There is a great book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb called Fooled by Randomness, which examines the role of luck in all areas of life, particularly business and investing.

Taleb is a professor of mathematics and a derivatives trader. Not much to do with sport. But his business is complexity. There is something in statistics called “survivorship bias”. There is a danger that what we measure excludes those that have fallen by the wayside, distorting our view of the world.

Sport is a bit like that when it comes to injury and overtraining. The winner is the best on the day, and not necessarily the best over time. What we certainly don’t see at all are the no-shows, the non-runners, the might-have-beens. Imagine England’s rugby performance over the past few years if Jonny Wilkinson had not been injured.

Taleb is a fitness fanatic and keen cyclist. He says he is not interested in competitive sports, so he does not offer much to help an athlete understand success, except to offer the proverbial observation that a baseball hitter is normally cursed when he appears on the front of Sports Illustrated as it is normally followed by a reversal in fortune. (Mathematically, the previous winning streak was in fact an unsustainable run of luck).

In competitive sport, luck is not very likely to take an average athlete to a gold medal. But bad luck will certainly remove good prospects from the population of potential winners. Reducing that component of luck is what athletes strive for. In my own more modest marathon ambitions, I’m trying to do the same. Except there is not any pressure to win, just a pressure to turn up. That is not a small pressure, and if you are raising money for a charity, that pressure builds the nearer you get to the day. I ran my first marathon injured and while still recovering from a virus, dangerously toughing it out so as not to let down those who’d sponsored me.

For potential elite athletes, the first area of luck is to have one’s talent identified early enough. As we have already noted, UK Sport‘s head of high performance Peter Keen has said that even for armchair athletes in their 20s today it is not too late to start training and be ready for an endurance event like cycling or the marathon by the London Olympics in 2012. For many other sports though, it is too late for those of latent talent to get started. They and their parents have already missed the boat.

But for those who do have a prospect of making it to 2012, luck still plays a big role. In competition itself, there is not too much luck in athletics, although it can sometimes make history. Roger Bannister‘s sub-four minute mile was nearly aborted but for a weather window of a few minutes. Bannister’s own record was broken only six weeks later by Australian John Landy. But for the weather, a different name would be etched in the history books. By contrast, soccer fans know luck shows itself more frequently in the beautiful game with sudden reversals of the run of play leading to unexpected victories. Hopes and fears swing wildly on a weekly basis.

In athletics, luck is much more hidden. It would seem to play more of a part on the training ground. As with all sports, enormous skill is required on the part of the coach in setting out appropriate training strategies. The athlete needs the motivation to push themselves to the limit and but also the courage and judgement, with the support of the coach, to resist doing too much to jeopardise recovery. Nevertheless, a chance trip, a fall, a twisted ankle, an unwelcome infection can all disrupt training and progress toward the major competitions. These setbacks can be accidental, but they can also result from overtraining. When we are tired and stressed, our coordination deteriorates.

The sports science lab is not available in real-time. That is what the athlete, amateur or professional needs, whether they are on the beginning of a path to basic fitness, or a path to a gold medal. When something happens with very long term consequences, mathematicians call this, appropriately enough, “path dependence”. This is why Colin Jackson is so concerned now about our own Olympic ambitions. Have we started early enough as a country?

Heart-rate monitors provide a very accurate means to analyse the body’s response to training load and to avoid the imperceptible mistakes that may set up a long-term path to relative failure through even a minor over-use injury. Such an injury might keep an athlete from a qualifying trial. That could cut them out of competition. That could lead to a loss of funding and weakened commitment to training. If Colin Jackson is right about Britain’s medal prospects, most things have to go right for British athletes between now and 2012 and that means taking as much chance out of each athletes training equation as possible.

One heart-rate computer manufacturer, Suunto, acknowledges the role of these technologies in reducing chance outcomes. Their strapline is “Removing Luck.”

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