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Let's Get Physical

Feb. 02, 2009
Feb. 02, 2009

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Feb. 2, 2009

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Let's Get Physical

Broadcasters and coaches love to cite it, but what exactly is the Big Mo?

ON THE one hand, momentum is quite easy to explain. It's a product of mass and velocity. Like when Jerome Bettis, or anyone else named for public transportation, gets a running start. That's a kind of momentum. On the other hand, it's very mysterious. Like when the Cardinals get into the Super Bowl with a 9--7 regular-season record. That's another kind of momentum. Nobody really understands this second kind, except for a handful of sports announcers who, alone among us, can tell when it is lost, when a team needs to get more of it, and when (this is very critical) it shifts.

This is an article from the Feb. 2, 2009 issue

The one thing that all of us can recognize is that no team gets very far into postseason play without it. This ought to be obvious, inasmuch as a playoff format, at least in the NFL, pretty much demands a certain number of consecutive victories. In fact, that is exactly the quality that is being tested for—momentum. If the Cardinals were the best team in football, certainly they would have beaten more teams than anybody else. Yet because they have won their last three games, they are in the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl, the Final Four, the World Series, the presidential election: These are all momentum indicators at heart.

Of course, the NFL momentum could very well shift again this Sunday. The Steelers could actually gain momentum, and that would pretty much negate Arizona's. The thing about momentum is, there is only so much to go around. It is a closed system, physicswise. The Cardinals will have momentum only as long as the Steelers don't. And only an announcer can tell for sure when the shift might happen. As we say, it's very mysterious.

Attempts to explain momentum in any terms beyond these have usually fallen flat. You would need your own broadcast booth to delve any deeper. Or, failing that, a Texas Instruments graphing calculator. Occasionally, an academic will try to make himself more popular with (academic) women by publishing a paper on a sports topic, and not a few have taken on momentum. These studies often have more numbers than a box score but are rarely as refreshing. One group of researchers tried to disprove the notion of "shooting momentum" and came up with The Hot Hand in Basketball: On the Misperception of Random Sequences. You can imagine the breeding opportunities they had.

There are a surprising number of such studies when you look into (Google) this. There was one guy—he called it flow instead of momentum—who deconstructed the idea and came up with nine ingredients for sports momentum. One of them was confidence. O.K. Another was the "autotelic experience." Just not useful. Say what you will about announcers, but they'd never float "autotelic experience" over the airwaves. A couple of other guys came up with the Multidimensional Model of Momentum in Sports, which was an improvement because it had just six ingredients, one of them being a "precipitating event," which we took to mean fumble. Then again, they might have meant rain.

Similar investigations into individual momentum, wherein an athlete may be said to be in a zone or on a roll, are all identically fruitless. One sports psychologist tried to make a case for "confidence squared," saying "players start to perk up and get excited when they have that feeling of momentum." In other words, the hoop looks enormous after a few baskets. But, he added, "in terms of collapse, momentum can go in the opposite direction." In other words, it looks small after the ball rattles out. We could have guessed that.

If it were going to be that easy to explain, we'd have found a way to duplicate it, coach it and write best-selling books about it. Wouldn't that be a nice niche in the publishing industry, Oprah's guide to personal momentum? Do you think Malcolm Gladwell would be fooling around with tipping points if he could explain momentum? What if some general manager was secretly practicing—oh, what should we call it?—Momentum Ball? How long until Michael Lewis located him?

More to the point: Do you think the New York Mets would have been allowed to blow a seven-game lead with 17 to play if somebody besides radio talk-show hosts understood this phenomenon? Do you think Greg Norman would be known for something more than his Saturday Slam and his Syrah if he had a better momentum coach than swing coach? Where do you think John McCain would be sitting right now if he'd just had a momentum aide?

Last year Memphis was on its way to the NCAA championship with two minutes to play, but Kansas came back and tied the game on a three-pointer and eventually won in overtime. Clearly, the momentum shifted. Any announcer could have told you so. Sports psychologists, on the other hand, would say that happened because Memphis went into survival mode (playing not to lose) and Kansas into attack (playing to win). Kansas thus squared up its confidence and enjoyed an autotelic experience. Or perhaps that three-pointer served as a precipitating event, raining down from outside. Or perhaps, as Memphis coach John Calipari said, "We just missed our shots, and they made all of theirs." Sometimes it's that simple.

If sports were so predictable that teams with big leads always won, if batters with hitting streaks kept hitting, if players in a zone stayed there—well, Joe DiMaggio would still be at the plate, Gene Mauch would have been the greatest manager in baseball, and we'd be out of business. How interesting would the games be? In fact, at these upper levels of performance, the talent is so evenly distributed (we're overlooking the Detroit Lions for simplicity of argument) that random events—pieces of luck, an unlikely and inspired effort here or there, a boneheaded decision, a blown call—are often the difference in a game, a season or even a career.

And do you know what we say when such events occur, how we account for paranormal outcomes and puzzlements, how we describe things that can't be described? Easy.

Any announcer could do it. The momentum just shifted.

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On one hand, it's a product of mass and velocity. On the other, MOMENTUM IS VERY MYSTERIOUS.
ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY FRED HARPER