Watch Out for Momentum : There May Not Even Be Such a Thing in Sports, but You Can Be Sure You’ll Be Told Whenever It Shifts
In a Monday night game against the Raiders last fall, the Seattle Seahawks, losing 7-0, recovered a fumble, kicked a field goal and then tackled a ballcarrier on the 15-yard line on the ensuing kickoff. In the television booth, Don Meredith, who is highly paid to share the expertise he accumulated as a professional quarterback, immediately spotted what had happened. “The momentum has shifted a little,” he announced. Later, when the Seahawks took a 10-7 lead, Frank Gifford, the play-by-play announcer, quickly advised: “The momentum has definitely shifted.” In fact, Gifford noticed, “The Raiders have lost the momentum.” If they had, the Raiders soon got it back. They regained the lead, 17-14, and Meredith spotted the reason quickly. “The momentum has shifted again,” he said wisely. Momentum was also to be found at Anaheim Stadium. In a game against the Packers, the Rams led, 3-0, when they were penalized twice and Eric Dickerson was stopped for no gain. The reason for this sudden turn of events did not escape the experts in the television booth. “The momentum seems to have shifted,” Pat Summerall said. Momentum abounds in football. It also is seen frequently in basketball and hockey games, and tennis and golf matches, but it is not discussed in those sports as often as it is in football. Alert football broadcasters have even been known to spot it changing sides at halftime. One commentator once said during an evenly played but dull game: “Momentum is up for grabs.” The word has been so overused that it has become a cliche. But momentum, if you forget its narrow technical meaning and accept its common usage, does play a role in the winning and losing of football games. It probably will again when the 49ers and Dolphins play in the Super Bowl at Palo Alto next Sunday. With such offensive geniuses as Bill Walsh and Don Shula directing the skills of quarterbacks Joe Montana and Dan Marino, momentum is likely to change hands three or four times a quarter. The winner probably will be the team to which momentum shifts last. To merely say that momentum has shifted, however, isn’t really much of an explanation. What broadcasters, and others, perceive as a shift in momentum during a game is simply the inability of athletes to maintain the same quality of performance over a long period of time, said Dr. Bruce Ogilvie of Los Gatos, a sports psychologist who has studied athletes and worked with various teams for many years. Psychologists, he said, refer to momentum as persistence. “Athletes lose their capacity to persist. There are shifts in motivation and alterations of performance.” If the 49ers intercept a pass by Marino in the Super Bowl, for example, Ogilvie said there could suddenly be a shift in motivation by the entire San Francisco team. Or, he said, just one error by one 49er or Dolphin can affect their entire team. “The loss of attention by one player can result in a touchdown by the other team,” he said. “You lose momentum when you lose concentration.” Once upon a time in the National Football League, when a team got rolling and started moving quickly down the field, the opposing team would let it charge out of the huddle and line up one more time, then suddenly call a timeout. The purpose: To slow down Big Mo. National Basketball Assn. teams use similar tactics frequently today, and the ability to call timeouts at the right time separates the good coaches from the others. Six straight points by the opposition are enough for some coaches to interrupt play. There are sneakier ways to stop momentum. A prolonged argument with an official is one. A fake injury is another. Holding up a game to change equipment sometimes works. NFL teams no longer waste timeouts on such psychology, believing that it is more important to hoard them for late in each half. Sometimes, however, a team will call time to make a field goal kicker think about his task a little longer. It’s the same principle, Ogilvie said, adding: “The shift in momentum is most dramatic after a kicker misses a chip shot. Eleven men run off the field with their heads down and 11 run onto the field holding theirs up.” Momentum feeds upon itself, Olgivie said. “A golfer can get into the flow. When that occurs, it can continue for four or five holes. He gets caught up and feels as if he’s on top of his game.” But such a feeling can backfire, the golfer knows. Momentum is fleeting, and while riding it to a string of birdies he will probably take a risk he shouldn’t--maybe a long shot over water--that could cost him a stroke or two, possibly even victory. While he has it, though, he can almost talk himself into sinking a chip shot or a long putt. Ram Coach John Robinson believes in momentum. “I’m sure there is such a thing, and it has more credence once you accept the fact that it’s there,” he said. “The emotion is obvious when you start doing well, whether it is momentum, the flow of adrenaline or confidence.” While most observers think momentum shifts after an intercepted pass, a fumble or a lucky bounce of the ball, Robinson believes a team creates its own. “Interceptions or fumbles don’t change things,” he said. “When you physically take charge--as the 49ers did against the Bears--a whole wave of things can begin to happen.” Coaches can create momentum with the proper execution of fundamentals, he said. Momentum, however, can take a team or an athlete down the wrong path, Ogilvie said. “Once in motion, motion continues. It’s like a ball rolling down a small grade.” If the motion is in the wrong direction, he suggests, that’s negative momentum. “There may be a subtle intrusion of doubt, and you move from ‘I can’ to ‘I wonder if I can,’ ” he said. “If enough players, say five or six, start doubting and stop concentrating, a team will lose momentum.” Asked if he ever counsels teams on how to fight negative momentum, he said: “Reflection on the negative would be hazardous. Coaches wouldn’t want you to touch it.” Robinson agreed. “The worst thing in the world would be to accept the fact that momentum goes the other way,” he said. “If a club scores on us, I say there’s no such thing as momentum.” A championship team, in Robinson’s view, never thinks it is going to lose. Remembering when he coached at the University of Oregon, he said: “When things started going wrong, you’d hear the players say, ‘Oh God, here we go again.’ But at USC, all you would hear was ‘Don’t worry, we’ll pull it out.’ ” Coach Tom Landry of the Dallas Cowboys, who views momentum as a short-term phenomenon with confidence as its long-term result, used to see negative momentum at work when the Cowboys were an expansion team. “You can build a team up all week and get them ready to play,” he once told Newsday. “They’ll have a positive attitude, they’ll get out ahead and be going strong. They go into the second half and all of a sudden they’ll start hoping the game ends while they’re still ahead. The result is, they’re not continuing to dominate the game. The other team gets a break or two and then the expansion team starts saying, ‘Oh-oh, it’s happening again.’ ” At that point, negative momentum is rapidly carrying the team to another defeat. Some teams or athletes never get momentum because they prepare their excuses in advance, psychologist Thomas Tutko of San Jose said. “The thinking is, no matter what you do, something is going to go wrong.” An athlete with positive momentum is confident that he or she will find a way to win, he added. Ogilvie said that a few exceptional athletes can maintain the same level of performance. “When they were down, 30-0, Bill Kilmer and Roger Staubach always thought they could come back. There are athletes like that who can turn the momentum around.” When the New York Jets were on their way to winning the NFL championship in 1969, tackle Randy Rasmussen said his team could turn momentum around by merely making a first down. “I would feel the momentum trying to shift on us and we wouldn’t let it,” he said. Not all athletes have such a strong grasp of what momentum is, however. “Once you find out what momentum is, let me know so I’ll know if I got it,” golfer Hale Irwin once said. Montana, Marino and the other 49ers and Dolphins may not know what momentum is, either, but you can be sure someone in the television booth will let us know every time it shifts.