The Luck Factor

  By Brian Voss

In just about every post-game interview with athletes in any sport, you hear some mention of luck playing a role in the outcome of the competition. "It was just my week." "The breaks all went my way today." "It was just my day to win today." It is almost enough to make you wonder why these athletes spend the countless hours training and practicing for success in their chosen sports, isn't it?

Bowling is no different and, in fact, I believe suffers from an even more biased perception that luck (rather than skill and athleticism) is a factor in determining the outcome of a competition than almost any sport today. Director of Sport Bowling, Steve Wunderlich, a highly accomplished PBA Tour player in the '80's and '90's once said after losing a close match for the title, "It's unfortunate that I've chosen a profession where luck plays such an important factor." (No wonder that he ended up as the head of the group probably most dedicated to rebuilding the integrity of the sport!)

The question is, then, how much of a factor does luck play in our sport? Are Walter Ray Williams and Earl Anthony and Pete Weber and Mark Roth and Parker Bohn just luckier than all of the other great players who have competed on Tour just because they were able to win more than 30 titles? How much of their success is simply because they were better than, or more talented than or simply work harder than, their competition?

You might be surprised to hear me admit that luck certainly does play a huge role in the success of these and countless other players. In fact, one could argue that the entire system is based upon luck. From a certain standpoint it is. The way I see it, bowling, like every other sport, boils down to a game of chance. I mean sure, there are fundamentals to master, training techniques to practice and knowledge to accumulate, but at the end of the day (or the week, in bowling) the one who wins is the guy (or gal) who has less 279's shot at him, who doesn't leave that stone-8 at the wrong time to cost him a match, and who maybe carries that one extra Brooklyn strike. But the thing about that which keeps us die-hard bowlers from going completely insane is that the better you get at bowling the more chances you give yourself to take advantage of those opportunities when they do arise.

There is a reason why Walter Ray has won 42 titles in his career - and it isn't because he's lucky. It's because he's made 160 shows in his career - in 664 career events that means he makes it to TV almost 25% of the time. But even then he only wins the title 25% of those times. But he's given himself so many opportunities to win that over time, he's won more than anyone else. But one might argue that Walter Ray has actually been incredibly unlucky in "only" winning 42 times. Compared to Tommy Jones, who's qualified for TV 17 times in 132 events (a TV percentage just better than half of Walter Ray's) and won 10 (a 58% conversion rate), Walter Ray has been downright snakebitten.

But taking it to another level of detail, it is also not a coincidence that Walter Ray gives himself so many opportunities to win. For those of you who don't know, Walter Ray actually tracks every frame of every game in competition, and breaks down his pocket percentage, his strike percentage, his split percentage and his spare percentage. (He also tracks his opponents as well!) The advantage to all of that extra work is that Walter Ray has the perspective that the breaks will eventually even out, and that as long as his pocket percentage and strike percentage and spare percentage is better than his competitors - all measures of skill and talent - that he'll win out in the end. And his results prove it.

I believe that is a great lesson to all bowlers out there, those who want to pull out their hair or threaten to quit the game every time a ringing ten pin costs us a point in our Monday night league. As long as you keep it in the pocket, and keep giving yourself chances, eventually you will hit the jackpot. And hitting the jackpot is the best feeling in the world. It's why we keep coming back to the sport that we all love despite the pain it sometimes causes us. At the end of the day, practice and learning and training is our way of giving us those chances and increasing our odds of hitting the jackpot. As long as we all accept that, then the rough patches of "bad luck" are a lot easier to swallow.

Brian Voss


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