Sunday, 15 April 2012

M is for... Momentum

You can’t see or feel it, and no amount of money can buy it, but it’s something every sports team and player wants. Momentum is fast becoming one of sport’s biggest buzz words, with many coaches and players referencing it consistently in press conferences. But how do teams get momentum, and is it as important as it’s made out to be?

The mythical zone

There’s an argument in sports that momentum doesn’t really mean much, that when teams go on hot streaks it’s all within the statistical probability of what we should expect. Whilst the statistical element can’t be denied – scoring streaks do fit comfortably within a normal distribution – there’s more to it than just that. When a team or player gains momentum they also gain confidence, which causes them to make more good decisions. This creates a positive cycle, which increases the likelihood of more good things happening for them. Also, when a sportsperson is performing at the peak of their abilities and they’re full of confidence, they can enter the mythical ‘zone’.

Ayrton Senna - one of the greatest
In psychology, flow is “the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.” When an athlete is in the zone they’re essentially in flow; everything is aligned to produce the optimum results. The tasks they have to perform become almost second nature, and anything, however difficult, suddenly seems immediately possible. The great racing driver, Ayrton Senna, described how being in the zone felt at the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix:

“I was already on pole, [...] and I just kept going. Suddenly I was nearly two seconds faster than anybody else, including my team mate with the same car. And suddenly I realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel." 

How to turn around momentum

A momentum shift usually occurs with a precipitating event, such as a fumble or mis-hit, or a moment of inspiration. This can cause a change in the mindset of the athletes involved, which leads to a change in behavior and outcome. As such there’s no magical solution to turn around momentum; as with most things in life it requires hard work, dedication and a little bit of luck. Perhaps the most important factor is to remain positive, because when you start to doubt yourself you’re more likely to make poor decisions which won’t bring about the necessary precipitating event. 

Experienced athletes have been shown to be better at handling the ups and downs of sport than novices, and are thus often better at limiting the effects when the opposition has momentum. Whilst it may sound obvious, the key really is to keep doing the right things with a positive mindset, which gives you the maximum possibility of creating the necessary momentum shift  

In summary

Whilst momentum in sports is in essence a psychological thing, its importance is obvious to anyone who regularly plays or watches sport. The growing increase in sports psychology is a sign of this - if you can prepare a team to have a steady, positive mental attitude you'll have already taken the first step towards victory. Whilst momentum is not the be all and end all, it's certainly one of the most important factors in sport.


  1. Hello, Evan! This is a great post and applies to so many things in life. A positive mindset and believing in yourself is essential for anything you attempt or pursue.

    Have a terrific week and happy A to Z!!

  2. Stopping by from the Challenge. I live in a city where most of the sports teams suck. Every time they gain some momentum, they lose it.

  3. Thanks for visiting my blog; it's always nice to read some positive comments. I'm enjoying writing for the Challenge!