Does Momentum Exist In Sports?

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Momentum is one of those buzz words that can be ambiguously used in everyday life. However, this term is most prevalent in our day-to-day lives when examining the world of sports. For some sports, a long time gap exists between game-play that should not validate the existence of such a concept (for example, sometimes tennis players won’t see the court for weeks after a tournament). However, in football we have seen plenty of teams gain momentum at the right time and win their league championship, and that week-long time gap is the most spread out of the four main American sports. The same could be said about the flip side of the coin. Many times, the hottest team in the NHL and/or the MLB can be suddenly stopped by underwhelming opponents. That being said, it becomes clear through analytical and statistical research that momentum does in fact exist and impact the world of sports.

I want to start out by turning your attention to Major League Baseball. There are so many games throughout the year that it would seem completely impossible for any sort of team to gain momentum throughout an entire season. However, it is not teams that gain momentum in baseball. Rather, it’s individual players–they get so hot that they practically carry their teams to victories and championships.

Let’s look at one of the league’s most disgraceful products first: Alex Rodriguez. I don’t care what your opinion is on A-Rod (he’s despicable), but he was the key player to the Yankees’ 2009 World Series run. In that postseason, A-Rod scored 15 runs in three series while also recording 19 hits and 18 RBIs in those games. Even though Hideki Matsui earned MVP honors, he only scored five runs in the entire postseason. While he did manage 13 RBIs, six of them came in one game, which inflates his actual stat line. Going back to A-Rod, he managed a higher on-base percentage and had a better batting average than Matsui. A-Rod was the best player that postseason, and put his team on his back (for the most part). His momentum and amazing play carried that team through a career-defining postseason.

Fast forward to this past postseason, and look at Madison Bumgarner’s achievements. In his 52.2 innings pitched, Bumgarner had a 1.18 ERA, a statistic that only improved with each series. Bumgarner even recorded a shutout during his amazing run, which earned him the MVP award for the World Series. The MLB has too many games for actual teams to ride momentum, but individual players can create their own momentum like A-Rod and Bumgarner did, and sometimes that force can be enough to carry an entire team to a championship.

In the NHL, momentum and hot streaks can often determine who wins the Stanley Cup. However, just like baseball, individuals once again reign supreme as the momentum-givers. A hot goalie is the best commodity that any team in any sport can have. Look no further than Jonathan Quick in the 2012 championship run by the LA Kings. Quick was able to lead his team to 16 wins in 20 games, which was an unprecedented performance by a goalie in modern-day hockey. During that postseason run, Quick had three shutouts, the best goals allowed average in the playoffs and the highest save percentage of all playoff goalies. With the momentum that Quick created, the Kings were able to eliminate the first, second, and third seeds in the West. Quick’s amazing streak in the playoffs was the sole reason why the Kings won the Stanley Cup.

Another prime example of a player whose postseason display carried his team to a championship was Cam Ward in goal for the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006. Ward was untouchable with 15 wins and only 2.14 goals allowed against per game. What doesn’t go appreciated, though, is the fact that Ward played the most minutes of any player in that postseason. Those minutes are also impressive because Carolina only managed to average under three goals per game, giving Ward little room for error throughout the playoffs. Hot goalies using momentum to carry their teams to victory has made the position one of the most important in all of sports, and further solidifies the idea that momentum really does exist.

Football is a totally momentum driven sport because so few games are played and the postseason is a win or go home situation week after week. It’s especially true considering the slew of teams that have won a Super Bowl or National Championship despite not being one of the top teams in the regular season. The Ohio State Buckeyes just won the first college football playoff despite being ranked a four seed, the lowest seed that can be eligible for the playoffs. They carried momentum from the regular season into the college postseason, not only destroying their conference opponent but also claiming back-to-back convincing victories over Oregon and Alabama. Need another example of a team that rode the momentum wave? Florida State certainly did last year, not to mention Auburn two years before that.

In the NFL, the momentum doesn’t start to impact teams until Week 16 or 17, but when it does hit, it can carry a team to a championship. The Green Bay Packers were able to win the Super Bowl as a wild card team. Before that, the New York Giants shocked the world and used their late-season momentum to knock off the undefeated Patriots to become the first six seed to win a Super Bowl. And even before that, the Pittsburgh Steelers used the momentum created by the Big Ben tackle against the Colts to lift them to a Super Bowl victory as well. Time after time, the hottest teams in football have won championships and have even asserted a level of dominance over other teams competing for the same goal. Football is a clear case of momentum being incredibly important in a sport.

Lastly, there is the case of basketball, which is a two sided coin. While it can be argued that momentum has no effect on the NBA, I adamantly believe that college basketball championships are solely decided because of momentum. Deflating factors like injuries can sometimes barely affect an NBA teams’ chances at winning a championship. The Atlanta Hawks lost two key players before the playoffs and the Cavaliers have been without Kevin Love, a top 15 NBA player, for a number of weeks now. That being said, those very same teams faced off in the Eastern Conference Finals for a chance at the NBA Finals. Furthermore, teams can be blown out or lose big time to other teams in the playoffs and completely turn around their play. Against the Rockets, the Clippers choked away a 3-1 series lead in the series, despite blowing them out in their three wins (victorious by 25 points, 16 points, and 33 points). These occurrences of survival and big losses happen all the time in the NBA but don’t often impact subsequent games, showing that momentum in the NBA is meaningless.

However, looking to College Basketball, the story is incredibly different. Teams ride momentum to championships more often than not, which is why so few number one overall seeds actually win the national championship. The University Of Connecticut in 2013, the 07-08 Florida Gators, and even the famous Villanova team of the 80s are just a few of the numerous success stories that have emerged from college basketball’s graceful train of momentum. Even this year, Duke was able to use their successes to ride a number of hot players (especially Justice Winslow) to a national championship victory. 

Momentum does exist in sports. Some people refuse to believe the idea that teams can win championships by getting hot at the right time, which is true in a game with superstars at every position like the NBA. However, with the other sports leagues discussed, some form of team or individual momentum has often determined the ability of a franchise to win in the postseason. Momentum can be the most important factor in a team’s championship run, and yet, it remains such an under-appreciated aspect of the world of sports.

2 Responses to "Does Momentum Exist In Sports?"
  1. Lambcake of the Northeast Irish says:

    And what of Rugby? Shouldn’t a sport with a quicker pace than all of the aforementioned be included in the article?

  2. Ian says:

    The author is correct but for the wrong reasons. Momentum is something that can impact sports but the overriding factor is sample size. MLB playoffs, though played in 7 game series, are a small sample size. The NBA is slightly different because rather than 20+ influencing the series, there’s 12-16. This allows for more variation per player and thus more impact from a player “getting hot.”

    College basketball, college football and the NFL playoffs are all single game series. A single game is an incredibly small sample size where any unexpected factor has a large impact on the outcome. Thus something like momentum, though perhaps we could generalize it to “luck,” has a greater chance of changing the result of the game.

    This distinction is very important. The article as it stands now does not account for this but attempts to define the already nebulous term “momentum” with equally unsubstantiated claims.

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