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Does Momentum Exist?

Kevin C. Cox

Thursday night was a solid win. And afterwards I was thinking about who I'd give the game ball to if I were the head ball coach. We saw some excellent play all over the field. In fact every facet of our game was dominant besides our O line. So I started to consider what were the key plays of the game and who stepped up in those situations. And after thinking about it that way I realized who I'd give the game ball to.

Chandler Catanzaro.

Here's why. Our offense fizzled out on the opening drive and failed to punch it in for a TD. But Catanzaro came in and drilled a 40 yarder to put us up by 3. The next drive ended in a punt. And our next drive saw Catanzaro waltz on the turf and put a 51 yarder between the posts. The next drive ended in a 41 yard TD pass to Sammy Watkins. Suddenly we were up 13-0. And we never looked back. Because that is a big lead against an option team like GT that's not exactly equipped to play catch-up. And they know that.

Those two field goals weren't demoralizing. But they definitely affected the GT psyche in a negative way. The game was an uphill battle for them from our very first drive. And then the hill got steeper and steeper.

It's all about momentum.

Or is it? I think in any upset-watchout-type situation it is crucial to score immediately. you can't leave the underdogs hanging around. But not everyone agrees. Many sportswriters are beginning to doubt the existence of momentum. And they use statistical analysis to demystify the big M.

Here's how the folks over at Football Freakonomics put it in an article dedicated to the topic:

just as the physical world cannot escape gravity, the statistical world cannot escape what’s called "regression to the mean." Those wild streaks, as fun as they were, have very little bearing on what happens next.

Bill Barnwell over at Grantland gives a far more thorough and moving argument against momentum. Or as he calls it nomentum:

I'm a little skeptical of momentum, so much so that I started to use a name for it last February: nomentum. I can't prove that momentum does or does not exist in sports, because it's an arbitrary, abstract idea that you can mold into just about anything you want to tell the story you're looking to tell. Of course, you can also say the same thing about statistics, but there are stricter concrete rules that come into play when using statistics; even an untrained eye can recognize a small sample size or an arbitrary endpoint chosen to create a misrepresentative idea. There are really no rules for momentum. You just need to have something good — not even good, actually; just something meaningful — in the past and the hope of possibly succeeding in the future. And the more I look, truthfully, the less of an argument for momentum I see.

He goes on to give an impressive in-depth analysis. I can't argue with his use of statistics. But I don't think you can prove or disprove the existence of momentum with statistical evidence in the first place. Momentum must be evaluated through the lens of a psychologist.

There are oodles of psychological studies that could be cited in an attempt to prove the existence of momentum. Some of them are even sports related like the famous free throw visualization study.

But the one I find most relevant has nothing to do with sports. It's the Zimbardo Prison Experiment done at Stanford back in 1971. Basically what happened was that a group of psychology students were randomly chosen to act as either prison guards or as prisoners within a mock prison environment set up in the psychology building's basement. The goal of the experiment was to determine to what degree the students would assume the roles they were given within the artificial social constructs. The thing was a nightmare. The students acting as prisoners became submissive and depressed. The students acting as prison guards subjected their fellow students to psychological torture and brutal discipline. The experiment was supposed to last for 2 weeks. It was terminated after only 6 days.

Here were the conclusions in a nutshell: The results of the experiment have been argued to demonstrate the impressionability and obedience of people when provided with a legitimizing ideology and social and institutional support. The experiment has also been used to illustrate cognitive dissonance theory and the power of authority.

In other words people are frighteningly likely to internalize the role given to them by a social structure. And there are only two roles that teams are given when entering a football game. One team is favored to win. The other team is the underdog.

If the favored team scores immediately on the underdog then the favored team fulfills the expectation of the social construct. The favored team becomes an authority. That authority increases with every score. And the underdog mentally internalizes their role as the loser of the day. With the media juggernauts acting as the "social and institutional support" as well as the "legitimizing ideology."

Catanzaro kicks established us as the authority over a weaker opponent. And thus these two kicks were essential to helping us "fulfill the prophecy of national expectations."

Now of course these factors can be overcome. That's why there are upsets. But no underdog ever pulls an upset without first rejecting the notion of themselves as underdog. When they win it is because they believe wholly in their ability to do so. That and of course they need a little bit of a momentum swing.

Where do yall stand? Is momentum a real thing or a myth?