I remember growing up that one of the worst things someone could say to me after a stellar performance was, “You got lucky!?” I would always think, “Lucky? That performance had nothing to do with luck, I trained hard to play like that.” As I grew up I began to run into quotes like, “Luck happens when preparation meets opportunity”, and “The harder I work the luckier I get”. I started to look at luck with a different set of eyes—maybe it’s not such a bad thing. Additionally, as an expert in human performance, I have seen numerous studies done on the benefits of having a lucky charm, meal, routine, or even underwear.
So what can be so dangerous about luck? The fact is that this illusion of luck can also undermine your confidence, decrease your motivation to train, and even hurt your performance!
Luck becomes dangerous when an athlete sabotages her performance before the race begins because she forgot a certain water bottle; or when a swimmer believes that the only reason he was successful was because the other swimmers had a bad day. Luck becomes dangerous when we attribute a great proportion of our success to it. You undermine your confidence when luck becomes your reason for success because you take away the most important thing you can have as an athlete: control.
I’ve worked with athletes and non-athletes a like who fell prey to this illusion of luck. Here’s are two things we did to shift their mindset:
Purposeful Practice. We put a tremendous emphasis on training. When the pressure to perform increases you will revert to your dominant thinking and behavioral habits, and those habits are forged during training. Dedicate tremendous effort to training on purpose, with purpose so that you don’t rely on luck but high-level training.
Autonomy. You want to have control. Before any competition you should already decide what you are going to think, how you are going to feel, and what you are going to do. To take that one step further, you should decide how you are going to respond to adversity rather than wait until the moment of frustration to decide. You are in control; refuse to allow your thoughts, emotions, and actions to rely solely on whether or not you are feeling lucky that day.
Don’t get me wrong routines are necessary, that special charm can be helpful, and sometimes a lucky bounce is the difference between victory and defeat; however, remember that attributing a great proportion of your success to things outside of your control doesn’t strengthen your confidence.
Justin Su’a, M.S., is an expert in Performance Psychology and works with athletes from the NFL, Dancing With the Stars, and Soldiers in the U.S. Army. He travels the world speaking to audiences in the field of sports, academics, and business about peak performance; teaching them how to enhance their performance through mental skills training.