In physics momentum is defined as the ability of an object to continue moving due to its mass and velocity. In sport, psychological momentum has been defined as a ‘bi-directional’ concept and it affects either the probability of winning or the probability of losing as a function of the outcome of the preceding event (Burke, & Houseworth, 1995). It is important to note that psychological momentum can be whether positive (where almost everything seems to go right) or negative (where almost nothing seems to go right). For example, in rugby, a team that has erased a 4 try deficit would likely be experiencing positive momentum, whereas the team that has lost the lead would be experiencing negative momentum.

The concept of momentum appears ingrained in sporting culture and research evidence has shown that athlete’s perception of momentum does exist, and shift in direct response to gaining or losing ground in competition (Crust & Nesti, 2006). Momentum can be a brief sequence or can roll over from one match or competition to the next. There is also evidence that suggests that the changing perceptions of momentum are linked to changes in athlete’s thoughts and feelings and this can have an influence on performance (Mack & Stephens, 2000).

Models of Momentum

Sport psychologists have proposed a number of alternative models in an attempt to describe and explain how momentum influences individuals.

The antecedents-consequences model suggests that the extent to which psychological momentum influences performances is dependent in personal (e.g. motivation levels, arousal levels) and situation factors (e.g. task difficult) (Silva, et al., 1988). Moreover, it has being suggested that experiencing psychological momentum was likely to result in an increased level of arousal, which in turn benefits tasks requiring higher levels of arousal. The model also suggests that perceptions of control were an important feature but the model does not fully consider the role of arousal or emotions on momentum.

Perhaps the most significant advance in understanding of psychological momentum came with the multidimensional model of momentum in sports (Taylor & Demick, 1994). This model comprises a number of critical elements that determine the development of momentum. These elements form a ‘momentum chain’ which has allowed researchers to test the predictions of the model.

Multidimensional Model of momentum in sports

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First a predicting event or a ‘momentum starter’ is perceived and interpreted by the individual, causing changes in cognitive (i.e. self-efficacy, motivation), affective (i.e. positive or negative feelings) and physiological (i.e. arousal) factors. Such intrapersonal changes are then predicted to influence behaviour such as activity level, pace, etc. and as a consequence, changes in performance and immediate outcome are expected.

There are two other important elements to this model; namely experience and opponent factors. Previous experiences are proposed to influence how precipitating events are perceived. For example, it is suggested that experienced athletes are better able to initiate, maintain and interrupt momentum sequences due to their accumulated sports-related knowledge. Finally, in head-to-head contests the model considers the role of opponent factors in sport. The theory is that the extent to which performance and outcome variable are influenced is not only down to the degree to which a player or team experiences positive momentum, but whether the opponents experiences negative momentum as a result of a precipitating event or series of events.

Momentum Evidence

Research into psychological momentum has produced mixed results; however one supportive study is impressive, especially given the controlled nature of the investigation. A team of researchers reasoned that previous inconsistent finding were likely due to the use of methods and tasks that required low arousal and that this was not conductive to testing the concept (Perreault, et al., 1998).

The researchers used a 12-minute lab based cycle race to test for perceptions of momentum and performance changes. The participants believed that they were racing against an opponent with a similar VO2max to their own, situated in an adjacent room. During the race, participants viewed a computer screen showing which rider had the lead and the time remaining in the race. However, the participants were actually viewing a pre-recorded race of one of two conditions (1) a no momentum condition where competitors were tied throughout the race, (2) momentum condition where the participant fell significantly behind before coming back to tie the race. Participants retrospectively reported perceptions of momentum for 4 time periods during the race. The results indicated that participants in the momentum condition reported significant decreases and then increases in perceptions of momentum in response to losing and then regaining the lead. In the no momentum condition, participants reported no significant changes in perceived momentum over the course of the race. Thus, perceptions of momentum did change as a result of either losing or gaining ground in the race.

For the performance measures, participants in the no momentum condition did not show any significant variation in performance across time periods. In contrast the participants in the momentum condition pedalled faster when they lost the lead, and generated an even greater power output when they regained the lead. The fact that negative momentum resulted in an increased performance went against all predictions. However, the participants fell behind over a relatively short period of time and quickly made up the ground, with the authors speculating that a loss of momentum over a longer period would likely have resulted in an excepted drop in performance. It is possible that falling behind acted as a form of motivation to encourage a greater effort.

Momentum Triggers and Outcomes

Despite inconclusive evidence, athletes and coaches appear to be convinced that psychological momentum exists. From an applied perspective, it is important to establish how athletes achieve and maintain positive momentum and reverse negative momentum. Other researchers however have alluded to the fact that most previous researchers failed to talk to the athletes who had experiences momentum and try to understand their perspective (Perreault, et al., 1998). Most of the past research involved filling out questionnaires or examining archival data on win/loss records. With this in mind, researchers at Loughborough University did interview national league university football players (Jones & Harwood, 2008). The in-depth interviews were recorded and researchers attempted to order the data into meaningful themes. The researchers identified triggers that initiated positive momentum sequences and the outcomes associated with positive momentum.

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In research that relied on spectator interpretations of momentum, triggers have being reported for tennis and basketball (Taylor & Demick, 1994). For example, a trained observer watcher quarter-final and semi-final matches from the 1990 US Open and identified triggers that specifically led to momentum sequences. As average of 30 such events per match were noted with dramatic shots, unforced errors, break of serve and not converting a break point opportunity representing the major triggers. Approximately two thirds of the events were attributed to positive play as opposed to mistakes by opponents. In basketball, the main momentum triggers were found to be dramatic play, a scoring run, an important player leaving the game, and a time out. In this case 78% of events leading to momentum sequences represented positive play.

Reversing Negative Momentum

The flipside of this concerns what athletes can do when they are experiencing negative momentum and how this might be reversed. Athletes and coaches have reported the need to be proactive and change things in order to reverse momentum. The main thing is to stay calm and focused on the task at hand. Football players have often reported changing tactics, controlling the pace of the game and frustrating the opponent in an attempt to reverse negative momentum. Clearly though, this is not a case of just expecting your opponents performance to drop off. There is a need to try something different in an attempt to upset your opponent’s rhythm and perhaps break their focus. This may require courage to take calculated risks. It is also vital to stay positive and not to let the opposition see any frustration or negative body language as this may increase their sense of control and can help to maintain their positive momentum sequence.