Tar Heel Fan

Friday, June 16, 2006

Talking About Momentum

"Momentum" is one of the great buzz words in sports media. There have been whole articles written about it. It even has a nickname("mo'" or "big mo'"). It stands as one of those incredibly abstract and unproven concepts which sports journalist pontificate on for hours on end as it pertains to the results of the next game. Given the amount of attention it garners you would think we would have some sort of concrete definition on which to cling. "Momentum" in physics is best described the "tendency for an object to continue to move in its direction of travel" That is probably an apt description of the application in the sports world but in the case of physical momentum inertia is the driving force. What would we find if we examined the inner workings of sports related momentum? In terms of sports momentum I would describe it as the tendency for a player/team to continue to confidently play well and succeed in competition based on the results of the last contest as well advantages gained from favorable circumstances. Or if we wanted to use a formula we could say: Momentum = Good play + Confidence x Favorable Circumstances Take the current Stanley Cup Finals matchup between Carolina and Edmonton. The sports pundits have universally declared that Edmonton now has the "momentum" going into Game 6. And according to the formula they are probably right, lets take a look. Good play in Game 5 in addition to increased confidence coming off a win and staving off elmination multiplied by home ice advantage in the next game and two key Hurricane injuries. And if you reverse to apply the formula to the Canes you have poor play in the last game coupled with the doubts stemming from the final play and the failure to win the series at home multiplied by injuries and Game 6 on the road. In other words the fact the Canes played badly and lost in a bad way supposedly renders a negative impact on the level of play they will bring in Game 6 which is magnified by being on the road and dealing with injuries. Edomonton on the other hand should experience a continuance or increased in their excellence of play from Game 5 coupled with new found hope which magnified by the fact they are better off in terms of injuries and playing at home. And if you just read that and thought, "That is a load of crap" you would be right because any and all talk of momentum outside of a single game is total poppycock. Since it is my formula I will now pick it apart. In terms of "good play" your play is only as good as your next game. What you did in Game 5, aside from giving you a fresh dose of confidence, has no bearing on Game 6. The next game is a different game with different conditions and a blank scoreboard. Your body feels different and everything they may have worked in Game 5 could turn into disaster in Game 6. As for confidence it is extremely fragile. I happen to think had Cam Ward somehow stopped that blast 16 seconds into Game 5 and denied Edmonton a 1-0 lead from the start the Canes would have won the game. Not because it would have given the Oilers one less goal but because it took the wind out of the Canes early and gave Edmonton confidence within the context of the present game. A player's level of play and confidence are subject to change at anytime based on the flow of the game. There are some rare instances were elite players enter a zone where both of these factors operate at the top level but usually it is more like a rollercoaster ride. This is probably even more of the situation in hockey because the game tends to be more chaotic than the other major sports. So much depends on deflections and perfect opportunities that good play came come(Eric Staal scores twice) and go(partially to blame for giving up the GW goal) at the blink of an eye. As for favorable conditions there is some constancy here in that home games give the home team fan support and injuries take key players away but then again given how the above factors mainfest these can be rendered pointless. And if any of the above nonsense fails to persuade then the fact there is two day break between games is enought to dissuade any thought that momentum exists. UNC coach Roy Williams had an interesting take on momentum when he was asked about sustaining it going into the tournament after UNC had been playing so well and 10 straight games. He said that Dean Smith taught him that momentum has to be recreated upon entering tournament play and then sustained from there. I would add that it must be recreated repeatedly given the nature of the NCAA Tournament. In terms of professional championship series I think momentum must at the very least be created when you change venues. Anytime there is a break in the normal flow of games or a change in the conditions it is my opinion momentum is reset to zero and is recreated at during the game. In this series the Canes created momentum by coming back in Game 1 and it seemed to carry to Game 2. Then the series shifted to Edmonton so momentum was set to zero and the Oilers won and for the most part carried it into Game 4 but the Canes played better and took the 3-1 lead. Everyone says the Canes had momentum except they shifted back to Raleigh so momentum is reset once again and the Oilers seized upon it immediately to ultimately take Game 5. At this point people are talking about Edmonton's momentum which I would argue does not exist because the series has shifted once more to Edmonton. While I do think that momentum is a small factor in the way teams play I think the individual play of players, the bounce of the puck/ball, and lots of little things no one can control has more of role in the results of games. The Canes will either play better or they won't. The Oilers will either do a good job of defending their zone or they won't. And somewhere in there a fluke goal will get scored, a bad play will be made, and someone will do something sensational to save the game for one team or the other. And I know for fact momentum will have nothing to do with it.

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