You don’t have to be a player in competitive sports like basketball, baseball, tennis or football to believe in the phenomenon of “psychological momentum” (PM). It is also known popularly as “The Big Mo.”
Although it is a popular term in sports, it can be the mindset of stockbrokers, politicians, drivers trying to fight traffic jams and even ordinary people cleaning their house.
PM, according to The Oxford Dictionary of Sports Science is defined as “a perceptual phenomenon that changes human behavior and performance. It is experienced as a psychological force in which several factors or qualities converge in a synergistic way to enable one to perform at a level not ordinarily possible.”
Professional sportsmen who have had a bad season, for example, can become more confident after they win a game, but if that single achievement doesn’t make the competitor change his state of mind and believe that things will automatically go their way, they will not have the psychological momentum that will push them to solid successes in the future.
A housekeeper who is “on a roll” efficiently carrying out a series of chores of cleaning and tidying up without any interruptions or setbacks will feel PM as well. So will presidential candidates who, after a losing streak in primaries season, wins one, making them believe they are on the road to winning the final election. But that doesn’t automatically turn out to be true.
People who have PM become more efficient, save time and are more optimistic about reaching their goal. When they are successful at the outset, they may feel more competent and become more self-confident, and as a result, they have higher expectations of succeeding and spend more mental and physical energy in reaching their goal. But if such a single successful performance fails to change their state of mind and push them to foresee inevitable success, they will not develop psychological momentum.
Researchers at the Guilford Glazer Faculty of Business Management at Ben-Gurion University Medical Center in Beersheba chose the subject of “The Big Mo” to determine whether it really works. They concluded in a study published in the Journal of Economic Psychology that sports teams that come from behind do not have a greater chance of winning in overtime. Their conclusion, write the authors, is apt to other professions and goals.
In the study, the researchers – headed by Dr. Elia Morgulev – disprove theories of how psychological momentum in sports and in life leads to success.
When a basketball team ties a game in its allotted time, the game goes to overtime. Momentum implies that a comeback team should have higher chances to win in overtime
“People talk about momentum as an indicator for success in business, sports and politics,” said Morgulev. “However, after studying close to 900 tied games with fourth-quarter comebacks over 11 National Basketball Association seasons, we found that regardless of momentum, teams with the home court advantage and the better season-long win-loss record were more likely to succeed in the five-minute overtime.”
Morgulev, along with Profs. Ofer H. Azar and Michael Bar-Eli of BGU’s Department of Business Administration, are the first to analyze the effect of fourth-quarter comebacks on overtime performance. They address the larger question of whether or not recent success creates enough psychological momentum to make a positive impact on subsequent team and individual performance.
The BGU experts noted that “despite the prevalence of the momentum concept, the literature is still divided on whether psychological momentum actually exists. We aimed to detect psychological momentum in the specific setting of overtime in basketball games.”
The BGU research team wondered whether the momentum of a comeback team be offset by a more aggressive, focused and motivated team that feels it was “robbed” of its win and must now go into overtime. They also considered whether the comeback sportsmen could become so exhausted from the play that they lose momentum. Could releasing tension during even a brief break before overtime cause a team to relax because they feel they’ve achieved their target of not losing and then lose any potential momentum?
A player can feel it during a game when they hit a game-changing home run or when they go 0 for 4 at the plate. A team can feel it when they come back from a deficit late in the game or when their lead in the division vanishes. A fan can feel it as their team “catches fire” or goes “as cold as ice.” And, play-by-play announcers love to talk about it.
“We know it as the ‘Big Mo,’ the ‘Hot Hand’ and being ‘In The Zone’ while the psychologists call it Psychological Momentum. But, does it really exist?” the BGU researchers wrote. “Is it just a temporary shift in confidence and mood or does it actually change the outcome of a game or a season? As expected, there are lots of opinions available.”
Ultimately, the researchers asked: Why do people tend to associate NBA comebacks with psychological momentum, even though data does not support it? “It seems intuitive to expect a comeback team to benefit from momentum,” said Azar. “So perhaps when a team that closed a gap in the fourth quarter does win in overtime, it stands out more in people’s memories and reinforces a common belief over time.”
Comeback during basketball games is “perceived to be a catalyst for momentum. In contradiction to such common beliefs, we found that teams that came from behind to tie the game did not have higher chances to win in overtime. Interestingly, however, home advantage and the number of season-wins of the teams did affect the chances to win in the five-minute overtime,” wrote Morgulev.
These findings raise questions for future research, said Bar-Eli. “Why don’t we observe momentum in situations where success should lead to psychological and physiological gains?”
Morgulev, who is also the head of physical education studies at the nearby Kaye Academic College of Education stated: “These findings are also relevant in the education field as current pedagogy is obsessed with promoting the experience of success. They often neglect the importance of obstacles and failures in the building of character and in fostering inner motivation to overcome and prevail.”