The Myth of Momentum

In the modern age of radio talk shows, huge TV rights deals and more Sky Sports channels than one could ever dream of, pundits are rife across the sporting globe. We are now continually fed information on how to perceive different games by a multitude of presenters and ex-pros. In some instances, punditry and analysis packages are genuinely insightful to the paying customer, Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher’s Monday Night Football gig is one that has particular caught the countries imagination, yet far too often pundits provide little, resorting to tried and tested clichés, immune to any sort of criticism on the mere fact they could kick a ball, swing a bat or run fast in years gone by – and you couldn’t.

Tuning into the Ryder Cup from Minnesota last weekend, among all the usual throwaway comments spouted by Messrs Montgomerie, McGinley and co, one line was uttered more than most; the magical importance of momentum. On the final day the rhetoric from the Sky Sports commentary team was consistently one of the importance for Team Europe to pick up early momentum which would feed through the team and inspire dramatic victory. The Europeans came out fast, winning 3 of the first 5 games, but momentum didn’t last, winning just 1 of the last 7, much like momentum hadn’t played much of a role on either of the opening two days with the team who won the morning session losing the corresponding afternoon session on both occasions. For a concept so widely talked about and so highly regarded as important, momentum appeared to have little impact upon the tournament, begging the question how big a role momentum has to play in sports?

The Oxford Dictionary of Sports Science 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 the competition.” Is this cognitive shift really capable of changing the outcome of matches, series and seasons? Many argue hotstreaks are evidence for the power of momentum, but hotstreaks do happen by chance. Take for example the flipping of a coin, if you flip it long enough either heads or tails will go on a long streak of solely occurring, much like if you play football games for long enough Leicester City will go on a long streak of not losing.

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The Leicester City case, is an extreme and rare example, and therefore the human mind is conditioned to remember it and not the fortunes of the other 19 teams playing in the league exaggerating our perception of the prevalence of hotstreaks and therefore the importance of momentum in sports. A famous example sighted in defence of momentum is the 2001 Wimbledon semi-final, when a rain break with Tim Henman 2 sets to 1 up stripped him of his momentum and cost him a place in a Wimbledon final; or more recently Superbowl XLVII in 2013 when the Baltimore Ravens, leading 28-6 surrendered all momentum after a game delay due to a blackout and conceded 17 unanswered points. These memories are at the forefront of British tennis and NFL fans alike, but such events will happen from time to time – selective memory and small sample sizes do not however make a good argument for psychological momentum.

Momentum as a concept is wide reaching, within games, from game to game and even from season to season. In a 1985 study Thomas Gilovich “investigated beliefs and facts concerning the sequential characteristics of hits and misses in basketball,” concluding “basketball fans believe that a player’s chances of hitting a basket are greater following a hit than following a miss. However, the outcomes of both field goal and free throw attempts were largely independent of the outcome of the previous attempt.” In addition, he found that “the frequency of streaks in players” records did not exceed the frequency predicted by a binomial model that assumes a constant hit rate.” Further studies show mixed results, another paper looking at Major League baseball found no relationship between a teams end of regular season form and their performance in the play-offs, despite the common conception held that “peaking at the right time” is crucial when mounting a charge in such a format.

The momentum myth is so rife as people, in an attempt to explain and understand the events that unfold before them, are much happier buying into this romanticised concept as opposed to viewing a game or season as a multitude of random independent events. No doubt on occasions cognitive shifts occur which alter probabilities of future outcomes, but the quantitative evidence suggests psychological momentum plays a far lesser role in sport than our beloved pundits and analysts would have us believe.

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Enjoy the column, J.