; far from it, even if we can only impact 50% of the outcome through our actions, we can still have an impact – but the really important point is that ignoring the role of luck can lead to some serious errors.

This partly relates to our need for narrative. When a sequence of events occurs, our predisposition, or our cognitive bias is to look for a causal reason, a story to tell about them. So when a player or a team put together a string of particularly bad or good performances or results, we tend to look for an explanation, any explanation other than luck.

Any decisions based on this explanation will likely turn out badly, because luck was the source all along. And this is because of a thing called regression to the mean. Any athlete in any sport has a base or mean level of performance. It might be measurable, for instance strikers will score a number of goals each season and this will average out at a particular number per game. Actual performances on any given day will vary around this number; there will be good days and there will be bad days, and a lot of the difference will come down to luck. Whatever else happens, at some point, the performances will regress back to the mean.

So the problem arises when an athlete or team hits a particularly rich — or poor — and extended run of form. We might start to mistake this for a permanent shift in the mean; we might put it down to a change in coaching, technique, diet or attitude. And we might make a decision — like buying a footballer for £50 million — based on this perceived shift in the mean. Only to discover when the player is turning out for our team, that the luck has dried up and the performances have regressed to the mean. And our £50 million player is now only worth £20 million again.

I don’t think anyone has ever done an Anderson and Sally-style analysis on how much luck is involved in ocean racing, but I can tell you from experience that it’s a lot. And the trick is exactly the same: don’t get fooled into wrong decisions because you didn’t account for luck.

MAPFRE and Xabi Fernandez got hit the hardest by the role of the dice that propelled Scallywag into the lead. They ended up back in fifth with that massive deficit after getting trapped in the light winds of the Doldrums for an extra 14 hours. They need to keep this in perspective - it was a crap shoot, they were doing all the right things and got unlucky... so don’t change anything.

I know Fernandez a little from his time with Land Rover BAR, and he’s a remarkable individual with an extraordinary amount of experience at the very top level – and an Olympic gold and silver medal to prove it. If you’re interested, then check out the profile I did when he was with the America’s Cup team.

From what I know of him, I’d say he will keep making level-headed, rational decisions – but history will weigh heavily on his soul. In the 2011-12 Race he was aboard Telefónica when they won the first three legs, before slowly fading from contention in the second half of the race.

It must have been a painful experience, and Fernandez will not want to repeat it. Regret is a powerful motivator that can often drive unnecessary change, as people seek to avoid the mistakes of the past.

It will be interesting to see how Fernandez and the MAPFRE team react once they’re across the finish line in Hong Kong. My money is on Xabi staying cool and carrying on with the strategy that has got them the overall lead, but you can never count out cognitive bias...