The phenomenon of momentum and why it is real

Story by Benjamin Regan
Online Managing Editor 

Illustration by Isole Kim
Co-Design Editor

Sports are defined by streaks, both winning and losing. From 1971–1974 under the leadership of Coach John Wooden, the UCLA men’s Basketball team won 88 straight games, including three national championships during that time. On the other side of the scoreboard, some teams find themselves in the history books for the wrong reasons. Caltech men’s Basketball could not win a game from 1996– 2007. The Beavers lost 207 consecutive games. 

These streaks tap into an element beyond just talent. Most of the time, the better team wins and the lesser team loses. But when teams win or lose games consecutively, displaying uninterrupted dominance or unwavering incompetence, it is the snowball rolling down the hill, picking up wins or losses. In sports terms: momentum. Momentum is the idea that teams or players are affected by their previous efforts and will continue upon them. For example, once a team starts playing well and winning games, confidence will be high and the team will keep winning. Momentum is the cycle of good play leading to confidence, in turn leading to more good play. 

For athletes, momentum is real and has tangible effects. It is not merely a placebo effect; players are legitimately impacted by their previous play. A past performance influences the future, which is why players tend to build off past successes with good games while players who have struggled find it difficult to bounce back. The most admirable efforts are by those that fail earlier in the game and recover to become the hero. This type of performance is rare, taking not only the necessary talent but the skill of mental toughness and tenacity. 

When momentum is at play, everyone can feel it. Fans, coaches, and players know momentum when they see it; they can feel a team rolling past their opponent. When a basketball player knocks down a shot, then another, and another, it feels like they cannot miss. Armed with the momentum, that player will keep shooting, and likely keep connecting. The momentum might even become contagious, spreading to the rest of the team. This was the case for the SPHS boys’ basketball team on Wednesday, Dec. 13, beating the rival San Marino Titans with a 112-point performance. Behind senior Derek Peterson’s hot hand, the rest of the team sunk shot after shot and the Tigers used momentum to bury the Titans.

SPHS football captured the momentum from the first play of the game against the Monrovia Wildcats on Friday, Oct. 6, winning 56-28. The Tigers set the tone with an opening-drive touchdown and never looked back. Confident and comfortable the entire game, the Tigers rode the momentum to their first win over the Wildcats in nearly two decades.

Momentum can also flip between two teams during a game. Last season, SPHS girls’ volleyball lost the first two sets of the match to Campbell Hall, falling into a nearly insurmountable hole. The Vikings were a set away from victory, but the Tigers, mentally and physically focused, were determined to snatch the momentum back. The wins kept coming and South Pasadena began making a dent into Campbell Hall’s lead, shifting the momentum toward their side. With wins in the fifth and sixth sets, the Tigers completed the comeback.

It is tough for a team to come back once they have given up the momentum. It can be especially challenging when playing on the road. Home field advantage, as it is appropriately named, feeds into momentum. A large, loud crowd, seen in professional games in sizes of over 100,000, can intimidate the opponent and make it even more difficult to stop the bleeding. With so many people cheering upon every right step by the home team, that team may use the crowd and momentum to get an edge. 

Professor Lawrence D. Ries, Department Chair of Statistics at the University of Missouri said, speaking of Major League Baseball, “In 2023, the home team averaged about 4.596 runs per game and the visiting team averaged about 4.595 runs per game. That seems like it is equal, but the bottom of the 9th is only played if the home team is losing, so the home team is scoring (slightly) more runs than the visiting team in fewer opportunities.”

Momentum can be difficult to quantify, and therefore difficult to prove its existence or how/when it influences a game. As a result, many question the phenomenon of momentum and label it as an illusion.

David Hale, College Sports Reporter for ESPN, said, “I found that there is good evidence to suggest some level of change in brain chemistry — dopamine response, etc. — when you experience sustained success or failure, but again, there doesn’t seem to be any real evidence that those chemical changes have a noticeable impact on outcomes on the field. Long story short, I think momentum is a figment of our collective imagination.”

Momentum is not an illusion to athletes. It is something, however difficult to explain or quantity, that can be felt. Momentum makes its owners feel invincible, knowing they have it and the other team will have to scratch and claw their way to get it back. For those without the momentum, it can feel daunting to recapture. Momentum, as every player knows, is a dish best served on their side. 

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