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Sport, exercise & performance psychology
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  • Writer's pictureElliot Smith

Finding Psychological Momentum in Your Sport, Exercise and Lifestyle


On a day-to-basis you might often hear athletes, coaches, parents, or even your neighbours describe how they’re having a good day, or a bad day, and often detailing how things are really going their way or, on the contrary, how things are really going against them. The premise that there can be numerous related events which end with similar consequences, for example, experiencing repeated success or failure, with no apparent solution as to how to turn the tides essentially epitomises psychological momentum (pronounced ‘mow-men-tum’). Here we are talking about momentum from within, the kind of momentum you perceive with your mind, in comparison to momentum that might be studied in a physics class. This kind of momentum, that the present blog is written about, has been widely debated in terms of its origin and characteristics. Some researchers believe it has behavioural roots, others suppose it is primarily of psychological origin. Whilst difficult to comprehend, Briki (2017) argued that momentum had both behavioural and psychological features, and consequently defined psycho-behavioural momentum as “a process characterised by an altered sense of functioning that allows people to achieve at an extraordinary level”. To avoid getting lost in the jargon of scientific papers, I will merely label the debated phenomenon as ‘momentum’, for that may be far easier to digest and will also save me some time as the author of this piece. Moving on from paradigms and definitions, it is certainly not uncommon for athletes to communicate that they felt the odds were against them on a particular day, perhaps they were met with a number of bad breaks, or maybe they felt like their opponent(s) received a handful of good breaks, either way the athlete in question might express that they did not have any momentum on that occasion. On the other hand, you might speak to someone who recalls that they had all the luck, as if things were always going their way, or at least for a temporary period of time they were instilled with a sense of pure confidence and near-invincibility. These hypotheticals describe the general characteristics of momentum, both positive and negative. This post will attempt to demystify some of the concepts surrounding momentum, and shed light on how you can find momentum during your own daily adventures (positive momentum I hope).

The River That Flows Both Ways

I suppose like many psychological constructs, momentum does not always move in one singular direction. Almost 30 years ago, Taylor and Demick (1994) proposed the Multi-dimensional Model of Momentum, in which they suggested momentum can be perceived as positive or negative. Perceptions of positive momentum reflects a transition towards optimal arousal and better performance, which might also be associated with increased confidence and self-belief. On the other hand, perceptions of negative momentum indicates a shift towards insufficient arousal and deficits in performance, which might be accompanied by apprehension and even frustration. You may find that you experience both positive and negative momentum throughout your day, or if you are an athlete and competing in a sports competition you might experience positive and negative momentum at different points in your event. But according to Taylor and Demick’s multi-dimensional model of momentum (mentioned earlier), you cannot experience positive and negative momentum simultaneously, at any given point in time you may only perceive momentum to be either positive or negative. The speed at which momentum can change from positive to negative, or vice versa, has not been thoroughly investigated so little can be known about the transition of momentum. However, in my experience, as a training sport and exercise psychologist, casual golfer and tennis player, perceptions of momentum can change instantaneously as a result of a single event or sometimes an accumulation of events.

Great Expectations

The expectations people hold regarding their capability to execute a skill, action, or process successfully and the extent to which they are actually successful, is thought to influence perceived momentum. Shepperd and McNulty (2002) devised the Decision Affect Theory which suggested surpassing expectations, that is, performing better than what had initially been anticipated, would lead to perceptions of positive momentum. Similarly, Decision Affect Theory holds that not meeting your expectations, or performing worse than you had predicted, elicits perceptions of negative momentum. Interestingly, in my own research investigating amateur golfers during a competitive golf tournament, when golfers’ expectations matched up with their reality, i.e. their performance met their expectations, and neither surpassed them nor fell short of them, then golfers adopted an attitude that was somewhat nonchalant. Therefore, in that sample of golfers, meeting expectations neither increased or decreased arousal, and their current levels of confidence and self-belief were largely unaffected (for better or worse). Furthermore, much of the research investigating expectations and the influence of expectations on perceived momentum is based on small sample sizes, and the kind of conclusions that are reached in said research may not be generalizable to the rest of the general population. For instance, my research on golfers may not represent the attitudes of all athletes, and may not even reflect the attitudes of other golfers. Nonetheless, managing your expectations may be an important factor in steering your momentum in the right direction.

Staying in the Present

When examining athletes and their perceptions of important momentum-related factors, their experience of time has been, in my experience, a recurring theme. It is typical of people to think about future events and possibilities, in particular what might come to pass. Athletes are particularly susceptible to racing thoughts, specifically, thoughts regarding the outcome of their performance, match, competition etc. These kind of premonitions may potentially have a negative influence on an individual’s attention, concentration and automatisation. More precisely, thinking about the future and consequently diverting your attention away from events in the present may inhibit positive momentum, insomuch that the individual’s attention is redirected and steered away from that which might be considered optimal. Rather, they may become distracted by concerns, doubts, wants and desires related to future events, in which their state of arousal and self-belief has been changed. Equally, becoming entrapped in thoughts about past events can detriment one’s attention and momentum before or during their performance. Although, should thoughts about past events provide evidence of mastery experiences or positive achievements, reminiscing on these memories of past events may actually provide positive momentum. Nonetheless, when thoughts are concentrated towards past or future events, based on reality or not, the person in question is distracted from the present, which will likely hinder their levels of arousal, self-belief, and perceptions of confidence. All things considered, remaining in the present, in terms of thoughts, feelings and emotions may be an important factor in maintaining and sustaining perceptions of momentum. Of notable usefulness is the practice of mindfulness, which might be achieved via Acceptance-Commitment Therapy (Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 1999). This practice emphasises the importance of relieving control of one’s thoughts, and recognizing the flow of thoughts and the acceptance of particular feelings and emotions as they arise, and that being the preferred method of staying calm and collected within the present. Acceptance-Commitment Therapy will be addressed and discussed in a later post, but for the time being, you should recognise that registering your thoughts and understanding and what they mean is important for perceiving momentum during any event in your life.

The Orient-ation Express

In sport psychology we refer to an individual’s ‘orientation’, which supposedly resembles how athletes define their success. Dating back to Jones and Hanton (1996) who proposed three different types of goals: process, outcome, and performance, each distinguishable from one another. Process goals refer to the mastery of technical aspects associated with performance, whilst performance goals are related to the score one achieves during or after their activity, and outcome goals are based on the overall success of one’s performance (i.e. win or lose). An individual might manifest more than one goal at any given time, and they are not limited to one type of goal either. For instance, you might adopt a number of process, performance and outcome goals yourself. However, it is thought that each person typically leans towards one type of goal achievement, or at least, uses one form of goal setting more so than the other two types of goals. The extent to which a person leans towards one type of goal setting over another describes their orientation. And the orientation that you may or may not choose to adopt will change the way you perceive momentum, for example, if you are outcome-oriented you will experience positive or negative momentum depending on whether you are winning or losing. But, if you are process-oriented you will perceive momentum based on your skill execution and technical mastery, in which case the actual result that follows from your actions may not have any impact on your perceived momentum. Thus, being aware of your own naturally occurring orientation may aid your understanding of how you are going to perceive momentum, and what kind of prerequisite factors are required if you are going to benefit from positive momentum. Although, some individuals may not necessarily adopt one orientation over others, instead, they might actualise each of the three goal setting strategies equally as often. In which case, it is then beneficial to be self-aware of their orientation as and when it changes, so that they can better modulate their perceptions of momentum. And whilst perceptions of momentum are not typically easy to change, individuals might then be able to understand why they are experiencing positive or negative momentum.

Pause for a Moment-um

In summary, it is likely that we all experience momentum, positive or negative, from time-to-time. And being aware of momentum, and why the ebbs and flows occur, might benefit you during your performance events. Without doubt, there are numerous factors that could influence momentum, not all of which can be covered in this single post. However, please take notice of the factors that have been described today, since you may find they pop up every now and then during your daily activities. Momentum is not constant, rather, it is ever changing, but if you could observe and change the direction of momentum for your own benefit then that could make you quite successful. Hence, it is an important phenomenon on and off the pitch, and although difficult to see in reality, it certainly affects us on a physical and psychological level.


Briki, W. (2017). Rethinking the relationship between momentum and sport performance: Toward an integrative perspective. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 30, 38-44.

Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K., & Wilson, K. G. (1999). Acceptance and commitment therapy: An experiential approach to behaviour change. New York: Guildford Press.

Jones, G., & Hanton, S. (1996). Interpretation of competitive anxiety symptoms and goal attainment expectancies. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 18, 144-157.

Shepperd, J., & McNulty, K. (2002). The Affective Consequences of Expected and Unexpected Outcomes. Psychological Science, 31(1).

Taylor, J., & Demick, A. (1994). A mulit-dimensional model of momentum in sports. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 6(1), 51-70.

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