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Winning, losing, and momentum in sport

Watching the American Football over the weekend I was particularly interested in the references to winning and losing streaks. This concept is different to but not vastly dissimilar to the ‘form guides’ that are often reported on sport in the UK. Look at many versions of football league tables for example and you will also see a six game form guide (won, lost, drawn). So is form important in determining future performance? Can a team get on a roll and become more likely to win the next game? Does this ‘momentum’ that develops increase the likelihood of future success?

Well the research in the area of momentum does not appear to support the view that prior success increases the likelihood of future success. Indeed, whether a team has a good previous record, in the main, is dependent on whether the team is ‘better’ than their opponents. Obviously there is a case to be made for the positive impact that prior success can have of both self and collective efficacy, but in general this has less of a long-term impact. So, under normal conditions a team with greater playing resources at its disposal will be more successful over a sustained period than a team with lesser resources.


The influence of the leadership, management and coaching should also not be underestimated. So while a team might have the best players, unless those players are used in an effective and coherent way the teams’ performances will be lower. A good casing point is Manchester United in the current English Premier League season. The team won the league in the previous season (2012/13) but having changed their manager/head coach for the 2013/14 season they have had their worst start to a season since the Premier League was formed over 20 years ago. Given time this will probably be rectified, but only if the manager has sufficient time.

NFL: New England Patriots at Atlanta Falcons

Realistically though it is all about perspective. So, if your team is on a losing streak and the team is not significantly under resourced compared with the opposition there is no reason why you can’t go out and win the next fixture (as long as you believe that you can). Maybe it is a case of identifying any practical problems and ‘fixing’ these issues that are contributing to the losses. The Atlanta Falcons for example were tipped to have another good season this year, but after 4 games are currently 1-3. But closer inspection shows that while the team is averaging 23.4 points per game on offense they are conceding on average 26 points per game. So early in the season the 2 game losing streak offers an opportunity to ‘fix’ something that could still have been a limiting factor come the play offs. So form is important but never get too carried away winning or losing, just keep applying good preparation and performance principles and let the fans and media spend time talking about winning and losing streaks. The only thing that is for certain with a winning or losing streak is that it will get broken!

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