‘The harder I work, the luckier I get’
It’s a maxim beloved of sportspeople: riders in particular. Its origins appear to be lost in the mists of time, but it has been attributed to everyone from Thomas Jefferson to Norman Wisdom. Probably no-one actually deliberately came up with the phrase – the theory has been around since man first started competing against man. The idea is seductive: if you graft enough, practice enough, put enough hours in, you too can be a winner. Who wouldn’t fall for that?
I think that the theory, as applied to eventing, is reasonably sound. Being successful, lucky even, takes hours and hours of hard work. It helps motivate you through all those miserable dark nights of schooling to think that if you just keep putting the effort in then the results will follow. If you traipse off XC schooling at 7am on a Saturday morning when you’d rather still be tucked up in bed surely it’s a sacrifice for the greater good? Ask anyone at the top of the game about the effort they have spent getting there and they will recite a litany of 16 hour days, pre-dawn alarm calls and floodlit schooling sessions.
In some respects luck can be made. A lot of the things that people claim as ‘unlucky’ and totally outwith their control are no such thing. The ‘unlucky’ person’s horse came in from the field the night before an event with only three shoes on; the ‘lucky’ person checked all the shoes earlier that week, noticed the clenches were up on one and got the farrier to re-set it a couple of days before the competition. Or maybe they noticed that their horse’s heels were getting a little long and turned their horse out that day with overreach boots on as a precaution. The ‘unlucky’ person got stuck behind an accident on the motorway and missed their dressage slot because of the traffic jam; the ‘lucky’ person saw the brakelights coming on ahead and had come prepared with a road atlas which meant that they could turn off at the first available junction and plot an alternative route. The ‘unlucky’ person arrived at the SJ warm-up when it was absolutely crammed and didn’t manage to get a practice fence before their round resulting in a stop at the first show-jump; the ‘lucky’ person arrived at the same time but had practiced for this scenario, felt confident that they would cope, worked their horse through some transitions instead, gave it a good canter round the ring before starting and jumped a clear. The ‘unlucky’ person’s horse slipped on a turn on the XC course causing them to have a run out; the ‘lucky’ person had seen the slippery patch of ground and collected a little more on the corner… Few things are truly down to pure random chance: what is seen as ‘good luck’ is often actually a reflection of preparedness, a good eye for detail and an ability to adapt to changed circumstances without feeling as if the negative outcome is somehow your ineffable destiny.
Luck, then, is not all down to graft – part of it is a mindset. Psychologist Richard Wiseman conducted an experiment with two groups of people who considered themselves to be particularly lucky or unlucky. He gave them copies of an identical newspaper to look through and asked them to count the number of photographs it contained. The ‘unlucky’ group took around two minutes to complete the task, the ‘lucky’ group took just a few seconds – the reason being that written on the second page of the newspaper in very large type was the message “stop counting: there are 43 photographs in this newspaper.” It was written in such a way that it was obvious, but the unlucky people tended to miss it and the lucky people tended to spot it. In a further experiment when a similar message was placed in the paper offering a cash spot prize the group who considered themselves to be lucky almost all picked up on it, whereas the unlucky group generally missed it. Compare this to our ‘lucky’ XC competitor in the earlier example spotting the patch of slippery ground.
Professor Wiseman concluded that lucky people generate good fortune via four basic principles: they are skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities, they make lucky decisions by listening to their intuition, they create self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectations, and they adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good.
So it would appear that luck whilst competing IS down to more than just hard work. However it is not, as the unlucky people would have you believe, down to chance. Hard work is undoubtably one element, but it must be the right hard work: not hours trotting aimlessly round the arena feeling smug because everyone else is at home watching TV, but smart hard work. Lessons with the right trainer, constructive practice, finding your weak points and concentrating on them, practicing for when things go wrong, putting the effort into prep outings. The other part of luck is creating the lucky mentality via the four principles above – listen to your intuition, have postitive (but realistic!) expectations, keep your eyes open for opportunities, transform a negative attitude.
Anyone can turn their luck around. Think positive, work hard, train smart.