By Nick Cadle
Home and school fall away from him inside the boundary line whenever the Falcons play. The best feeling is when momentum shifts in a match and, for whole quarters, he and his Falcons teammates are one force. How good they are as players doesn’t matter. What matters is the group. They will each other to take marks, to kick straighter, to work harder. Goals flow from the confidence they inspire in one another. Together they are conquerors.
That paragraph comes from Paul D Carter’s brilliant new book Eleven Seasons. It is the story of a boy growing up in Melbourne in the 1980, when suburban football was in its twilight years and football empires (specifically the dynastic Hawthorn teams from the 80s) were essentially like dinosaurs – the dominant species but soon to become extinct.
ANYWAY, what makes this paragraph so interesting is that it captures the weirdest thing about modern sports. Every aspect of the game has been reduced to precise metrics (we know, for instance, exactly how far players run during a match, their disposal efficiency of their left and right foot etc.) yet we fall back on something so immeasurable and mystical – momentum – to explain why teams win and lose games of football.
People talk about momentum ALL THE TIME.
Consider the previous two grand finals. Grand finals reveal the truly excellent teams from the merely good like a goldsmith smelting out impurities. Those who win are not just lucky.
During the third quarter of the 2012 Grand Final, Hawthorn had kicked two goals and two behinds and were slowly wearing down Sydney’s lead. Bruce McAvaney wondered aloud, ‘What’s happened for Hawthorn? How have they got themselves quickly back?’ Mick Malthouse replied, sage-like: ‘Well, just that little bit of momentum Bruce. It’s so hard to stop.’ Really? Was it that simple? It wasn’t that Hawthorn had shut Sydney down across half forward? That Brad Sewell put his head down and started winning contested ball in the midfield? That Grant Birchall breaking the lines at half-back and slicing through the middle of the ground? It wasn’t that Buddy was suddenly getting and winning one-on-one contests against Ted Richards? No. It was momentum.
The concept of momentum has been around for ages: Newton devised it to talk about the physical power of a moving object (momentum equals mass times velocity, so the heavier and object is or the faster it moves, the more momentum it has and the more difficult it is to stop). Since the game of football changes so often – innovation occurs weekly – it is easy and reassuring to use a constant concept to describe it; makes it look like you know what you’re talking about even when you don’t. Or maybe we are impacted by the media more than we think. The arcade game NBA Jam used to feature players with gigantic craniums and the ability to leap 20 feet in the air to throw down ridiculously vicious dunks. When players made a few great plays in a row their shots would scorch the net and the announcer would yell HE’S ON FIRE!!! BOOOOOOOOM-SHAKA-LAKA!!! How could we not believe such a brilliant catchphrase?
But, is it accurate? Do players play better when their team has momentum? The Oxford Dictionary of Sports Science and Medicine defines psychological momentum as ‘the positive or negative change in cognition, affect, physiology, and behaviour caused by an event or series of events that affects either the perceptions of the competitors or, perhaps, the quality of performance and the outcome of competition.’ Sports psychologists claim it exists, but admit that they can’t explain how it works or how to measure it.
Consider the 2011 Grand Final. Collingwood began to surge in the second quarter: the first five minutes were spent almost entirely in Collingwood’s half of the ground. But they only kicked one goal and three points in this time. As Cameron Ling jogged off the ground with a bloody nose, and Geelong in front by a few points, Richo said:
“Got dominance here the Pies. They need another goal. They need to make the most of it. It’s always momentum swings in football.” What Richo was saying, even though it was ungrammatical, was that you need to make the most of your opportunities while the god of momentum smiles upon you. A few minutes later, Travis Cloke marked on the boundary line 55 metres out from goal. He slotted it through as easily as if he was kicking from 40 metres out directly in front. Was that caused by momentum? Ben Johnson immediately got a cheap free kick and converted to put Collingwood, suddenly, in front by 18 points. Was that momentum?
Momentum is also believed to exist in winning streaks, so you often hear people say things like ‘we want to build some momentum before the finals’ as though they believe that winning some games before September will make it more likely that they win games during September. Perhaps this is equating morale – another intangible and unmeasurable force – with momentum. Regardless, having high morale does not necessarily result in more wins for a less-skilled team.
Mathematical monster brains in universities have used complicated models to try to find evidence of momentum; some found it and others didn’t. Momentum is elusive like that. It’s there if you want it to be. People assume it exists anyway. But why? I think the simple answer is that people like order. When something happens that does not appear to be random, we assign a pattern to it. And when most of football looks as patternless as a Halo skirmish, the people who have to explain that patternlessness resort to assigning patterns where none esist. And voila, you have momentum.
Football teams have two objectives: The first is to score as many goals as possible. The second is to stop the opposition from scoring as many goals as possible. Everything else is incidental. Achieving these goals is both extraordinarily complex and astonishingly simple. At its core, success is about pressure over time: it’s a game of percentages. You try to create as many quality scoring chances as possible, as consistently as possible, while preventing the other team from getting as many quality scoring chances as possible.A good team hits their targets under pressure, forces turnovers from the opposition, and wins the ball when it is in dispute.
This much is logical. But it’s easy to claim that momentum exists because it looks right. It feels right. The frailties of human cognition often overwhelm facts and logic, which makes people too predisposed to feel certain about inherently uncertain things, like the future performance of shares, political performance, house prices, and price movements in just about every other market.
The journalist Michael Lewis wrote a feature for Vanity Fair on the psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, which seeks to explain human cognition and decision-making. One day Lewis was sifting through some papers left behind by Kahneman’s longtime collaborator Oren Tversky, who had recently died. He came across a letter dated June 4 1985, from Bill James, the baseball writer and godfather of advanced statistical analysis. James was, according to Lewis, troubled by something. He couldn’t understand why, when people in sports attempt to explain essentially random and therefore inexplicable events, they settled so easily on false explanations when the truth was readily at hand. Tversky knew a thing or two about the limits of cognition, and Bill James was after his opinion. In a letter dated 4 June 1985, he wrote:
Baseball men, living from day to day in the clutch of carefully metered chance occurrences, have developed an entire bestiary of imagined causes to tie together and thus make sense of patterns that are in truth entirely accidental,” James wrote. “They have an entire vocabulary of completely imaginary concepts used to tie together chance groupings. It includes ‘momentum,’ ‘confidence,’ ‘seeing the ball well,’ ‘slumps,’ ‘guts,’ ‘clutch ability,’ being ‘hot’ and ‘cold,’ ‘not being aggressive’ and my all time favorite the ‘intangibles.’ By such concepts, the baseball man gains a feeling of control over a universe that swings him up and down and tosses him from side to side like a yoyo in a high wind.
It wasn’t just baseball he was writing about. “I think that the randomness of fate applies to all of us as much as baseball men, though it might be exacerbated by the orderliness of their successes and failures.” He is saying that we all try to find patterns in life’s random events because it’s the only way we can make sense of the world. Life is complex and weird. We need to make patterns to explain it to ourselves, which is why we have Christianity, Marxism, and any other -ism you can think of. But that doesn’t make them right.
As the Collingwood and Geelong players walked off the field at halftime of the 2011 Grand Final, after watching Geelong claw its way back to within a straight kick after Collingwood had built what looked like a match winning lead, Matthew Lloyd, in his role as expert commentator, delivered his prognosis and prediction: “These two teams finished one and two for the very reason we’ve seen in this first half. It’s all about momentum. Collingwood: we thought they’d take it away; they didn’t and Geelong, back in this game. It is anyone’s game, Huddo, after half time.”
I guess what he was trying to say was that in the end, it all comes down to luck. It’s easy to claim that momentum causes teams to succeed just as it is easy to claim special knowledge without knowing precisely what is happening on the field. Geelong and Sydney won because they were better teams, not because they got hot at the right time. Together they were conquerors.