Wednesday, 6 March 2013

The 30 Day challenge - Day 29 - Guest post on Momentum by Greg Young PhD

Nani's sending off illustrated team psychological momentum

Today’s blog comes from a Geordie researcher currently living in Portland, Oregon. Greg Young is a Certified Consultant of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. His specialty in research is the area of psychological momentum, specifically the athlete’s experience of when changes during a performance affect the eventual outcome. Given that Greg specializes with football and that one of the biggest games of the season (Manchester United V Real Madrid) seemingly turned on the outcome of a controversial sending off last night, this seems a particularly pertinent post!

I’ll leave it to Greg to introduce what Momentum is, what research has so far elucidated on the subject and some tips if an event is not going your way. If after reading this you have more questions or points to make, then please ask away in the comments section. If you want to contact Greg directly, he can be reached via Twitter
@docyoungy.

Greg: Thanks Stuart! Momentum is one of the most often cited yet least understood phenomena in sport.  Commentators and pundits talk about it swinging or changing in an instant and in terms that make it sound like a baton being passed between players and teams.  Although theories of momentum already exist (see Cornelius, Silva, Conroy, & Peterson, 1997; Taylor, & Demick, 1994; and Vallerand, et al., 1988) a universal definition of momentum does not currently exist.  Therefore, trying to understand exactly how momentum works is a lot like trying to nail water to the wall; you bang away with the hammer but ultimately nothing really sticks.  So let the hammering commence…

Before we delve to deeply into the topic, let me start by saying momentum doesn't exist…statistically anyway.  Early definitions from social psychology referred to momentum as a bi-directional concept, affecting the probability of winning or losing as a function of the preceding event (Adler, 1981).  Research examining data from actual competition has shown performance that followed previous successes or failures to be no different than would be expected by chance (e.g., Gayton & Very, 1993; Koehler & Conley, 2003; Silva, Hardy, & Crace, 1988).  This is how momentum has been defined in the past and perhaps the way that many people conceptualise the phenomena - being on either a positive or negative “roll” as it were.  Although there is not currently a universally agreed upon definition of momentum, recent definitions of momentum have included a psychological component describing “changes in an athlete’s performance based on success and failure in recent events that have in some way changed the psychology of the athlete” (e.g. Vergin, 2000).  That is to say that the athlete perceives the situation to carry meaning based on recent events, which causes them to think and behave differently.

With the addition of the athlete’s psychology in mind, we can now take into account perceptions of momentum, that is to say how do they think momentum influences their performance.  While perceptions are very difficult to quantify, they undoubtedly impact behavior if athletes believe it does.  I have been lucky enough to interview high-level tennis, football, basketball, and volleyball players about how they perceive and experience momentum in their sports. The following information arises as the pertinent results from those interviews. While these sports may not exactly mirror the overall emphasis of this blog I am sure you, as athletes and coaches looking to improve your craft, can find parallels.

Athletes I have worked with are acutely aware of “knowing” when and how they are experiencing momentum.  Most commonly we associate momentum with a score line or objective measure of success and failure.  While these are very powerful indicators of momentum for athletes they are not the be all and end all.  Other aspects that are much harder for us to observe, as they don't necessarily manifest themselves in objective success, occur within the athlete themselves.  These include both physiological aspects, such as increased adrenaline and energy levels (feeling bouncy) or feeling relaxed and smooth during performance, and psychological aspects such as increased confidence or feelings of being unstoppable or invincible! For example, I was lucky enough to discuss momentum with a professional tennis player.  He continually mentioned how he saw I as something very important in tennis: “momentum makes you just play freely and makes you relax.  I know sometimes I’m playing so relaxed I feel I’m not even holding the racquet, it’s just in my hand, it’s stuck to my hand with sticky tape, that’s how loose it is”.  While this feeling of relaxation and other internal thoughts, feelings, and emotions may not be as explicit as a score line or a time on a watch, they are equally valuable to athletes as indicators of momentum and can often contradict what appears on the scoreboard.  Simply because we do not see success in terms of goals, points, or splits, does not necessarily mean we don't have/are experiencing negative momentum.  Checking in and assessing how we’re doing with these internal factors can help facilitate positive perceptions of momentum, even if the score line/time/split/placing in the field may suggest otherwise.

We often consider momentum something that changes in the blink of an eye caused by a specific incident.  For example, Nani’s surprising sending off in last night’s Manchester United vs. Real Madrid Champions League match was without a doubt the critical moment in the game in which the momentum of the game changed and Madrid took control and dictated play at their own pace despite being a goal behind.  However, athletes also see momentum as something they can systematically build, without relying on some magical switch to be flicked or some “Unbelievable, Jeff!” incident to occur.  

In my research, building one’s own momentum was described as being more powerful and resilient than momentum “given” to us by an opponent or caused by a single moment.  Athlete’s I have worked with described how they build their own perceptions of momentum by using some the following techniques:

·    Get off to a good start – build an early foundation of success on which to continue to develop your momentum
·    Find a balance for your effort and play within your capabilities – don't try to force a “big moment” to happen.
·    Go back to basics – play simply and concentrate on components that have brought you success in the past.
·    Control the rhythm and tempo of the event or the game - dictate the pace you want, no one else’s
·    Trust your preparation and execute your plan – You have the plan for a reason, you designed it to be successful, follow it!

It should also be said that these are simply good practice for all performances and tie into the use of a process focus for successful performance (Stu has written previously on this topic on process goals for marathon running).

One final thought to leave you with… Consider the way a crowd reacts at a sporting event. The athlete is not directly trying to make the crowd react, but rather influencing his/her performance that in turn dictates the reaction of the spectators. The same can be said for momentum, as athletes are generally aware of momentum in their performance but are not focusing on trying to influence it directly. Rather athletes attempt to positively influence their performance, which in turn has a positive impact on their perceptions of momentum.

In conclusion, if you take care of the process and do what you need to do to be successful during performance (and avoid being sent off!) you don't have to worry
about finding momentum, it will find you.

    

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