What Sports Tells Us About the Psychology of Momentum

Every year millions of people fill out brackets predicting the results of the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament. This year, Syracuse is the big surprise so far – less than one percent of all brackets submitted to the NCAA’s Bracket Challenge had Syracuse surviving into the Final Four.

This unpredictability is what makes the whole thing fun. If the top-ranked team won every time, people would lose interest pretty quickly.

So why do teams that shouldn’t win end up winning? Part of it is momentum. Psychology is a big part of why some teams exceed expectations while others fall flat, and momentum is one of the most important factors in the psychological game.

Researchers looking at how psychological momentum affects athletes’ performance have found that momentum matters, and that negative momentum matters more than positive momentum. That is, the negative effects of having momentum against you outweigh the positive effects of having momentum on your side.

The effects of momentum show up in several ways:

  • A 2010 study of table tennis players found that anxiety levels went down linearly when score gaps increased (indicating positive momentum) but went up much faster when score gaps decreased (indicating negative momentum).
  • A 2014 study of rowers found that overall effort exerted decreased more during times of negative momentum than it increased during times of positive momentum. Interpersonal coordination also got worse under negative momentum.

Moreover, it turns out that how people react to short-term momentum changes depends on long-term momentum. Another study of rowers showed that athletes who have long-term momentum against them are more sensitive to negative changes in short-term momentum.

Specifically, the study looked at athletes’ performance over the course of a manipulated tournament consisting of three simulated races. Compared to athletes who’d won the first two races, athletes who’d lost the races perceived negative shifts in short-term momentum within the third race to be of greater magnitude, had their senses of self-efficacy go down more quickly and decreased how much effort they were exerting more quickly.

For those of us who aren’t competitive athletes, there are a few takeaways from all this.

First, put your money on the team with momentum! Maybe not very helpful at this point in March Madness, since all the teams who’re left by definition have momentum on their side. But something to keep in mind.

Second, momentum isn’t only relevant to sports. We all go through periods of positive and negative momentum in our lives. If there’s one thing we can learn from sports, it’s that how we react to negative momentum matters a lot.

Success is always going to be fragile and transient. We can’t hold onto our successes, but we can do everything in our power to fight back from failures, things not going our way and just general bad luck.

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