Momentum In Sport

Chris Pomfret, a performance psychologist who specialises in assisting sporting teams, 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

Note: The reason why momentum is not specifically covered in our therapeutic model – Metuf – is basically due to the fact that it can’t be targeted for improvement directly. The Metuf model will indirectly improve sporting momentum by directly targeting Motivation, Emotions, Thoughts, Unity and Focus.

As with many phenomena in the world of psychology, it’s interesting to observe people talk about momentum as something simple, tangible, or obvious. At the time of writing, the Australian Open tennis tournament is in progress. Listening to players, coaches, commentators and fans over the past week it would seem beyond question that there is a mysterious yet unmistakable energy that ebbs and flows through each match like a tide: an energy that has the potential to sweep a player towards glory, or to leave them stranded. As with many phenomena in the world of psychology, however, in reality things simply aren’t that straightforward.

As most of my sporting clients will know I often stress the importance of clear and workable definitions for any 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 momentum) or away from a goal (negative momentum). In other words, a combination of changes to an athlete’s thinking, emotions and actions may be very helpful in playing well, or they may become counterproductive.

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 so that some sort of resistance is experienced, or of a ‘pendulum swinging’ against them and energy being ‘lost’.

It is worth briefly mentioning 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 and their teammates desperately feed them the ball as fast as possible before this shooting streak suddenly vanishes. As much as the hot hand effect captures the imagination there doesn’t seem to be much evidence to back it up, as 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 and that 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. Various studies have found that the likelihood of a good performance is largely independent of previous performances, either within a single competition or between separate competitions. 

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

Despite a lack of compelling evidence, momentum continues to capture the imagination and it is taken as a fact of our sporting lives. If some researchers question its very existence 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 human beings like a sense of order. We want the world to seem as structured and predictable as possible, and 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 (both in real time whilst competing, and over many years via our memory). 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.

To put it another way, perhaps 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.

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 and that help us to understand its role in sporting performance. 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 as it seems to be triggered faster and more easily and is harder to ‘escape’ due to the sense of helplessness it can provoke. Interestingly, there are question marks over the common view that riding a wave of positive momentum can only benefit an athlete or team, whilst the resistant effect of negative momentum can only be problematic. In the case of positive momentum, there is a suggestion that athletes may occasionally ‘coast’ or ‘ease up’ and 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, boost motivation, and attempt to regain control over the contest or season.

One topic which seems to fascinate and infuriate many of our readers is the concept of ‘hoodoos’ – particularly in team sports at away venues – so stay tuned for our thoughts on that. For now, I’m grinding to a halt: it’s back to the tennis for me.

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 (