The Best of Van Halen has a quote on the liner notes: “what is understood need not be discussed”. I can’t remember the attribution, but it makes a certain amount of sense.

In sport, there are a few things that are known. A week is a long time. The boys on the winning team really worked hard for each other. Focusing on four points is better than thinking about the f—ls (unless you think you can actually win the thing…). Momentum is a funny thing.

Actually, I’m not so sure that momentum IS such a funny thing. I’ve been asked a few times recently, as I bang on about it, how momentum actually affects performance.

[Sidenote: I’m watching the Fremantle / Collingwood game as I write this, and I just saw a defender (Thomas?) claim to have touched the ball on the line that he knew he hadn’t. If staging for a free kick is deserving of a fine – and it really should be a suspension – then such deliberate cheating should be two weeks.]

Back to momentum, as if it was that easy. The coolest name in sport science has to be Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. His contribution is the concept of ‘flow’ – which is a performance state where people transcend what they are doing and it suddenly goes from effortful to easy. We’ve all got there occasionally, but some of the best athletes can (nearly) do it on cue.

There are teams and athletes who do seem to be able to do it at will. Somehow, they find a way to go up a level when they need to. They can make a game change to their plan; it’s like they can turn the flow on when they choose. So how do they do it?

Clearly it changes on critical moments. There is a belief in the western world that there’s an oriental character which can be interpreted to mean both danger and opportunity. It doesn’t matter if it is true or not, because the premise clearly is. In sport there are moments where a game can go either way, depending on who takes that moment. Sometime it’s skill, sometimes it’s luck, but performing at the right moment can have a disproportionately big effect. Sometimes you can recognise it as it happens, but probably more often spotting that moment is retrospective.

But that still doesn’t get at how it has an effect. Ultimately, there has to be a physical mechanism to account for the way that momentum affects performance. In sport psychology, or performance psychology, we place a huge emphasis on confidence. It’s a bit of an intangible, but we know more and more about it. If not exactly how it works, certainly how it affects performance.

When we are confident, we make bolder decisions. When we are confident, our physical activation approaches optimum, and we are more likely to execute the skills we attempt. When we are confident, our visualisation is positive, and we’re more likely to succeed in what we attempt. I think in this we can see how momentum changes performance.

As confidence changes, and it can change on a moment, so what athletes attempt changes, and their likelihood of success changes. Let’s think about tennis, because it’s pretty straightforward. If you can hit the ball flatter and closer to the lines, most times you’ll win more points than your opponent. If your confidence is up, you might aim closer to the lines, and at the same time your chances of hitting it where you aim is higher – so you are likely to win points. So you win some points, your confidence goes up further, and the spiral works in your favour – for a while at least.

Once you get into a dominant position though, different factors can come into play. When you’re in front you have something to lose, and this makes some people nervous. This directly affects confidence, and indirectly affects confidence through performance. Decision making can get more conservative and physical activation levels can get away from optimal – impacting on ability to execute the skills attempted. This creates an opportunity for a momentum change.

Because at the same time, as we get behind in a contest there can be little to lose, and so there is a willingness to take some risks. in real terms, this means trying to execute skills that will win an immediate contest. If they come off, you can get a bit of a change in momentum – and the comeback is on. Of course, if the skill level isn’t up to executing those skills, or it doesn’t come off, then there is no change and a rout becomes likely,

It’s probably a bit more complicated than that, and the permutations are endless. But ultimately, sport is about planning and executing physical skills. Momentum is mostly about short term changes in confidence, and how it affects the decisions that athletes make and how likely they are to be successful at that moment in time. The best athletes are those who can control momentum – but no-one can do that forever.


  1. Sounds like sound principles here.

    “Flow” is indeed great to have.

    And, yes, momentum is a big concept, whether in team or in individual sports.

    Can anyone think of experiences where momentum turned a game?

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