Luck and Flow

Legendary Hall of Fame pitcher Lefty Gomez once joked, “I’d rather be lucky than good.”* Though Gomez’s tongue was comfortably situated snugly in his cheek, there are many athletes who compete as though they are waiting for luck to hand them a victory.

In fencing, there is an obvious difference between those athletes who are waiting to be lucky and those who are actuallyfencing. Many fencers–maybe even most fencers–fence the same way from one bout to the next. They use the same actions, executed in the same way and with the same timing, irrespective of the opponent. These fencers are hoping that their usual routine will happen to succeed against the next competitor. Though they may not realize it, they’re hoping to get lucky.

Higher level fencers, on the other hand, adapt to and interact with the opponent. They fence the current bout as it is happening, instead of reliving previous bouts they’ve fenced hundreds of times. The difference between the fencers who are relying on luck and those who are good, is that the good fencers fence in the moment.

Fencing in the moment means, at its best, experiencing a state of flowFlow, identified by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi**, is the mental state that is often referred to as “being in the zone”. It is when you are entirely absorbed in an activity, so much so that you lose sense of anything else, even the passage of time. Accomplishing that requires tremendous concentration. It also results in much greater potential for top performance. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the conditions that must be present for one to experience a flow state are also those that are necessary to optimize training and help a fencer develop the skills they need in order to move beyond relying on luck. They are:

– a clear set of goals,
– a balance between how difficult the athlete believes the challenge to be and how developed they believe their skills to be,
– immediate feedback.

When these conditions are combined with a high level of concentration and motivation, one may achieve flow and attain all the benefits that come with it (including great joy, increased potential for top performance, and improved learning). Perhaps more importantly, even if one doesn’t experience a flow state, the quality of learning will still necessarily benefit. When a fencer’s training lacks any of those three conditions, his development can suffer–even if he is motivated and concentrating. In training, the coach has much of the responsibility to make sure all three of those conditions are present, just as it is the fencer’s responsibility to make sure that he concentrates.

Training that has clear goals, a good challenge/skill balance (in other words, training that the athlete believes to be just at the edge of his limits), and immediate feedback isn’t concerned with luck. The point of that kind of training is to allow the athlete to take control of his development and his performance so that he can excel. It is an active response to the question of athletic achievement. Alternately, when one relies on luck (whether consciously or not), one is responding passively. That, fundamentally, is the difference between high achievers and everyone else: good fencers aren’t passive. They don’t have time to wait for luck.

Take a look at your own training and, most importantly, your mental approach. Are you actively engaged in your improvement? Are you regularly setting new goals and improving your abilities? Or are you doing the same things over and over and hoping for a “good day”, the right match-up, or a little luck?

Forget about luck and go with the flow.

*Gomez was as famous for his self-effacing humor as for his pitching. He also once said, “A lot of things run through your head when you’re going in to relieve in a tight spot. One of them was, ‘Should I spike myself?'”

**See Csikszentmihalyi’s books Flow and Flow in Sports (co-written with researcher Susan Jackson).