Momentum is a real phenomenon, at least according to science. But despite this being proven by scientists in the past few decades, many people still don’t believe momentum exists because they’ve never seen it themselves. This lack of understanding has created an entire field of study which falls outside mainstream physical science and that’s called “social sciences.”
The “is momentum in sports real” is a question that has been asked for a long time. In the short answer, it is not. However, there are some exceptions to this rule.
THE JOURNEY BEGAN WITH THE 2019 Florida State Seminoles, like with so many other difficult and ultimately useless endeavors.
That season, Florida State had begun by squandering a 31-13 lead against Boise State, and offensive coordinator Kendal Briles attributed at least some of the responsibility to one of the most useless terms in coaching jargon: momentum. The Seminoles lost it, couldn’t get it back, and the football gods dealt a devastating loss to the Seminoles.
I wasn’t convinced.
“Momentum is not a genuine phenomenon,” I said emphatically on Twitter, certain that others would agree.
Instead, take a look at some of the responses:
“In football, momentum is absolutely a thing!!!”
“You don’t look to be very clever.”
“Take out the trash… Remove your account from the system.”
From then, persuading the rest of the world that momentum is a figment of the imagination became my personal quest. It’s a battle I’m terribly losing.
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As the 2021 bowl season progresses, there will certainly be an incessant chorus of commentators claiming that a huge victory would build momentum for 2022. (a theory Texas disproves annually). During games, momentum will be up for grabs, swinging dramatically, favoring one side or the other entirely. As former Los Angeles Times sports writer Bill Shirley pointed out in a 1985 column, “Momentum” is the most overused phrase in sports, yet its presence is so pervasive that not only commentators, coaches, and players will notice it, but even a casual spectator sitting on the sofa will feel it.
This is why it’s so tough to disprove momentum. If you ask 100 people to characterize it, you’ll probably get 100 different replies, but everyone who has spent any time around sports gets the experience instinctively. Show people all the data you want — and there is a lot of it (for example, here, here, and here) — but nothing will compare to that tingling sensation in their stomach, that adrenaline rush as a team marches down the field for a winning touchdown, that absolute certainty that destiny is on their side. You know momentum when you feel it, to quote Justice Potter Stewart.
Mississippi State football coach Mike Leach stated, “There’s an energy about the affair.” “And the men on the sideline are so tuned in, it’s as if everyone can complete each other’s sentences.”
In fact, it’s such a widely acknowledged phenomena that I’m compelled to confront the unthinkable: What if I’m wrong? I wanted an answer, so I started hunting for one in increasingly odd places, from a backup quarterback to a Catholic priest, from Aristotle to Buddhist monks, from a déjà vu specialist to an Australian linguist, to, well, Mike Leach.
Is there such such thing as momentum? The quick answer is that it’s possible. The lengthier answer is that you should prepare to enter Pandora’s box headlong.
LET’S DEFINE OUR TERMS PRIOR TO GOING ANY FURTHER. What precisely is momentum, if it exists at all? “Momentum defines the motion of an item or system equal to the product of its mass and velocity,” according to Merriam-Webster.
Unless we’re talking about Jordan Davis attacking an A-gap, this isn’t really useful. That’s the concept of mass in motion. A pick-six in the fourth quarter of a 35-21 game is a whole other ballgame.
“It’s a catch-all,” Adam Amin, a play-by-play announcer for NFL and MLB games on Fox, said. “We’re probably not using the phrase right, but someone, somewhere thought to themselves, “What does this feel like to me?” after a 20-0 run in a basketball game. It’s as though the movement is unstoppable. ‘All right, that’s momentum.’”
Regardless of who began the fad, it was quickly adopted. ESPN Stats & Information analyzed broadcasts from four Saturday college football games in 2020 and 2021 and discovered that the phrase “momentum” was spoken 93 times over 21 games, or around 4.5 times each broadcast. Even yet, this does not adequately represent the term’s widespread usage. The term “momentum” was mentioned just once during last month’s Auburn-South Carolina game, a game in which the Gamecocks appeared to benefit from momentum, erasing a 14-0 deficit to win 21-17, while “momentum” was mentioned four times during the broadcast of Appalachian State-Troy, a game the Mountaineers won 45-7.
According to the announcers, momentum occurs more often towards halfway (more mentions in the second and third quarters than in the first and fourth), and it clusters (once stated, it’s likely to be talked again within a few plays). When the score margin reached 10 or more, even as high as 35, more than half of the references ESPN monitored occurred. It’s used to describe huge plays, but it’s also used to explain why there aren’t any. It’s often used to explain current success, but with the implication that future occurrences will follow the same pattern.
The legendary force of momentum has been given its own human avatar, Uncle Mo, since it is so often invoked. Uncle Mo, on the other hand, is a fickle son of a gun. In a football game, does the momentum move with each score or just with the most significant ones? Do those three points build momentum for a team kicking a field goal after a drive stalls at the 5-yard line, or do they give the defense momentum for preventing a touchdown? And how long can this theoretical momentum endure once it is established? Uncle Mo’s responses are always changing.
Dr. David Caldwell, a linguistics professor at the University of South Australia who has researched language in sports, especially momentum, believes that the term’s malleability is its basic value.
He said, “Sports are basically base and gladiatorial.” “There is a winner and a loser, as well as a thumbs up or thumbs down. From then, our vocabulary becomes more complicated, and abstract nouns like momentum are utilized since they may represent a variety of athletic aims.”
Caldwell remarked that despite the diversity of momentum, it often comprises two core tenets: a sensation of force acting on a body and the direction in which that force is going. It’s a feeling as well as a physical prod in a new path.
We now have two specific questions to ask: Is that sensation the result of a true chemical reaction in our brains, or is it all in our heads? Is that alteration in brain chemistry, if it’s true, going to have a significant influence on future outcomes?
That should be simple to figure out, right?
Caldwell burst out laughing. He’d already gone down the rabbit hole, glancing over a recent paper he’d written in search of a quotation that may be useful, before coming up with another idea. Momentum, he said, reminds him of Aristotle’s telos theory, which proposes that all humans have an innate desire to reach their full potential — a “supreme end to man’s endeavor” — and that momentum is a feeling of alignment between that desire and current actions, signaling that we’re on the right track.
I’m hoping my telos will be more than merely explaining motion on Twitter, but I’m skeptical I’ll uncover solutions that Aristotle couldn’t.
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The placebo effect, it turns out, has a common flaw.
Dr. Luana Colloca examines the placebo effect in relation to pain at the University of Maryland’s school of nursing. She claims that although it is possible to “fool the brain” into lifting greater weight or experiencing less pain, one of the most important findings from her study is that negative impressions are significantly more difficult to overcome than positive ones.
“Our bodies are wired to recall bad things,” Colloca said. “It’s something more subliminal in our brain, that if we have a fear, a terrible experience, having a pleasant experience requires some effort.”
Colloca claims that she may need to expose individuals to four or five good experiences in order to notice a meaningful shift in their negative impressions, but a positive perception can be erased with only a few words in her trials. It’s the theory underpinning Ted Lasso’s coaching philosophy, which states that any criticism should be balanced with an abundance of optimism and praise.
Colloca said there’s likely nothing a coach or player can do to just shrug off a spate of unpleasant experiences. Leach said the key to preventing negative momentum is to fall back on practice routines and concentrate on individual plays rather than the wider context of the game.
“It doesn’t work that way,” she said. “No matter what we tell them, the bad experience is much more powerful than any good one.”
Perhaps our grasp of momentum reveals more about humans than we realize. We are all pessimists by nature, certain that our accomplishments will come and go and that our misfortunes will be inevitable.
That may be a wonderful subject for a book by Malcolm Gladwell.
IF WE BELIEVE MOMENTUM IS Genuine (at least as real as déjà vu or the placebo effect) and has a positive influence, it raises an important issue for coaches and athletes: Is it possible to create momentum on purpose, or does it have to develop naturally, according to the vagaries of fate?
I’d asked Dr. Helen Fisher, the love specialist, about it, and although she didn’t have a definitive answer, she wondered if it was similar to an actor generating emotions for a performance.
“Do good actors have the ability to make themselves cry?” Fisher remarked. “They may conjure up tears when they think about something really sorrowful. You may act as though you’re laughing. You may act enraged.”
Jeff Garlin, a momentum believer and actor, has done this on programs like “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” but he doesn’t see the connections.
“An actor can provide the impression of momentum, but he can’t really produce it since it’s a chemical process,” Garlin said. “[Momentum] is illogical. There’s no reason for it. It’s enchanted.”
However, magic is only a deception, not true sorcery. It isn’t true. I believe I have Garlin surrounded, but he has a trump card in the form of Steve Bartman.
Jeff Garlin, a Cubs fan and star of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” views momentum as a sequence of dominoes. “[Steve] Bartman did not start the momentum. Moises Alou has nothing to do with it. There were a lot of them along the road “He mentioned this about the 2003 National League Championship Series. Morry Gash/AP Photo
Garlin and I are both huge Chicago Cubs fans, so he’s familiar with the narrative. When Luis Castillo of the then-Florida Marlins blasted a fly ball down the left-field line in the top of the eighth inning of Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series, the Cubs were up 3-0. The ball was batted away from Cubs outfielder Moises Alou by Bartman, a Cubs fan in the first row of the stands. Castillo walked instead of hitting into the second out of the inning, and although the Cubs still led the game and the series, every Cubs fan on the globe knew it was over. The Marlins possessed momentum, whereas the Cubs had a 100-year track record of failure. There are no statistics, analytics, or deep meditation techniques that can defeat this combo.
“Bartman did not start the momentum. Moises Alou has nothing to do with it. There were a lot of them along the road “Garlin explained. “To me, momentum is like dominoes, where one falls after another, and the No. 1 thing that existed was the worry and anxiety of, ‘How will the Cubs blow this?’”
Garlin finds links between comedy clubs and stand-up comedy.
“There are certain rhythms — movement — that I need to have a strong set,” Garlin said. “I say something, and it makes people laugh, and it grows and grows, and I can have a fairly fantastic set.”
However, the audience and all of the expectations and experiences they carry with them are equally at the mercy of the illusion. It’s not that momentum — or a hot set — is completely random, but the events leading up to it are sometimes so complex and unintelligible that they seem practically random.
Garlin says he conducted two gigs in Irvine, California, a week ago. The first one drew a large crowd. He was fine, but the audience was enamored with him. People were probably tired by the late concert, and although Garlin believed he did much better than in the early performance, the reception was a big bowl of meh.
Garlin said, “That’s when you go to your game plan.” “You keep track of your games. You follow through with your strategy. I’m going to work on my craft. There isn’t any artistry here. They don’t realize I’m not having a good time because I’m not having one.”
This is consistent with what everyone has said, from the neuroscientist to the priest to Leach. Stopping negative momentum needs a greater emphasis on performing the things you’ve previously practiced over and again.
Perhaps this is why, even if we’ve never played in a playoff game or taken a shot in the NCAA tournament, we can all identify to momentum. We all have our own versions of it in our everyday lives, whether we’re on stage cracking jokes or composing an increasingly perplexing tale about momentum on a laptop.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? Are we any closer to proving that the momentum is genuine once and for all? Actually, I’m not sure I understand what “genuine” means anymore. Maybe we’re all part of a complex computer simulation, and momentum is merely a malfunction in the system. That would shed some light on the ACC Coastal.
I find some consolation in the fact that I’m not the first person to lose this fight, and it’s Gladwell who, paradoxically, reminds me of this. Gladwell discusses cognitive scientist Amos Tversky’s genius in his 2013 book “David and Goliath,” referencing colleague Adam Alter’s ad hoc IQ test: “The sooner you discovered Tversky was brighter than you, the smarter you were.”
To put it another way, Tversky may have been the brightest person in the world, but he couldn’t solve the momentum issue.
Tversky was known for his work on cognitive biases, and he felt that momentum in sports — or a “hot hand,” as he termed it — was a figment of the imagination. He theorized that it arose from humanity’s urge to identify patterns in the midst of chaos, the same selective memory that made NC State’s victory against North Carolina seem more meaningful than all the other games that didn’t make headlines.
Tversky was so certain that momentum didn’t exist that he devised an experiment in which he compared basketball shots to coin flips. He discovered that it was all random, and that despite his efforts, just a handful of his pals passed the Tversky intelligence test when it came to momentum.
Tversky once stated, “I’ve been in a thousand disputes on this issue.” “I’ve won them all, yet no one believes me.”
What chance did I have if a MacArthur Fellow couldn’t persuade the masses?
Even yet, there were a few rays of optimism throughout this journey.
I’ve adjusted my view on momentum after hearing from so many ardent supporters. Clearly, something is going on in our heads, even if it has no bearing on what is going on on the field. Perhaps what disturbed me the most about Briles’ argument in 2019 was that momentum — this uncontrollable force that determines our destiny and is responsible to no one — takes away agency from the coaches and players involved. It’s a red herring: genuine but insignificant, a diversion from the actual issues at hand.
Wes Durham, an ESPN play-by-play announcer and the son of renowned North Carolina basketball announcer Woody Durham, claimed the term’s misuse is a difficulty for his job. There are perhaps a dozen better, more precise terms, but none of them provide such an easy way out. Momentum may be anything: up for grabs, swinging on every possession, tangible in the last row of the bleachers, or a fabrication of our collective imaginations.
“If I told you this, my father would go insane,” Durham added, “but I probably use the word’momentum’ to describe far too many things.”
And it’s possible that’s the closest we’ll come to a triumph.
Alternatively, who knows? Perhaps one tiny success will lead to another, and another, building momentum and spreading outward until the concept catches on with the public.
There’s got to be a name for what may happen after that.
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The “importance of momentum in sports” is a question that has been debated for years. Some people believe that it does not exist and some people think it does. The answer to the question depends on who you ask.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is momentum a real thing?
A: Yes. Momentum is a real thing in physics. It states that, if you have something with mass and its moving, it will always continue to move at the same speed and direction unless acted on by an external force or obstacle. This can be applied to anything from cars driving down the road to people walking across a room.
Is momentum a thing in sports?
Is momentum Real in basketball?
A: Yes, momentum is a Real term in basketball.
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