Momentum (and confidence)

Watching the Giants game today – good lord, are they awful – the folks I was watching with were struck by the announcers’ use of the concepts of momentum and confidence. Both are extremely elastic term in the hands of sports commentators. They appear to be present, by definition, whenever a team is playing well and and absent when a team is not. In both cases the question is how one gets them *back* when we’re typically told that you can’t really play well without them. At some point, you have to have played well without confidence or momentum, at least during a transitional period between bad and good play. But I’ve never heard an announcer say that a player or team did something good without one or both properties.

Frank Deford explored some of the mysterious qualities of momentum back in 1971.

Here’s some of his discussion of how it managed to ping back and forth between the Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates during that year’s World Series:

…Both the Pirates‘ and Orioles‘ playoff victories were attributed to Momentum, as were the Orioles‘ first two World Series victories.

Q. But wait. I thought you said that it was agreed that the Pirates were also being carried by Momentum coming into the Series.

A. They lost their Momentum in Baltimore.

Q. Did the Orioles have Momentum going for them when they went to Pittsburgh for the third game?

A. Absolutely, everybody agreed.

Q. What was Pittsburgh‘s aim at this point?

A. To regain Momentum.

Q. Did they?

A. Yes. They turned the Momentum around.

Q. But then, what happened to all that well-documented Oriole Momentum?

A. It was sidetracked.

Q. For how long?

A. Not long. In the very first inning of the next game, Baltimore scored three runs and recovered its Momentum.

Q. And Pittsburgh lost its?

A. Temporarily.

Q. I don’t understand. If Baltimore recovered its Momentum and Pittsburgh lost its temporarily, how did the Pirates ever win?

A. Young Bruce Kison came in to check the Oriole Momentum.

Q. Of course. And what happened then?

A. Then the Pirates stole the Oriole Momentum.

Q. The Orioles were glad to return to Baltimore, weren’t they?

A. You bet. They hoped to pick up the same Momentum they had exhibited before.

Q. And the Pirates?

A. Well, of course, everybody knew the big question was whether or not they could retain the Momentum that they had uncovered in Pittsburgh.

Q. Well, what happened?

A. Frank Robinson’s base running picked up the Oriole Momentum.

Q. Then the Orioles obviously had a big edge going into the last game?

A. No, remember that Steve Blass came into the game with Momentum too.

Q. You mean both teams were blessed with Momentum?

A. They were until Roberto Clemente hit a home run and blunted the Oriole Momentum.

And so on…Unfortunately, we’ve seen relatively little progress in the past four decades in terms of real analysis of the games on the field.

 

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6 comments

  1. I agree.
    Anyone who has played sports from scratch teams to the pros know what it feels like to be in a team that’s performing well or badly: great – we’re going to roll over these guys; or, oh no, how are we going to stop these guys?
    But I don’t know of any studies which support the existence of momentum. I know of plenty that show humans perception of a situation (but not necessarily their performace) is altered by how they’re feeling.
    Good post, JW.

    PS – I didn’t see the Giants today but the Eagles did their best to match them (albeit against tough opposition). That much was visible, even from down here in Australia.

    1. The point you raise is the key – things like confidence and momentum are certainly what we experience. It would be nice if commentators could try to go beyond that, though. It’s not irrelevant. It just can’t be the whole story. About the Eagles, at least you can say they are a work in progress. Not so the Jints.

  2. I think confidence can play a role, in some sports more than others, but confidence does nothing if you don’t have talent or skill. I think some players forget that “skill” part. As for momentum, I never thought about it, but I love how that interview exposed how practically irrelevant it is. When I’m playing basketball and a team starts losing or missing shots, they start forcing bad shots or bad passes. I guess it seems like momentum is with the other team, when in reality, they’re just playing better and taking better shots.

    As for the Giants, well, I have the Chiefs’ defense on my fantasy football team, so I was merely happy that Manning didn’t torch them.

    1. Actually, this goes perfectly with a segment on First Take from a year or two ago. Mark Cuban was on and basically torched Skip Bayless for using abstract terms like “momentum” and “pressure” in stead of statistics and facts to explain why one team beat the other. It was highly entertaining.

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