Is Momentum Real?
We’ve all felt it. As a player, coach, or fan, we can all feel the momentum swing.
When we lose it, our team is stuck in the muck, nothing goes our way. 50/50 balls are lost, shots are botched, and we can’t get the ball past half with any semblance of control.
But when we’ve got ‘The Big Mo’ (we’re talking momentum, not that Big Mo), nothing can stand in our way. The flow of the game is in our favor. Every pass is precise, the defense flicks away attacks with the lazy ease of shooing a fly, and the ball never seems to leave our attacking third.
And then there are those moments. A sky-high penalty, the ref’s mistake, a costly injury, the moment the pendulum starts to swing the other way. These are known as precipitating events when the momentum changes course. “Shoulda, coulda, woulda”s, my uncle liked to call it. If he only woulda sunk that penalty; the ref shoulda called that offsides; if only he coulda played in the last 30 minutes…
We know what it’s like with momentum, without it, and exactly when we lose or gain it. Momentum is such an integrated part of sports jargon because it is universally experienced with certainty. So, I share your incredulity when the question is poised: Does momentum even exist?
Let’s first look at basketball, a more numerical sport. Throughout most games, someone will be deemed “hot” or “feelin it,” like when a guard is nailing three’s. However, one study found “no evidence for a positive correlation between the outcomes of successive shots,” which means that if I make two in a row, I am no more likely to make another two.
Apply this to soccer, and a player on a hot streak of a goal or two in successive games is no more or less likely to score in the next just because he’s on a streak.
Looking at American football, another group of researchers compared streaks to flipping coins. If I flip a coin 100 times, I might get 10 heads in a row, but that makes the 11th flip no more or less likely to be heads. Statistically speaking, streaks are guaranteed over a large enough sample. It makes playing exceptionally well less about turning it on and more about luck.
A look at 458 back-to-back series games in Division 1 hockey found that “no evidence exists for momentum across games”. This is easily comparable to the two-game playoffs that we find in soccer. Often, I hear about the importance of establishing the momentum in the first match, or announcers preach, “Team X and Team Y are evenly matched, but Team X has the advantage having gained the momentum in the first match.”
Even in a totally unrelated area like politics, momentum is disproven. One New York Times blogger analyzed the data and found that despite the emphasis placed on the Big Mo, “There’s just one problem with this. It has no particular tendency toward being true.” Success in the previous week is no guarantee of success for the following, they argued.
In light of these studies, I hold that momentum is merely a statistical anomaly. Instead of a mystical force guiding games, it is a statistical phenomenon, quantifiable and observable. The volatility can seem quite dramatic in the heat of a match, but these ups and downs will smooth out across a season, showing the superiority and inferiority of teams.
Flip a coin a thousand times, the heads and tails will be somewhat even. Throughout that evenness, there will streaks of heads with a sparsity of tails, and vice versa. Taken through a season luck will balance out, rendering itself less influential. Within a match, luck/statistical-unlikelihood/momentum can make all the difference.
Yet, I have a life-preserver for those that would drown without a legitimization of momentum. A 2008 study of university players in the U.K. found that “experiencing positive psychological momentum would enhance performance whereas perceiving negative psychological momentum would impair performance”.
Essentially, momentum is a myth. That’s not to belittle the concept because some myths have incredible power. Start with Egyptian pharaohs claiming to be gods, end with Donald Trump claiming to be a legitimate candidate, and look at everything in between. Myths have changed lives, guided ambitions, elevated and squashed, and even ruled. Influence the outcome of a game? No problem.
In all of sport, including soccer, the perception of the fictitious momentum is massively influential. We can hear, feel it, almost touch and taste it even though it doesn’t exist. Not the presence of, but the idea of momentum is where the power lies.
To quote the great and mythical Albus Dumbledore: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
Thus, momentum is disproven by stats, but the mistaken perception of momentum, whose influence is legitimized only in our heads, can definitely decide a game.