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Psychological momentum in team sports.

During the past decade a number of researchers have attempted to empirically investigate psychological momentum in sports. Psychological momentum is operationally defined in the research as the added advantage obtained when initial success in an athletic contest produces momentum which leads to future success. Iso-Ahola and Mobily (1980) operationally defined momentum as winning the first game of a racquetball match. They found that the winner of the first game won 73.1% of their second games and 86.6% of their matches. Weinberg, Richardson and Jackson (1981) extended the above research to tennis and found that males who won the first set of a best 2 out of 3 set went on to win 86% of their matches while the females who won the first set went on to win 91% of the time. It should be noted that neither of the above studies dealt with the question of the role that ability plays in the outcome of the competition. For example, it could be argued that the winners of the first game/set won the match the majority of the time because they were better players and not because winning the first game/set created psychological momentum. Weinberg and Ranson (1985) addressed this concern by restricting their sample to elite (ranked in the top 20 in the world) male and female tennis players. They found that 61% of the males and 63% of the females who won the first set also went on to win the match. Iso-Ahola and Blanchard (1986) also reported data that deals with the issue of the possible effect of ability on the likelihood of winning. They replicated their earlier findings with regards to the importance of the first game win in racquetball matches and demonstrated that the effect was as high in the A class players as among the B and C class players. Because class A competitors formed a relatively homogeneous group in terms of athletic ability, one would have expected that the impact of psychological momentum to be smallest at that high level. Finally, Richardson, Adler and Hankes (1988), Silva, Hardy and Grace (1988) and Weinberg and Jackson (1988) have published research demonstrating that winning the first set in tennis is associated with winning the match.

An examination of the above research indicates that the study of psychological momentum has been restricted to individual sports i.e. racquetball and tennis. The present investigation is an attempt to determine if the psychological momentum effect can be found in team sports.


Two archival data sets were examined to answer the research question. In study one, psychological momentum was operationally defined as scoring the first goal in ice hockey games. Data was generated by examining the performance of all teams in the American Hockey league (AHL) during the 1988-89 season to determine if there was a relationship between scoring first and game outcome. In study two, psychological momentum was operationally defined as outscoring your opponent in the first period of the Stanley Cup Final Play-off games from 1974 to 1987 to determine if there was a relationship between outscoring your opponent in the first period and game outcome.


The game records for all AHL teams during the 1988-89 season were examined to determine if scoring first predicted the outcome of the game. Games ending in a tie, were not used in this analysis. A phi correlation of .33 (corrected chi square = 120.96, p |is less than~.0001) was obtained for the relationship between scoring first and the game outcome. Three hundred thirty-nine (66.5%) out of the 510 games were won by the team that scored first. This data supports the hypothesis that psychological momentum is gained by scoring first.

To determine if winning the first period (outscoring the opponent) also created psychological momentum, the records for all Stanley Cup Play-off games from 1974 to 1987 were examined. Only those games in which a team outscored its opponent in the first period were used in this analysis. A phi correlation of .45 (corrected chi square = 20.65, =|is less than~.001) was obtained for the relationship between winning the first period and winning the match. 72.5% out of the 51 games were won by the team that won the first period. This data is consistent with the results dealing with scoring the first goal and indicates that winning the first period also creates psychological momentum.


The results of the present investigation indicate that psychological momentum can be empirically demonstrated in team sports. It is clear that early success in a hockey game results in an increased probability of winning the game. This was found to be true whether psychological momentum was defined as scoring the first goal or winning the first period. It should be noted, however, that the coefficient-of-determination values associated with the correlations for scoring the first goal and winning the first period are 0.11 and 0.20, respectively. These values indicate that 80 to 90% of the variance is accounted for by factors other than psychological momentum. Silva, Hardy and Grace (1988) have suggested that momentum may be given too much credit for game outcome in some sports. Specifically, they call into question the significance of momentum when players possess similar competence levels. The results of Study 2 do not support their speculation in that one would expect Stanley Cup finalists to be relatively similar in athletic ability. It is clear from this data, however, that momentum seems to be operating even at this high level.


Iso-Ahola, S., & Mobily, K. (1980). Psychological momentum: A phenomenon-and an empirical (unobtrusive) validation of its influence in a competitive sport tournament. Psychological Reports, 46, 391-401.

Iso-Ahola, S., & Blanchard, W.J. (1986). Psychological momentum and competitive sort performance: A field study. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 62, 763-768.

Ranson, K. & Weinberg, R.S. (1985) Effects of situation critically on performance of elite male and female tennis players. Journal of Sport Behavior, 8, 144-148.

Richardson, P.A., Adler, W. and Hankes, D. (1988). Game, Set, Match: Psychological momentum in tennis. The Sport Psychologist, 2, 69-76.

Silva, J.M., Hardy, C.J. & Grace, R.K. (1988) Analysis of psychological momentum in intercollegiate tennis. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 10, 346-354.

Weinberg, R.S. & Jackson, A. (1988). The effects of psychological momentum on male and female tennis players revisited. Journal of Sport Behavior, 12, 167-178.

Weinberg, R.S., Richardson, P.A., & Jackson, A. (1981). Effects of situation criticality on tennis performance of males and females. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 12, 253-259.
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Author:Gayton, William F.; Very, Michael; Hearns, Joseph
Publication:Journal of Sport Behavior
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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