Chelsea sets a question of momentum in sport

When champions Chelsea ran out at Stanford Bridge, for the Boxing day fixture against Reading, the match could be seen as particularly influenced by momentum.

In October, in their previous encounter, the momentum of a Reading defender in impact on Petr Cech put Chelsea’s star goalkeeper out of action until the New Year. Since, then, sportswriters have been talking about Chelsea losing momentum to table-leading Manchester United.

What is momentum ?

Sporting leaders often talk about momentum – gaining it, losing it, or retaining it. But just what is momentum? In dynamics, it’s the energy possessed by moving objects. It’s an important concept for figuring out what happens when cars hit people (on either side of the windscreen). Big fast objects have a lot of momentum, small slow-moving ones a lot less. Momentum at the point of impact helps sport scientists explain golf swings, tennis serves, Grand Prix shunts and a host more consequences of impact incidents.

Psychological momentum

If we take this week’s sporting stories we see the term used to imply psychological momentum, often in its consequences for teams and their leaders. In Australia, the Aussies were said to have so much momentum after winning back the Ashes that they were expected to crash through any opposition. As a matter of record, that is just what seems to be happening, after two days of the fourth cricket test.

Going back to Chelsea, the team ‘only’ managed a draw against newly-promoted Reading. Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho says that the team has a short-term problem. Its defense has been severely damaged by the losses of Cech and more recently to their inspirational captain Terry. Yet, strictly speaking, a loss of momentum in their bid to retain their title would be reflected in a sudden dip in form, and failure to regain that form. They have suffered important injuries. Yet, over the last few weeks, the results have remained good enough to retain their lead over all the clubs below them and even reduce the gap between themselves and league-toppers Manchester United. Even in adversity they have had players to rescue them from dropping points. Last-minute winners are not a sign of a side that has lost momentum. It is more likely a sign of on-field players showing leadership qualities.

A considrable body of largely untested theory has been assembled around the idea of leadership influence. Psychologist Willi Railo wrote a book about it with former English coach Sven Göran Eriksson. The theory suggests that social groups cohere into high peformance units through social architects. Early in his regime, Sven’s successes were lnked to his application of the theory. See the transcript of a BBC Horizon programme for more information.

Leadership and momentum

So where does leadership come into this? The owners of football clubs seem to believe in the importance of both concepts. The chief coach or manager can help a club develop momentum, or can dissipate it. If the latter, a change of managerial leadership will fix it. Can it really be as simple as that? For a more academic analysis see the article in Athletic Insight by UK researchers Crust and Lawrence

More generally, are there lessons to be learned from the experiences of political and business leaders?


2 Responses to Chelsea sets a question of momentum in sport

  1. Hillbilly says:

    Honing eleven players into a psychological state so that they are all performing to their best; that both necessitates and generates momentum. Remember that the differences are unfeasibly small between best and worst. Its hard for non pro-sportsmen to appreciate this. I think the best example is in Formula 1. The few times I have watched this I noticed that the back of the grid was ‘only’ about two seconds slower than the front. So, even at the back of the grid its a fantastic engineering feat. The same goes for other pro-sports. Reading are ‘two seconds’ slower than Chelsea. One or two parts out of place in the Chelsea Formula 1 car and Reading catch up.

  2. Tudor says:

    I’d say Hillbilly has a nice systemic view. I rememer the ‘father of management cybernetics’, Stafford Beer explaining football results according to the law of requisite variety or systemic balance. Hence very few 6-nils. Maybe it’s not too different from Steven Jay Gould’s idea, in Full House (renamed The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin, London) where he showed how Darwinian principles are at work, so the variations between sports teams reduce over time (hence no longer are there baseball players hitting over .3). It takes a Roger Federer or a Tiger Woods to leap outside the general statistical curve.
    Don’t know where this leaves leadership, though… Or Chelsea (just heard Terry must have an operation to his back).

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