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The Fifth Lap

By Gabe Cuadra     2/7/13 6:00pm


Last Sunday, the Baltimore Ravens were rolling to a Super Bowl win and NFL championship. In fact, rolling might not do the situation justice. They had a lead bigger than any ever surmounted in a Super Bowl. They had just opened the third quarter with what tied for the longest kickoff return for a touchdown in NFL history. They controlled the game.

They possessed all the momentum.

Then, suddenly, half the stadium lights went out. After a 34-minute delay, what appeared headed for a blowout turned into an impressively exciting contest as San Francisco put together 17 unanswered points and eventually clawed its way within a two-point conversion of tying the game.

Somewhere in those moments of darkness, most agreed, the momentum was allowed to shift.

Momentum. It's one of the simplest, most intuitive phenomena in sports.  Even over the TV, the audience can perceive a team seizing momentum in such a way that the feeling becomes almost tangible. It manifests itself in body language, in decisions, in styles.

Yet because it is so simple, the fact that it exists at all, especially at the upper echelon of sports, becomes so much more confusing.

There is an academic literature in sports psychology on momentum, and I am in no way an expert in the field, but the basic premise behind momentum is as follows: An event occurs that causes an individual or team to feel more confident. This confidence (or feeling of power) leads to cognitive and physiological changes, which affect the way the team plays, ostensibly (though not always) for the better. This improved play reinforces the feeling of confidence while at the same time diminishing the confidence and, therefore, the play of the opponent.

It's simple - on paper, anyway. But why, then, if we understand it as the product of a change in confidence, do professional and collegiate athletes get caught up in it? And why does this virtuous cycle so often break down and reverse itself? Why is a well-timed timeout so effective or a calm, collected momentumchanging player such a rare commodity?

The answer likely has at least two components. The first strikes at the control, or lack thereof, that we truly have over our emotions. Ideally, after years of experience, athletes would be able to enter each situation with the ideal level of confidence to maximize their performance and then maintain that level throughout the contest despite outside events. Yet without fail, athletes everywhere make crucial mistakes as they either become underor overconfident.

Mistakes from underconfidence magnify the effect of an opponent's momentum, leading to blowouts. Mistakes from overconfidence often open the door for an opponent to regain confidence, therefore allowing the momentum to swing.

While it would be very difficult to study, it would be fascinating to see whether the effects of momentum change based on the level and experience of the players. In theory, professional athletes should be able to deal with both negative and positive momentum better than their youth team counterparts, for example.

Yet momentum is still cited as critically important by announcers and analysts of the highest levels. Are the sport's greatest really no better at dealing with the effects of momentum at their prime than they were in their youth? Or is there simply a canceling effect as everyone involved handles momentum better, therefore making it still crucial at the margin?

The second component likely deals with attribution error: Momentum simply gets too much credit.

Last weekend's Super Bowl provides several examples in which the momentum should have led to an outcome different to the one that actually occurred. For example, after scoring two unanswered touchdowns in the third quarter and pulling within one score of tying the game, the 49ers recovered a fumble deep in Baltimore territory. Based on momentum, they should have scored a touchdown.

Instead, they settled for a field goal.

Again, the 49ers seemed to have all the momentum at the end of the game when, down by five points, they drove down inside the Baltimore 10-yard line with four plays to take a late lead. But despite the momentum, they failed to score.

And did the blackout really spark San Francisco's comeback to begin with? While the tide of the game did turn after the lights came back on, it is very possible San Francisco would have scored on that interrupted possession regardless. The 49ers had, after all, completed a 17-point comeback in the NFC championship game against the Atlanta Falcons without the benefit of any electrical assistance.

So what, then, is this momentum? Is it simply a product of perception? Is it a real friend or an imaginary foe? Why does it quickly come, then quickly go? And perhaps most importantly, why is it so incredibly difficult to predict or control?

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