Performance Momentum for Elite Sport

Chris Pomfret, a performance psychologist based in Queensland (Australia), looks at the fascinating concept of performance momentum.

'Momentum in Sport' is a fascinating concept but with very little research
‘Momentum in Sport’ is a fascinating concept but with very little research

Performance Momentum; The Basics

As with many phenomena in the world of sport psychology, it’s interesting to observe people talk about momentum. If you listen closely, it’s almost as if they chatting about something tangible, something real.

At the time of writing, the Australian Open tennis tournament is in progress. Listening to commentators it would seem beyond question that there is a mysterious yet unmistakable energy. Something that ebbs and flows through each match like a tide. There is an energy that has the potential to sweep a player towards glory, or to leave them stranded. But in truth, things aren’t that straightforward.

As most of our sporting clients will know we often stress the importance of clear and workable definitions for all component of performance. If we can quantify something we can understand it and therefore improve it.

Momentum can be defined as changes to cognition, feelings and behaviour as an athlete moves towards a goal.

Positive and Negative Momentum for Performance

Positive momentum is typically described in physics-related terms such as ‘surging’ towards victory within a single contest. Or ‘riding the wave’ across multiple contests towards an end-of-season championship.

Negative momentum is often described in terms of a ‘tide-turning’ against an athlete. Some sort of resistance is experienced, or of a ‘pendulum swinging’ against them and energy being ‘lost’.

Momentum Is Not The ‘Hot Hand’

Note that momentum is different from the ‘hot hand’ effect often described in basketball. This describes those freak moments when it suddenly seems like a player can’t miss a shot. Their teammates start to desperately feed them the ball before this shooting streak suddenly vanishes. As much as the hot hand effect captures our imagination there doesn’t seem to be much evidence to back it up. Making a successful shot does not appear to increase the chances of making the next shot.

The fascinating thing about the concept of momentum is that it is almost universally accepted as fact. Research into the topic shows that people perceive momentum to be real. They act on the basis of this perception and past experiences supporting it. Simply put, athletes genuinely believe in momentum. When they think positive momentum has occurred they see it as a direct cause for their success. However, there is surprisingly little evidence to justify this belief.

But Perception Is Reality

If researchers question the existence of performance momentum and the everyday sportsperson struggles to express in words what momentum even means to them, why then is the concept so popular? One explanation is that for most human beings perception is reality. We want the world to seem as structured and predictable as possible. We find it hard to accept the idea of randomness. It’s hard for us to realise that our thinking is biased in many ways and that these biases impact on how we process information. We look for explanations in events, particularly where underlying meanings might help us in the future. Plus, we are just very poor at calculating probability.

There is a certain appeal to the idea that with a little bit of luck and some hard work, one small action we take can trigger a chain reaction which will sweep us towards glory. On the other hand, perhaps there is also some small comfort in the idea that sometimes we are faced with forces working against us which can’t be controlled and we simply have no choice but to hang in there and do our best and then see what happens.

Performance Momentum; The Downside

The most obvious issue with really believing in the concept of performance momentum is when you feel like you lack some. Mentally, if you feel some past success had a lot to do with any success before that you have a mental weak point. Let me explain more.

Let’s say you are a golfer who has started to believe that birdies and bogeys come in groups. Now let’s imagine you need to par the final three holes to make the cut but you bogey the 16th hole. Instead of moving on and trying to play the best possible golf for the final two holes you might feel that the bogey on 16 has set the tone.

Perhaps there is something to those old clichés about taking things one play at a time or week-to-week?

In Summary

Now please be clear that I am not saying momentum is a myth. In fact, there are various studies that do support the existence of momentum in sport. Not surprisingly, positive momentum has a role to play in performing at one’s best. However, some findings suggest that negative momentum is in many ways ‘stronger’ than positive momentum. It seems to be triggered faster and more easily and is harder to ‘escape’ from. Is this due to the sense of helplessness it can provoke?

In the case of positive momentum, there is a suggestion that athletes may occasionally ‘coast’ or ‘ease up’. This can in turn actually impair their performance. In the case of negative momentum, athletes may choose to use this to force themselves to improve focus and boost motivation.

When the topic of momentum comes up in the one on one work I do with my sporting clients this is how I approach it. I liken it to an emotion or physical sensation – like frustration or hunger. I then encourage them to notice it and move on as per the A.C.T model.

The team here at Condor Performance welcome your suggestions for topics to address in future editions of the Mental Toughness Digest so please keep them coming (info@condorperformance.com).