The Delicate Psychology of Momentum in Soccer

I just watched my home town team, who I have supported since I was about 8 years old, snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. They conspired to lose a Cup tie to a team two divisions below them. In the first game, my team were 2-0 up with 10 mins to go. In the words of the commentators, we were “cruising to victory.” All we had to do was play out the last 10 minutes. With about 8 mins to go we conceded a soft goal. A few minutes after that we gave away a penalty, which gave our opponents an equalizer. The game ended 2-2. Okay, that’s frustrating, but at least we have a chance to put it right in the replay. Or do we?

You guessed it, we lost the replay – on home soil! What the heck happened?

The Momentum Shift

I’m sure you’ve seen the momentum shift in games. How is it that one team can go from dominating a game to being on the back foot, within just a couple of minutes? What happens to swing the momentum of a game so drastically? And, what can coaches and players do to control the momentum of the game?

There is a common saying in soccer, “goals change games”. But that principle is not limited to soccer. Cricket matches are often characterised by ‘batting collapses’, where a team will lose 3-4 wickets in quick succession when a partnership is broken. In the NFL turnovers tend to change, not only possession, but the dominance from one team to another. Many people would suggest that the famous come-backs in sport are prime examples of psychological momentum shifting.

  • For coaches, athletes and applied sport psychologists, there are some obvious questions:
  • What actually changes when psychological momentum shifts?
  • How are changes initiated?
  • What can we do to swing the momentum in our favor?

Let’s look at the first question. What actually changes?

Insight by Working Backwards

I start by working backwards. Obviously the score line changes. That’s the bit we tend to notice most. Unfortunately, changes to the score line are at the result of a series of events. The momentum has normally shifted quite a long way by the time we see the impact on the score board. At that point, we’re a long way down the line and it’s pretty tough to turn around. We need to respond before the score line changes!

As I watch games, I see that there are quite a few stages before we hit those critical moments (i.e. the loss of a goal in soccer or the interception in an NFL game). Normally, there are clues, which warn us that things are changing. If we work backwards, we can see that just before we conceded a goal, we often start to do things differently. Our processes often change. When I watched my home town team, I noticed that when we were defending, the distance between our players and their opposite number increased just slightly. We didn’t close down quite as quickly, we allowed them just a tiny bit more space, we began to defend a touch deeper. To start with, these changes are normally very small. They are often so small they seem invisible. However, these very small changes have a big impact because they compound. By allowing the opposition just a little more time, space and comfort, my team gave them opportunities to make passes they might otherwise have missed, deliver crosses that otherwise might have gone out of play, take up positions were unavailable to them previously. Therefore, those tiny changes lead to bigger changes when the opposition are then awarded a corner kick, or a free kick around the edge of the penalty box. Before we know it, we’ve handed them the momentum and they’ve created some dangerous chances…….and scored.

Changes in the momentum of a game normally result from changes in our processes.

The next question is, how do we control our processes?

Controlling the Process

As a sport psychologist, I know that how we think and how we feel effects how we perform. It impacts on how we make decisions and how we execute skills. From my experience working with athletes and teams, I’ve noticed that loss of psychological momentum coincides with a loss of focus. If our confidence is low, we also start making strange decisions if we feel ‘under pressure’, or if we feel “out of control.” Sometimes we force passes that are not really there. We make mistakes because we “try too hard”. We back off if we have doubts. We miss opportunities because we slow down when we “think too much”. Thinking takes a long time. Often, by the time we’ve thought about it, the moment has passed.

So, how can we influence the shift in psychological momentum? In my experience, understanding how momentum shifts is the first stage. Stage one is to recognise it early! I encourage athletes and coaches to understand when momentum is shifting. It is important for athletes to realise how their focus changes when they start over-thinking and becoming frustrated. It is also important that athletes know what to focus on in order to perform at their best. We need a game plan! I like athletes to know what to do if they sense the momentum is slipping away from them. I believe that they need to have a simple point of focus; a simple, clear task. That way, they can concentrate on delivering it really well.

In many cases, athletes and teams are not aware of how to control the psychological momentum of the contest. Instead, they simply go with the flow. However, with understanding and application, it is possible to stop momentum swinging away and also turn the tide if the momentum is not with you. It all starts when we control how we think and how we feel!

Published by

Simon Hartley

Simon is a sport psychologist, performance coach and author. His website, Be World Class, helps athletes and business people to get their mental game right. Simon has worked at the highest level of sport with Olympic gold medalists, world record holders as well as Premiership and Championship soccer teams in the UK. Simon has produced a soccer webinar coaching package on how to coach focus, confidence and motivation in your teams.

One thought on “The Delicate Psychology of Momentum in Soccer”

  1. Excellent article! I am going to remind my team to be mindful of the opposition’s comfort zone on our half – no matter what the momentum, if we concentrate on not letting them become comfortable on the attack, our defense can get us back on track.


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