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Momentum in Sport: How it Occurs and Overcoming it

Written by Daniel Dymond on Wednesday, 29 October 2014. Posted in October

Momentum is a real experience in sport. Teams or athletes can surge away during competition and look like they have all the energy, loads of skill, and like they want to win more than their opponents.
As with most psychological experiences, and momentum is one of these, you can't touch it, you can't smell it, you can't physically see it, but you can feel its effects, experience it, and know it's occurring, whether you're competing or watching.

The questions most athletes and coaches want answered are:
1) How do you gain momentum?
2) How do you stop opponents from gaining momentum?
3) How do you wrestle momentum back?

I hope to add insight as to how to answer the above questions by explaining what momentum is and what needs to be done to stop it negatively affecting you.

What is momentum? Most of you may know the physics equation for momentum:
Momentum = Mass x Velocity.
It's an important equation because it can be related to sport and in fact an American psychologist named Wray Herbert came up with an equation for momentum in sport.

Importance af the competition (mass)
Momentum = x
Impact of an event during competition (velocity)

Mass is, according to this theory, provided by the context:
a) How important the competition is.
b) How emotionally invested teams (or athletes) are in the outcome of this competition compared to other times.
Velocity is the importance of an event within the competition. In sport, this is usually a "big play" that turns the tide: an important mark in a football game, a slam dunk in basketball, or winning the longest rally of a tennis match.

Further, for momentum to occur, you need at least two competitors, and interaction between competitors. If you're a golfer who starts to sink 2 or 3 puts in a row then this is not momentum, but 'being in the zone' (or flow state). Golfers, for example, experience flow rather than momentum because they aren't being affected physically by their opponents' performance. Yes, golfers could be affected mentally by others' shots, but opponents are not impacting their club or ball.

If at least two competitors are involved (2 teams or tennis players), then momentum must involve interaction between competitors in order for it to have an impact on outcome and performance. For momentum to have an impact on outcome, there must be a giver (those with the momentum) and a receiver (without).

To add a bit more context to this, I shall use an example. Imagine two football teams who are involved in a really tight preliminary final, there is little separating them. Late on in the match a player from one side breaks free from a pack, runs with the ball, and sends a kick into the fifty, which is well marked by the forward. The forward then kicks a goal and celebrations follow.
This event could be regarded as a momentum shifter. But the size of the momentum shift is dependent on the importance of the game (preliminary final) and how 'big' the play was. This is different for both teams. Whilst a preliminary final is a big match, if one team has played successfully in many prelims, then that momentum shift will be less for them whether they are the receivers or givers compared to teams who are playing in a final for the first time.

The impact of momentum would also be affected by the stage of a match. In tennis, winning a long rally in the final set will probably give you more momentum than winning a long rally in the first set. As pressure increases towards the end a match, so does the importance of each point - therefore being aware of times when momentum may have an affect on you (positively or negatively) can help you overcome its effects, particularly if you are mentally trained in letting previous points go and staying present.

I believe one of the key aspects to reducing the effect of momentum when it's against you and in wrestling it back is to acknowledge it and train yourself in becoming aware of when it's impacting the match. To ignore or deny it's happening is an error because unless you respond positively, momentum can last for a long time.
I like to use a quote by Bruce Lee when explaining how to best deal with momentum when it's against you:

"Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind"

To respond positively to momentum, you need to acknowledge its occurrence, keep performing to your values (persistence, ruthlessness, honesty, whatever they maybe), and if necessary change to a plan 'b' if you have one. Essentially maintain your structure, but be flexible, just like the bamboo when the wind is blowing.

You need to train this - don't just expect it to happen. Work on noticing the signs of momentum shifts by using your emotional awareness and intelligence. Plan for different scenarios with your coach - a plan 'b' is not a plan if you decide to go away from plan 'a' in the spare of the moment. If you work hard on this you may even find that by reducing the impact of your opponents' momentum, the impact of yours will increase.


1. The more important and emotional investment you have in a match, the more momentum will affect you - positively and negatively.
2. The amount of momentum you will lose or gain is dependent on your opponent's emotional investment and importance placed on the match.
3. The bigger the play, the more momentum will be gained or lost.
4. You need interaction between two teams/athletes for momentum to have an impact.
5. Stay flexible by having a plan 'b'.
6. Learn the triggers (emotional and thoughts) to when momentum is shifting and building.

Unleash your warrior.

Daniel Dymond - Sport Psychologist

About the Author

Daniel Dymond