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Momentum and collective collapse in sport

With the 4th One Day International (ODI) taking place between England and Sri Lanka today I thought I would take the opportunity to reflect on the previous two games. Both games have been incredibly one-sided, but not to the same team. In the previous game England bowled Sri Lanka out for 67, and won by 10 wickets (for any non-cricket fans that is a low score and big winning margin). But in the ODI before that Sri-Lanka bowled England out for 99 after scoring 256-8, which was another crushing defeat.


So how can that happen? How can a team (Sri Lanka) be so dominant in one game, then be so outplayed in the subsequent game? The answer relates to the concept of momentum, or if I am being accurate perceived psychological momentum. A number of research studies in American sport have demonstrated that momentum as an actual phenomenon does not exist, the reality is that it is in the eye of the beholder. Admittedly in cricket the conditions can have a big effect, particularly when playing in England in the Spring. But crucially it is the perception of ‘momentum’ that can be most damaging, or conversely constructive. The answer really lies in how individuals react to these perceptions. So, if you feel that things are ‘swinging’ in your favour you are more positive and confident, you are also likely to invest a little more effort in achieving the desired outcomes. It is also true that if you feel the momentum has swung against you that you feel more pressure, your movements will become less smooth, increases muscle tension will increase fatigue, confidence will suffer, and your performance will become far more reactive than dynamic. Both of these responses serve to further reinforce the perceived shift in momentum.

In any sport that takes place over an extended period of time it is normal for momentum to switch between the two opposing teams or individuals. But sometimes in more extreme circumstances this can result in a more chronic phenomenon called collective collapse. This is where there is significant performance failure due to the perceptions of psychological momentum previously identified. There is no better example of this than in cricket. Sometimes this perception of the ‘balance of power’ can lead to significant repeated performance failure/success. This was the case in both of the previous ODIs. In both instances chronic failure by the batting teams coupled with good performances by the fielding teams lead to an outcome that was at odds with the balanced nature of the contest (at least on paper). An important consideration here is that it is the perception that is important. If you can make the opposition believe they are struggling and you have the upper hand that can be enough to have the desired effect. This is why the ‘theatre’ of cricket is important, and why the great Australian Spin bowler Shane Warne was so effective. Yes, he was an excellent bowler, but beyond this I think his real skill was in convincing the opposition that they were under more pressure than they were.

So in today’s 4th ODI it will be interesting how the two teams respond to the previous result and how resilient they are to this phenomenon of collective collapse when the momentum swings against them at some point during the game.

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