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Psychological Momentum for Athletes and Teams

By Seth Kaplan

There are certain psychological factors relating to performance that are difficult to define such as “the zone” and “psychological momentum.” The former is considered to be the highest mental state for athletic performance. Elite athletes want to enter “the zone” as frequently as possible and to sustain peak performance when they are in “the zone.” Athletes know it feels great when they are in this elusive mental state, often resulting in supernatural performance levels. The latter, which is the focus of this article, is about “riding the wave” of positive performance in competition. It is often referred to as the “Big Mo.” It is neither concrete nor tangible, but numerous athletes report that “you know you have it when it is on your side.”

We have all seen the “Big Mo” in action either on television or in-person at athletic events. The New York Giants had it on the final drive to defeat the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl two years ago. Jimmy Connors had it when he came back from 5-1 down in the 5th set to defeat Aaron Krickstein in that incredible match at the US Open 18 years ago. At age 39 Jimbo needed that wave of momentum to carry him through!

When tennis players, from juniors to the pros, are “in the groove” and “everything is working” they are gaining confidence in their ability to dominate their opponents. They have a heightened sense of awareness that they have the momentum and cannot be stopped. Motivation and confidence are at elite levels as performance on the court increases. When in this momentum-riding flow state a player might win 4 or 5 games in a row, in an instant, capturing nearly every point. Much like a tornado spinning with force, a player feels an incredible sense of control when they have the “Big Mo.”

Positive psychological momentum usually comes in shifts. You will often see it go back and forth – from one athlete to his competitor and vice-versa. Often, players can become frustrated if they have momentum and an external event stops it. Recently, Roger Federer had the momentum in his match against Novak Djokovic in the semifinals of the Rome Masters. He was up 6-3, 3-1 when play was halted due to rain. In these circumstances it is important for players to affirm to themselves that they are in control, and can dictate play just as they did pre-rain delay. When they returned to the court Djokovic won 5 straight games to take the set, 6-3. He was riding the wave of momentum and went on to win the match rather handily.

Is momentum real or just an illusory perception of events? Do athletes and teams perform better when they perceive that they have the upper hand? Is it inevitable that momentum will shift over time? We know more about momentum than we did 10 years ago, but answers to these questions are a work in progress. Simply defining momentum is hard enough.