Imagine a well-hit shot that slams against a post and rebounds into the goalie’s grateful arms.
The striker and fans will curse his luck, and the co-commentator will mumble something along similar lines: “he was unlucky there, Jim”.
Except it has nothing to do with luck, of course. He should have placed it better.
Lucky (or unlucky) events are uncontrollable or at least almost impossible to predict. Though it’s hard to forget the quote made famous by Gary Player:
The harder you practice, the luckier you get
True luck is a ball pushed past the post by a sudden gust of wind. And whether it’s good or bad depends on whether you’re defending or attacking.
There is much philosophical discussion in dressing rooms over the relationship between luck and what we call the shoelace effect.
What is it?
This shoelace effect is where an apparently trivial incident, item or decision turns out to have massive repercussions for a match, a performance or a player.
At this point, you’re probably saying “Well, yeah, tell me something I don’t know.”
True, we all “know” that such trivialities can have a non-trivial impact. Except we don’t. Or to put it more accurately, we fail to act on that knowledge.
Blame the shoelace not the player
First, conclusions about players and performances need to be judged in the light of shoelace effects. But they rarely are.
Paul Robinson, who saw that Neville back pass bobble over his boot, was roundly abused for his role in the incident, despite the fault lying (almost) entirely with the divot. The Sun’s headline the next day? “Robbish”
Robinson later said:
To be treated the way I have been saddens me. I’m very disappointed with the way it’s been reported. I was not expecting to wake up to the barrage of abuse I received.
If the development and confidence of a player or team depends on objective evaluations of performance, then the shoelace effect needs to assume its proper role in such evaluations.
Shoelaces are both random and non-random
Some shoelace effects are purely random, unpredictable or unavoidable. So clubs need to make the most of every aspect of the game they can control.
It is not enough to say, “well, that’s football” when a game is lost to a freak gust of wind: the more you optimise, the less vulnerable you are to negative shoelace effects. If the defender was better positioned, fitter or faster, maybe there would have been no shot to catch the wind.
After all, where shoelace effects differ from luck is that not all are purely random, unpredictable or unavoidable.
A slip at the wrong moment is a shoelace event, but potentially preventable with the right studs, body balance, muscle training, game awareness or first touch. Can you blame luck when both your first two penalty takers slip and make identical misses in a semi-final shootout?
Mental training, preparation, simply doing up your shoelaces properly etc. etc. can all help to tip shoelace effects in your favour.
Never give up
Finally, shoelace effects contribute to the glorious uncertainty of football. The random factors that mean the best team may not always win.
So you can always hope where hope seems misplaced.