When Tides Turn: Examining Momentum Shifts in Sports
The 2016 NBA playoffs offered a couple particularly interesting sport psychology case studies applied to momentum swings in sports — the Golden State Warriors 3-1 comeback against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference semifinals, and the Cleveland Cavaliers 3-1 comeback against those same Warriors in the NBA Finals. In both examples the statistical odds were against each underdog, yet both underdogs achieved the unthinkable in coming back to win. These are examples of extremely rare instances in sports that prompt a closer analysis at the variables that mediate these occurrences.
To begin with it should be stated that there are no cookbook recipes for how to swing momentum and overcome the odds, as there are countless variables that come in to play and, of course, some luck. Looking at the Cavaliers amazing series win there are several factors and variables that we can reasonably assume played into the comeback:
- A laser focus on the championship. A lot has been made of late about the 50+ year drought in Cleveland without a championship, a primary reason why LeBron James returned to the Cavs. While it is true that every team begins the year aiming for a title, the Cavs came into the season with arguably more motivation than anyone else and this mindset helped leverage them in many ways, including providing for a sharper focus, stronger motivation, and more galvanized resiliency.
- An amazing team leader. What else can be said about LeBron James that hasn’t already been said? Aside from being one of the top players of all time, he might be the single greatest sports leader we have ever witnessed. Strong, committed team leaders with credibility (James certainly has that) are able to create an incredibly dedicated following from team members that often propels each player to play to their maximum ability.
- Nothing to lose. When teams are down 3-1 it is not uncommon for them to play with less anxiety as focus and attention shifts toward to team looking to close out the series. By playing more freely, confidence within the team grows, and with each small victory belief becomes even stronger. At some point during this dynamic the team up 3-1 begins to think about not losing, while the underdog starts to think why not us? While this may seem trivial on the surface, these differences in mindsets can propel tension and anxiety within nervous players, while creating a healthy, positive flow within the team who suddenly believes. These variances often result in the differences between a crisp and lazy pass, sloppy fouls and tight defense, and proficient shooting versus shots that are just off.
- Contagious energy everyone feeds off. With each small victory, be it a loose ball scramble, an amazing shot, or a defensive stop, players begin to feed off one another in many positive ways. Often a new momentum develops and the bonds between players grows immensely as a result. The net result is a team that regularly picks one another up, minimizes in-fighting and outside distractions, and puts personal concerns aside for the betterment of the team.
- Coaching. Dramatic 3-1 comebacks don’t occur without a strong coach-players dynamic in place, meaning that team members must believe in the coach and his philosophy and strategies toward winning. Both coaches (Lue and Kerr) are known as coaches greatly respected by their teams, making it no surprise to see the commitments from their respective teams in the Western semi’s and NBA Finals.
- Luck. Yes, sometimes there really are no scientific explanations for some of the things witnessed in sports. In the most recent NBA Finals that just concluded, many fans have pointed to Draymond Green’s suspension for game 5 as being the moment the tide turned, and in the eyes of many that was a stroke of good luck for Cleveland. But remember, the lay definition of “luck” is when preparation meets opportunity, and successful teams almost always appear to be ready for the moment.
Momentum shifts in sports are often unpredictable and unexpected, but always exciting. This most recent NBA playoff season provided for a couple of the greatest comebacks in recent history, and rich material for sport psychology researchers to use for years to come.