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Mike Richman


Outcome Bias and the Winter Olympics

Winners don’t always win

Published: Thursday, February 22, 2018 - 13:03

The XXIII Olympic Winter Games are wrapping up this weekend (Feb. 25, 2018) in PyeongChang, South Korea. During the past two weeks, thousands of athletes competed on mountains, rinks, and tracks; the best of the best emerged with precious medals that they will cherish for the rest of their lives.

When you look at the sheer athleticism of Olympic competitors, it’s clear that these are people who have devoted themselves to wringing the maximum levels of efficiency out of their bodies. (Except for curlers... I’m not sure exactly how they qualify as “athletes” any more than bowlers, dart players, beer pongers, or those who shoot pool, but that’s a discussion for another column.)

In any event, these fleeting moments of excellence in front of the world represent the culmination of many years of dedicated training. But the physical preparation is only part of it. The mental side—involving things like visualization, focus, intensity, dedication, and the desire for continuous improvement—is at least as important in the infinitesimal differences between those who win and those who don’t.

There’s another part of this that world-class performers in all fields of endeavor well understand, which is that talent, preparation, and desire don’t guarantee success. They don’t exactly hurt, either, but luck and randomness play their part, whether in the Olympics or on the shop floor. Sometimes you can do everything right, and the results don’t necessarily turn out in your favor. Other times you take shortcuts, and you get the outcome you desire, anyway.

To see one small example of how this played out last week at PyeongChang, consider the miraculous results from the ladies’ super giant slalom (better known as the super-G). This is a ski race that combines the technical precision of the slalom with the hair-raising speed of the downhill event. In many ways it’s the truest test of pure skiing ability.

The favorite coming into the event was undoubtedly Anna Veith of Austria, the gold medalist from the Sochi games of 2014, who arrived in South Korea ready, willing, and able to defend her championship. This time around, Veith tore down the hill with a fabulous time of 1:21.12, and as the event wore on, it became clear that none of the top contenders were going to beat her. Not Tina Weirather of Liechtenstein, who finished a tenth of a second off the pace. Not Lara Gut of Switzerland, who was a heartbreaking hundredth of second behind Weirather. And certainly not Lindsay Vonn of the United States, who was well to the back of the frontrunners and ended up a disappointing sixth.

With just a few competitors left to take their runs, and none of them considered podium threats, it was all but certain that Veith would win. In fact, NBC presumptively proclaimed her the winner. And then Ester Ledecka of the Czech Republic stepped up to the gate.

Now, the thing that you need to know about Ledecka is that she’s primarily a snowboarder. She qualified for the super-G, so Ledecka is world-class skier as well, but no one considered her a legitimate threat to take home a medal. Until she ripped through the course (a couple of near-disastrous mistakes aside) in 1:21.11, one-hundredth of a second faster than Veith, who couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Neither could the announcers, much less Ledecka herself.

Let’s be clear about something: Veith didn’t lose; Ledecka won. All 45 women who qualified for this event (and the dozens more who didn’t make the cut) prepared for these Olympic Games with great intensity, but none more so than Veith. She had a traumatic knee injury late in 2015 that caused her to miss both the 2015–2016 season and most of the 2016–2017 one. These types of injuries are all too common in skiing; Vonn also has had to work her way back from multiple major knee issues. In her quest to become to first woman ever to win back-to-back Olympic Super-G golds, Veith worked harder than she ever had before, switched coaches, and got herself back at the top of her game, physically, mentally, and emotionally. She was ready to perform in this event, and expected to win. And then she did everything right, turning in a masterful performance when it counted most. In no way did she lose.

Ledecka, on the other hand, had no expectations other than to give it her best. At age 22, six years younger than Veith and 11 years Vonn’s junior, she was among the youngest and least-experienced racers on the mountain that day. She’s had no major injuries in her career. A supremely gifted natural athlete, she not only competes at the highest levels of alpine skiing and snowboarding, but she’s also reputed to be a fine windsurfer and volleyball player. I don’t know much about her training regimen, but given her snowboarding commitments, one would assume that she did not focus nearly as much on her skiing as the other competitors. In fact, incredibly, Ledecka won the super-G in PyeongChang on skis that she borrowed from American Mikaela Shiffrin, who sat out the race due to numerous other Olympic event commitments.

The notion that “good” results always come about from “good” behaviors (and “bad” results from “bad” behaviors) is a form of what’s known as outcome bias, in which one judges the relative value of actions not in real time, but once the result of those actions are known. Indeed, many people are biased toward outcome rather than process. A win that somehow emerges from a poor or indifferent process is generally preferable to a loss following intense, focused preparation. Oakland Raider football coach (and later owner) Al Davis famously counseled his team to “Just Win, Baby,” and many in sports, politics, and businesses would agree that victorious ends justify irregular means. Whether the win is an Olympic gold medal or a successfully passed audit, the outcome is what most choose to focus on.

But is that the right approach? When we consider the pursuit of quality, the Latin phrase res ipsa loquitur might apply: “The thing speaks for itself.” You could read that as meaning that outcome is all that matters, but I choose to interpret it in the sense that actions say more about one’s culture of improvement than any momentary consideration of whether a specific initiative succeeded or failed. Failure, in fact, almost always contains deeper lessons for continuous improvement for the practitioner dedicated to excellence for one’s self and one’s organization. Only those who fear the judgment of others suffer from temporary setbacks, because it’s only when giving up due to that fear that one has definitively lost and truly failed.

I don’t believe that any of this is mere abstraction; quality happens through habits and learned behaviors first and foremost, and is demonstrated through outcomes only secondarily. Preparing in the right way, and for the right reason, will always yield wins, even if those victories are only expressed through internal development. Honing this attitude of persistence and the commitment to excellence regardless of external results is the key to lasting change for the better. It’s not always easy, it’s not always fair, but quality happens in the margins, when no one’s looking. It happens within long before it ever happens without.

Anna Veith would no doubt agree.


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Mike Richman


Outcome bias

Oh so true... I suspect she may have gone into the run with a "Hey, what the hell, if I lose, I lose" attitude.  It actually removes a lot of the pressure in the crunch. But, on the other hand, the metrology geek in me wonders, "What is the accuracy, repeatability, and uncertainty in the timing system?"