Psychological momentum is a phenomenon that is commonly reported by athletes, coaches and commentators in sport. However, its existence is not universally recognised. Within the academic sport psychology community, it is probably fair to say the jury is still out (Crust & Nesti 2006). Those who play, coach or watch sports will often see the players and teams winning or losing a string of points during a match. It is relatively easy to see in racket sports, where players will seem to gain dominance for a period of the game (Jackson & Mosurski 2005). This dominance may shift many times during the course of a match. Perhaps one of the fascinations of sport is the ebb and flow that occurs within a contest. Of course it’s not confined to individual sports and is equally applicable to team sports (Gayton et al 1993, Jones & Harwood 2008). There is a common saying in soccer, “goals change games”. Cricket matches are often characterised by ‘batting collapses’, where a team will lose 3-4 wickets in quick succession when a partnership is broken. In the NFL turnovers tend to change, not only possession, but the dominance from one team to another. Many people would suggest that the famous come-backs in sport are prime examples of psychological momentum shifting.
For coaches, athletes and applied sport psychologists, there are some obvious questions. What actually changes when psychological momentum shifts? How are changes initiated? What can we do to swing the momentum in our favour?
Let’s look at the first question. What actually changes? Clearly, there is a change in what athletes think and feel, which consequently affects the way they behave. The sport psychology literature suggests that psychological momentum encompasses changes in the athletes’ sense of control, confidence, optimism, motivation and energy (Crust & Nesti 2006). From my experience working with athletes, it is clear that for many of them, loss of psychological momentum coincides with loss of focus (Markman & Guenther 2007). In short, they stop focusing on the very effective cues that allowed them to perform well, and they start focusing on other things. Essentially they become distracted by something. Often that something is actually their own thoughts. I am sure that coaches, athletes and sport psychologists will all be aware of the negative spiral that often develops. It normally starts when we make a mistake. Many athletes will start to analyse their mistake and therefore start to over-think their performance. Keen not to make another mistake, they will also start to try harder. The combination of thinking too much and trying too hard invariably leads to more mistakes (Gallwey 1986, Csikszentmihalyi 1990)). And so the spiral develops. If the spiral continues to gain strength, it can actually be debilitating for performers.
Our second question asked how the change of momentum is initiated. At this point it is important to understand that there are two parties involved in the shift of momentum. One side is gaining momentum and the other is losing it. This begs the question; is momentum lost or gained? Does one side wait until the opponent makes mistakes and loses the momentum, or can an opponent affect the swing of momentum in their favour?
I worked with an International Squash team for a year or so, and watched their performances closely. As a psychologist, I was fascinated by the swings in momentum. Watching them compete, I noticed a pattern emerging on a regular basis. I would often notice one player start to become very precise and very consistent. They would play a string of high quality shots that would challenge their opponent. Often this string of shots would cause the opponent to become defensive. After a while, the players on the defensive would often force a shot that was not really on, in order to break the status quo. In doing so, the defensive player would make a forced error. Forced errors also occurred when players were slightly out of position, stretching for a ball or caught off guard by a particularly precise shot.
The pattern did not stop there. An accumulation of a number of forced errors tended to have a common effect on the players who were making them. After committing a number of forced errors, players started to doubt themselves and get frustrated with themselves. Soon after that they started to become frustrated, they started to make unforced errors and the negative spiral that we discussed earlier, began to form (Hartley, in press).
As we can see, in this example, the swing in momentum resulted from a change in the way the player was thinking and feeling. The initial unease at being forced to play defensively may cause the player to think, “I need to get out of this” or “how can I get out of this”. That simple thought often prompts them to start over-thinking and to contemplate riskier shots.
In my experience, the changes are normally very subtle initially. However, if those tiny subtle changes start to add up, and are then reflected by changes in points, they can start to become very obvious. When this happens, we tend to see a string of points change hands, a succession of quick goals, a batting collapse or intercepted passes. During this process, athletes may also lose their sense of control, confidence, motivation, optimism and energy. The nature of momentum is such that this can become self-perpetuating. In some cases, this can be enough to determine the result of the competition.
So, how can we influence the shift in psychological momentum? In my experience, understanding how momentum shifts is the first stage. I encourage athletes and coaches to understand the concept and also how they tend to operate. It is important for athletes to realise how their focus can change and when they can be drawn into over-thinking and frustration. It is also important that athletes know what to focus on in order to perform at their best (Hartley 2010). I like athletes to know what to do if they sense the momentum is slipping away from them. I believe that they need to have a simple point of focus. In tennis, that point of focus can be something as simple as watching the ball, or focusing on the weight of our shots. When we get the focus right, we are more likely to play precise and consistent shots. By playing high quality shots, we’re likely to re-establish our foothold in the match. The basic concept of building from precision and consistency can be applied to any sport.
Athletes have a choice as to whether they get drawn into over-thinking and frustration, or whether they hold their focus. Those athletes who accept the fact that they will make forced errors are often more likely to learn from them and continue to play their game as before (Halden-Brown 2003). By accepting the errors, and maintaining their thinking and feeling state, they are able to avoid the negative spiral. They may lose a point or two in a row, but are less likely to lose a string of points that equate to losing games and sets.
In January 2009 Rafael Nadal beat Fernando Verdasco in the Australian Open. It was an epic 5 hour and 14 minute long contest. Interestingly, the statistics show that Nadal played just 52 winners, compared with Verdasco’s 95. The pair were much closer in the number of forced errors. Nadal made 69 to Verdasco’s 61. The telling difference was the number of unforced errors. Nadal made just 25, compared to Verdasco’s 76. Perhaps Nadal was simply better at stopping forced errors from becoming unforced errors. Rather than becoming frustrated, perhaps he accepted the errors and maintained his point of focus during the match. In doing so, he may have avoided losing a string of points at any one time. Interestingly, the statistics show that Nadal had 20 break points to Verdasco’s 4 (Tucker & Dugas 2009).
In many cases, athletes and teams are not aware of how to control the psychological momentum of the contest. Instead, they simply go with the flow. However, with understanding and application, it is possible to stop momentum swinging away and also turn the tide if the momentum is not with you. I have found no research that explores the importance of psychological momentum to the result. Nevertheless, many athletes, coaches and applied sport psychologists will intuitively understand the impact that controlling psychological momentum has on their performance.
From the editor: An interesting example of this kind of momentum change was recently described by Dr. Julian Morrow, a frequent contributor to Podium, who recently recounted a remarkable 4th quarter turnaround by the Wisconsin Badgers playing the USC Trojans (a National Championship deciding game) in the 1963 Rose Bowl. Aside from being an interesting read, he describes the changes inside the huddle as the momentum shifted:
“For the first futile three quarters, it hardly seemed like this game would become Vanderkelen’s tour de force. However, as the teams changed goals with only fifteen minutes remaining, the Badgers, whose huddles up until that point Vanderkelen had described as somewhat chaotic, which was evidenced by their erratic play, started to get untracked. And inexplicably, just like that, as everyone in the huddle seemed to collectively sense the shift in momentum, the chatter ceased, the attentiveness picked up and but for Vandy barking plays and setting snap counts, there was dead silence.”
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Gallwey, T. (1986) The Inner Game of Tennis, London: Pan Books.
Gayton, W.F., Very, M. and Hearns, J. (1993) ‘Psychological Momentum in Team Sports’, Journal of Sport Behaviour, 16(3), 121-123.
Haldon-Brown, S. (2003) Mistakes Worth Making: How to turn sports errors into athletic excellence, Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
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Hartley, S.R. (in press) Peak Performance Every Time, London: Routledge.
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Jones, M. I., & Harwood, C. G. (2008) ‘Psychological momentum within competitive soccer: Players’ perspectives’, Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 20, 57-72
Markman, K.D. and Guenther, C.L. (2007) ‘Psychological Momentum: Intuitive Physics and Naïve Beliefs’, Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 33(6), 800-812.
Tucker, R. and Dugas. J (2009) ‘The Epic Semi-Final: 5 hours 14 mins, and the tale of the tape’, SportScientists.com, 30th January 2009. Available Online. HTTP. <http://www.sportsscientists.com/2009/01/tennis-statistics-and-fandom.html> (accessed 21st December 2010).
Simon Hartley, MSc, BASES Accredited Sport & Exercise Psychologist.
Simon is a freelance sport psychologist & performance coach at Be World Class. In recent years he has worked as a consultant performance psychologist to the English Institute of Sport as well as working with a range of professional sports in the UK. Simon has worked with Premiership and Championship football clubs, international teams including England Squash and professional golfers.