Soccer: How Psychological Momentum Plays a Major Role in Altering a Team’s Fortunes

Momentum is a trope that’s frequently used by soccer analysts when reflecting on a dramatic improvement in form, or an unexpected shift in energy mid-way through a match. In sporting terms, psychological momentum can be defined as “a perceptual phenomenon that changes human behavior or performance” and although it’s frequently used, it’s often hard to gauge exactly how much of an effect it could have on a team’s future performance. 

Many coaches have spoken about keeping the momentum going in the middle of a winning sequence, and its impact cannot be underestimated. It’s also been described as moving towards a desired goal or outcome on either an individual or collective basis, and according to research, this may potentially change the psychological variables in the brain. As a result, a player’s confidence may visibly increase and there’s often an extra level of urgency and precision to a team’s approach. 

Although psychological momentum has been dismissed by skeptics as a “cognitive illusion that is nothing more than the expected ups and downs that occur in sport”, it has undoubtedly had a profound effect on many team performances over the last couple of decades. 

In Major League Soccer, Inter Miami have managed to completely turn the tide midway through the 2021 campaign: snapping a six-match losing streak gave them the confidence to start picking up results and to put themselves within touching distance of the play-offs. Phil Neville’s side may still only be 67.00 in the latest football betting for the MLS Cup 2021, however, their recent shift in momentum has given the players and supporters the chance to dream of making the post-season. 

Although a 1-1 draw with 2020 Supporter’s Shield winners Philadelphia Union may have been the result that ended that confidence-sapping run of results, it’s likely that their comeback victory against CF Montreal at the end of July ultimately gave them the much-needed injection of confidence to start climbing the standings. 

Prior to that success, Inter Miami were playing with their heads down, committing basic errors at the back and missing several presentable opportunities, however, they have been defeated in just one of their subsequent 11 matches and psychological momentum has certainly played a crucial role in giving the players a boost and enabling them to operate with far more confidence and purpose. 

One of the most high-profile examples of a split-second change of momentum was evident in the 2014 Champions League final, which was contested between two Spanish rivals. Atletico Madrid had been leading since the 36th minute and appeared on course to upset the odds and claim a historic victory. However, despite seemingly running out of ideas in the final third, Sergio Ramos’ scrappy injury-time equalizer completed altered the course of the game.

Real Madrid had been completely transformed, whereas their opponents were unable to string a sequence of passes together without giving the ball away. Los Blancos, who had struggled for the majority of the 90 minutes, played with the swagger of champions, and this newly-found swashbuckling approach eventually resulted in them easing to a 4-1 victory in extra time. 

Although some physicists and pundits still have questions about the concept of psychological momentum in top-level sport, there can be little doubt that just a single pivotal moment can completely alter the perception of a player or team, and this usually results in either a significant upturn or downturn in form. Although momentum may only be maintained for a short period of time, it plays a crucial role in altering a team’s short-term fortunes and as a result, this may also potentially change the course of sporting history. 

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