An opponent on the rise can mess with your head

Coaches and commentators often talk about the importance of momentum in sport, and science has had its say.

A 1985 paper analysing the so-called hot hand theory (which holds that basketball players are more likely to score if they made their shot last time than if they missed) continues to generate discussion and new theories.

However, new research suggests that momentum doesn’t just apply to the moment, and it can have as much impact on an opponent as the player or team doing well.

A study of more than 117,000 professional tennis matches and five million observations in online amateur chess shows that even when competitors are evenly matched, players perform worse against an opponent they know has been climbing in rank.

These opponents gather what social scientists call “status momentum”, says Hemant Kakkar from Duke University in the US, co-author of a paper in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Our experiments suggest this is because people take the physical laws of momentum into their mental landscape,” Kakkar says. 

“For instance, they know a ball rolling downhill will keep rolling until someone applies a force to stop it. They do the same mental gymnastics or mental calculations about a competitor. 

“They tend to think ‘yeah, this person will keep moving up’. Because of this, they start feeling threatened and their performance tends to suffer.”

There was no better example than in tennis, the researchers say. They found that players committed more double faults when facing an opponent with status momentum. 

Kakkar and colleagues Niro Sivanathan, from the London Business School, and Nathan Pettit, from New York University, were certainly comprehensive in their endeavours. 

Alongside the specific analysis of competitors on the popular Free Internet Chess Server (FICS) and data from 26 years of professional tennis matches, they ran four additional studies to try to assess the psychological process underlying the status momentum concept.

Participants faced various competitive scenarios and took tests to measure how threatened they felt. Results showed they were more threatened by upwardly mobile opponents than by those with the same rank who lacked momentum.

It is possible not to be psyched out, however.

The study also shows that people who made themselves be positive about their own skills and strengths before a match, or found a reason to doubt their opponent’s supposed momentum, could overcome a negative mindset.

“Once you present people with some kind of doubt to the veracity of the rankings, such as a clerical error that affected the rankings, that alleviates some of the adverse effect of the opponent’s momentum,” Kakkar says. 

“We are generally motivated to think more favourably about ourselves, so when given a reason to doubt others – even a slight one – we tend to think ‘maybe this person isn’t actually that good’, and that can change how threatened we feel.”

The researchers acknowledge the limitations of the study. There was no consideration of different levels of pressure, for example, or of one player’s track record against another.

Nevertheless, the findings do raise a number of interesting questions. How does a player’s negative momentum impact on an opponent’s thinking? And is there a difference between a slow, steady rise (or fall) and a dramatic one?  

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