Momentum: Recognizing and Dealing With It

Momentum, in sports, is a psychological concept – the roar of a crowd moves us, a referee’s call throws us off. How do we recognize momentum and keep it from heading us the wrong way?

Over the holidays I read Andre Agassi’s autobiography Open. The book is an outstanding and candid look at the life of a person born and raised to become a world champion tennis player. Agassi’s writing is truly refreshing, expressing his doubts, fears, successes, and failures during the course of his career as a world-class athlete. One of the big takeaways from the book was his view on the concept of momentum in sports. Throughout his career, whether it was in any given match or the way Agassi played during an entire season, a great deal had to do with momentum.

In physics, momentum is a cornerstone concept referring to mass and velocity. As an object gains velocity it gains momentum. Think of a ball rolling down a hill gaining speed as it rolls. In sports though, we think of momentum not necessarily in terms of physics, but mostly as a psychological concept.

Recognizing Momentum

Athletes must first possess the intelligence and awareness to understand when momentum is shifting or has changed. There are many triggers that change momentum, from the roar of the crowd, to a referee’s call, to the memory of past experiences and outcomes. Though these variables seemingly affect an athlete’s play, in reality these are psychological concepts. The noise of a crowd and a bad call do not have to adversely affect performance, but they often do.

As athletes, we must recognize that our mental state has been compromised and look to resolve the situation sooner than later. This awareness and intelligence is the way out – to know thyself. Otherwise, momentum takes hold and games can turn into losing streaks, and losing streaks can turn into rough patches, and really rough patches. In his book, Agassi spoke of the power of momentum:

Our best intentions are often thwarted by external forces – forces that we ourselves set in motion long ago. Decisions, especially bad ones create their own kind of momentum, and momentum can be a bitch to stop, as every athlete knows. Even when we vow to change, even when we sorrow and atone for our mistakes, the momentum of our past keeps carrying us down the wrong road. Momentum rules the world. Momentum says: Hold on, not so fast, I’m still running things here. As a friend likes to say, quoting an old Greek poem: The minds of the everlasting gods are not changed suddenly.

So, assuming we have to have intelligence and awareness to recognize the triggers and changes in momentum, what do we do with that knowledge? Mostly we need to stay present, and realize victory is obtained by being in the moment. No matter how many times the dice come up one way, there’s always another throw. The odds stay the same in reality.

Dealing With Momentum Changes

  • sports psychology, momentum, andre agassi, andre agassi open, tennis bookStay present and keep in the moment. Win a point, don’t try to win the match.
  • Keep your effort consistent and hard. Don’t coast when you’re ahead or press when you’re behind. One step, one point, one punch at a time.
  • Maintain a positive body language. Power lifters literally look up to keep their posture upright. Our bodies tend to go where we’re looking. The same happens psychologically. If our mind is in a funk, our game is soon to follow. Keep your body language and posture positive and your mental can follow. Therefore, make the physical mental and the mental physical. If you’re in a mental funk, start with your body. If your body is struggling, get your mind right and look like a winner.
  • If you are in one of those rough patches (a long stretch of negative momentum), go back to the drawing board. Sticking to the same plan often doesn’t work, however abrupt and reactive changes don’t work all that well either. What you need is to rework your plan. Perhaps you’ve gotten older and need to adapt your game to your changing body. Perhaps your personal life is affecting your professional life or life in sport. Stop. Take a breath, take a vacation. Hit reset. Then get your mind right, hire the right team, and move forward.

I have an analogy I’ve used with my boxing students for years and that is to swim with the current. Many of us when faced with a strong current will fight that current. As anyone who has ever been in a riptide can attest, the current wins every time. Much better to swim with that current and then find an exit. Momentum is like a current. We need to stay calm, relaxed, and present, and swim with that current.

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