Last night’s game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Minnesota Vikings was a great example of psychological momentum in sports. While the research on momentum in the field of sport psychology is mixed, many athletes, coaches, and fans – and researchers, for that matter – do believe momentum exists.
Two important factors need to be considered when it comes to momentum:
1. An initiating event (like a big play)
2. The context of the game (high importance for players, high emotion from players).
For the Eagles, the context was set up just right to create some serious momentum. The Eagles went into the match up riding an underdog narrative. After star quarterback, Carson Wentz, suffered a knee injury serveral weeks back that required second-string quarterback, Nick Foles, to step up, the team seemed to lose some of its potential and possibility in the eyes of the media; but not in the eyes of the Eagles team itself. The team embraced an “us-versus the world” mentality and continued to believe in their ability – as a team – to fight their way to the Super Bowl. Their fans did the same, proudly standing behind the team and building more and more hype leading up to this game. The intense passion of players and fans to grind out a win, combined with the importance of this game being at a maximum (winning this game meant going to the Super Bowl), the stage was set for some serious momentum.
Early in the game, the Eagles defense, which was strong, steady, and impactful throughout the game, scored a touchdown off an interception, tying the game after a successful extra point attempt. That could have been the initiating event that set off the feeling of momentum (it could have been that, or a handful of other triggering events, like opponent mistakes or weaknesses, favorable ref calls, good team chemistry).
Now we have the right context (high importance and high emotion) with a triggering event. What does this produce? A change in behavior, which leads to a change in performance, which leads to what we all see as momentum.
So, how did this look for the Eagles last night? They dominated. That feeling of success in the beginning of the game seemed to breed more success until the final whistle. They seemed to feed off the confidence that the perception of momentum provides. Believing in that momentum leads to higher confidence, which leads to less hesitation in decision-making, and to increased risk taking – ultimately, stronger play.
If you’re the other guy – in this case, the Vikings – what do you do? You try to break up the momentum, and if you’re lucky, shift it in your favor. Coming out of the half, commentators remarked that Vikings coach, Mike Zimmer, advised his team to get Eagles QB, Foles, out of his rhythm. With Foles as the leader setting the tone for his team, Zimmer likely wanted to break Foles’s string of successful runs down the field and give his team a chance to shift the momentum. Unfortunately for the Vikings and their fans, those efforts failed.
The Eagles rode the momentum to a 38 – 7 victory at home against the Vikings. They’ll ride that momentum all the way to Minneapolis to take on the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.