How many times have we watched sports, live or on television, when one team either is all of a sudden amazing and unstoppable or just starts playing horribly after being brilliant for the better part of a match? There truly is such thing as momentum in sports and that momentum can swing both in a good way and a bad way.
One of the greatest momentum swings I can remember (and here in Canada we still talk about it) was that of the Canadian national men’s junior hockey team at the world championships in 2011. The Canadians were playing perfect hockey and lead Russia 3-0 after two periods. Then, disaster!
By the 2:44 mark of the third period, the Russians had scored two goals in eleven seconds to come within one. 5 minutes later the game was tied and the Russians went on to win 5-3 in a stunning upset. It wasn’t necessarily an upset of a weak team beating a stronger team. It was an upset overcoming what should have been an insurmountable lead of three goals by the top under-20 players in Canada.
Momentum is a great thing if it’s positive and in your favour. And it’s terrible if the momentum is against you. In both situations though, keeping things simple is the key. It’s so easy to get off track when you are going good. Players start to try to do more that they can, or should - things get a little fancy, the level of compete can sometimes start waning, positional play starts to get a little loose. Therefore, when a team is going good, athletes need to focus on continuing to do all that little things that have gotten them there in the first place. There can be no letting up or taking it easy.
There is a great story about Herb Brooks when he coached at the University of Minnesota. Players all knew that if they had a terrific weekend series against a tough rival and won a few games they would be back at it on Monday having a tremendously hard practice. Brooks felt that once you get on a roll you had to keep pushing to maintain that intensity. There was no time off when the team was going good.
Conversely, when the team was going through a tough stretch Coach Brooks would often take a “day off” and take the players over to the gym to play some pickup basketball. Keeping things light when everything was going bad helped the mood of a team who all understood they were having a collective tough part of the season.
But just as keeping things simple applies to positive momentum, keeping it simple is crucial to turning things around when the momentum is working against you. Players need to focus on doing their own job and not everyone else’s. One player can’t pull a team out of a spin all by them self. Doing all the little things well, and simply, always helps swing momentum in a team’s favour. Things like working hard, pressuring the puck, getting shots on net, taking the defensive side, passing the puck to open players, blocking shots. Doing these things will undoubtedly get things back on track.
When things are good, it’s always easy to have a positive dressing room, the team culture will be good and players will all be getting along. It’s not so easy to keep those things together when momentum is moving against a team. Coaches need to be extremely mindful about the mood of their athletes in tough times. Keeping things together on the mental side can be crucial to turning things around on the ice.
Momentum, both good and bad, is truly inevitable during any season. As coaches, we need to plan for it in our season plans - asking ourselves what we can do to minimize the negative momentum and to maintain the positive momentum. This could include regular visualization exercises, mental preparation for in game sags, talking about doing the little things to turn things around, or practicing timed “down a goal” or “up a goal” scenarios. Also, having conversations and game plans for the first 5 minutes of competitions is critical as this will often set the tone for the remainder of a game.
Momentum is “strength or force gained by motion or by a series of events”. The key to having, gaining or changing momentum is to create a series of events that will ultimately gain strength in your favour.