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Is Momentum a Myth? Let's Break It Down March Madness Style

March 24, 2019

If you’re a sports fan – especially a basketball fan – then March is practically a holiday season. It’s the month of the NCAA March Madness Tournament. That means it’s time to fill out your bracket (and maybe make multiple brackets so that you can support your alma mater even though you know they’re likely to bust your bracket!), grab some snacks, and get ready to be glued to the TV.

 

So far, this year’s tournament has not disappointed. Fans all over the country have been groaning as they watch upset after upset shatter their odds at winning their office pool (although any true sports fan is sure to appreciate those Cinderella moments). We’ve heard announcers, players, and coaches discussing both physical and mental factors that affect performances and the overall outcome of games. One of those mental factors is psychological momentum.

 

 

One question is: does momentum in sports exist?

 

Two factors need to be considered when it comes to momentum: an initiating event (a big play, for example) and the context of the game (high importance for players, high emotion from players).

 

Context

March Madness consistently provides potential for both of these factors. The context of the game is definitely there. Teams play their whole seasons with their sights set on post-season tournaments and championships. The chance to play in March Madness – and hopefully experience the glory of being crowned the victor – is immensely exciting and anxiety-provoking. These one-and-done games carry a lot of significance. All of the preparation, travel, and hard work culminate in a chance to compete on the big-time, national stage. I’d say that kind of context certainly checks the box for creating high importance and high emotion for players.

 

Initiating Event

With one ingredient for momentum covered, we’re left with an initiating event – like a big play. Even if you know nothing about sports, particularly the sport of basketball, you’d likely be able to spot those really big plays… the plays that get the benches and the crowd fired up and have the coaches and announcers yelling. They happen often throughout the tournament, and they’ve been happening non-stop so far this year with all the close games and upsets.

 

I think we’ve made the case for the possibility of momentum in the tournament.

 

On to the next question: how does momentum impact performance?

 

Much debate exists around this topic in the sports world. Some argue adamantly that momentum exists and causes teams to “get hot” or “go on runs,” for example. Others argue that momentum is just a figment of the imagination. What’s important to me is that in my years working with athletes, athletes themselves think it exists. That’s good enough for me. Because if they think it exists, they’re on the look out for it in games, and how things play out influences their perceptions, which dictates performance.

 

To clarify the connection between momentum and performance, let’s put ourselves in the mind of an athlete who believes in momentum. If he believes momentum exists and thinks that he recognizes momentum swinging in his team’s favor, it’s likely to make him feel more confident, more motivated, and more focused. This trifecta leads to a mentality of “playing to win” as opposed to “playing not to lose.” On the court, this mindset looks like increased willingness to take risks, fewer hesitations, and quicker recovery from mistakes. All of this can set the stage for some epic plays (or at the very least, strong, consistent plays that culminate in dominant play).

 

The flip side of this coin is when the same athlete thinks the momentum is swinging in favor of the other team. This can result in increased frustration, increased focus on irrelevant cues or factors of the game an athlete cannot control, and ultimately, decreased effort.

 

Now that you’re convinced that momentum (at least the perception of it) can influence an athlete’s performance, as the tournament kicks off again today, keep an eye out for examples of momentum and if you can spot its impact.

 

 

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