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Momentum – lap of the gods or in your own hands?


Momentum is a bit of a buzzword of the moment. Commentators and coaches talked of almost nothing else at the recent European Ryder Cup victory. The phenomenon of momentum not only appears in golf but in many other sports – teams are said to have hit a ‘rich vein of form’, they ‘get on a roll’. Momentum also occurs in most businesses. Ask any good sales person and they’ll tell you that if they close two or three deals in a row, they’ll very soon close a few more. Conversely, once they’ve lost one or two bids, they’ll report losing five or six.

For many people this phenomenon is a mystery. It is reflected in sayings such as ‘things come in threes’ and the gambler who reveals they’re on a ‘winning or losing streak’. For many people, such things are just simply ‘in the hands of the gods’.

Whilst Ryder Cup Captain, Paul McGinley, may have waxed lyrical about momentum. Could he have really told you what it was – or how the team could get it back if they’d lost it at a critical moment?

Looking at the academic research in the sports world, you’d have to conclude that momentum does not exist. Stephen Dubner, of Freakonomics fame, quotes a paper from several years ago “arguing that a “hot streak” is really just a random sequence that we misperceive to be more meaningful than it is.”[1]

So it’s really more to do with the perception of momentum than actual momentum. If you feel you’ve turned a corner and things are starting to go for you that may be just as important as the objective evidence that you are performing better. Many a premiership football manager will talk about the “positives” they can take out of a game they just lost. They’re not naïve, but they are alluding to a sense of progress. The exact same phenomenon occurs in business; like for like sales figures may be poor, but even before there is objective evidence of a turnaround we start to sense a direction, that a certain momentum is there. Business has its own set of metaphors for such scenarios – “we’ve turned a corner”; “the green shoots of recovery”. Politics may be the ultimate area where it is often vital to create the perception of momentum to win a vote.

The statement that “the tide is turning” gives us a clue about what momentum really is – or at least where it’s coming from. It is rarely coming from the results themselves, it is happening inside of us. It is to do with our self-belief, confidence and desire. These are all key e-motions, or energy-in-motion. They have their own specific physiological signature. All these e-motions have inherent momentum. Such feelings can be created by you from a standing start and are completely within your own control. You don’t need to wait for something outside to trigger them, you can choose to create such momentum for yourself unconstrained by a fear of failure or performance anxiety.

As you learn to control your own emotional state and change how you feel you can start to feel a bit more confident even before the results would give you justification for doing so. Those feelings of confidence have a direct biological effect. Your cortisol (stress hormone) levels start to drop and your DHEA (the performance hormone) levels start to rise. If you can shift the cortisol DHEA ratio and alter the see saw balance between the two, you can tilt the scales in your favour and create your own momentum. That can happen in advance of any objective improvement in results – closing that deal or sinking that 5ft putt. The critical step is you being able to tilt the scales in your favour and that is an internal shift before anything is objectively visible externally.

It’s important to realise that this doesn’t mean we’ve entered the realm of the ‘happy clappy’ or delusional ‘positive thinking’ or the emptiness of ‘positive mental attitude’. We’re not talking about a pretence of brilliance in the face of evidence to the contrary. What we are suggesting is that you actually experience the emotion, not the thinking, of confidence and self-belief with its attending physiological signature. We know that with the right amount of optimism you’re much more likely to be clear thinking. When you’re in a state of self-judgment, self-criticism, hubristic self-promotion or even the hyperbolic state of ‘I’m awesome’ then your biology will actually derail your momentum.

Momentum really isn’t within the ‘lap of the gods’, it’s in your own lap or, more accurately, within your own physiology. It can be created within each of us on demand to optimise our chances of success. Once you change your physiology and emotional state to create the momentum you seek it can be infectious. What starts as an internal game becomes a genuine outcome in the real world of business or sport.

Did This Help You? If so, I would greatly appreciate if you commented below and shared this article.

[1] http://freakonomics.com/2011/11/20/football-freakonomics-is-momentum-a-myth-2/

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Dr Alan Watkins

Alan is recognised as an international expert on leadership and human performance. He has a broad mix of commercial, academic, scientific and technological abilities.

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