Gareth Fox

Gareth Fox – Psychological momentum and the first law of thermodynamics

Let’s say, for imaginations sake, Stefan Campbell scores that penalty in May against Tyrone in the National League, and Armagh go on to win. Tyrone drop into the relegation play-off and Armagh proceed, to face Kerry in Killarney – what then of the outcome of the All-Ireland? A moment that perhaps changes the course of the year – or perhaps not. The penalty is missed and Tyrone win the game – that’s psychological momentum.

I’ve watched sport, in most of its forms, all my life. The seemingly organic ebb and flow of momentum. Teams on top, only to be thwarted – teams all but beaten, only to claw it back and win. And, like everyone else, I accepted that this was the nature of the game. But as I sat watching an Armagh senior club championship match recently, I realised that something was controlling the outcome of the game. Some thing, invisible yet apparent, was at work, and the more I stepped back from the grips of the game, the more I saw it illuminated – The First Law of Thermodynamics – the real reason why games are lost and won.

We are all exposed to and succumb to the energy of our environments. Enter a room where an argument has taken place and you will absorb the tension in the air and it will affect your behaviour. Enter a space where a celebration is taking place, and it won’t be long until you have imbibed the positive atmosphere and get involved. We are permeable creatures who soak up our emotional surroundings and act accordingly, whether they be energy giving or energy removing.

The more I withdrew from the step-by-step action of the game, the more I saw thermodynamics discreetly operating under the guise of Psychological Momentum.

It started with a missed free kick – from a usually reliable source – and a section of spectators grew nervous. Their lost energy was then absorbed by the fans of the opposing team, and now positively charged, they began to shout words of support. But it wasn’t just the fans who lost energy, it began to seep out of the bodies of their players and suddenly they started to fumble the ball, mistime tackles, make wrong decisions – passes went astray that only minutes before were precise and assured. They were infected by the negative psychological momentum in the air. And what energy they lost was gained by the opposition who hit three unanswered points to win the game.

That’s The First Law of Thermodynamics – energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only change forms. In this case, from one team to another. And what causes this swapping of energy? Psychological Momentum. Moments during the game that psychologically impact everyone involved – players, coaches, fans. Everyone on your team is connected, from those who play to those who support in the stands. How the fans feel affects the players – how the players feel affects the fans – even if you don’t know it. And how one group (players and fans together) feels affects the other group (players and fans together).

If you control the momentum and the flow of positive energy during the game, you control the result.

You can’t introduce new energy into the game – thermodynamics (physics’ most important, universal governing rule) doesn’t allow it. Football does not and cannot exist outside this rule. So we have to cater for it – in fact we have to use it to our advantage. If energy can’t be created, nor lost, then it has to be stolen. And it is done so by psychological momentum – understanding what actions in the game will have the biggest negative impact on your opposition’s psyche. The big plays, the unlikely scorers, the impact subs, inspiring management decisions. These are the things that kill your opponents – not the usual, expected stuff.

Unfortunately though, it’s easier said than done. Take a manager, for example, heshe is part of the game – heshe is emotionally involved. And if they are involved, then they will be corrupted by the same powers at play. Their own decisions become sloppy, they become indecisive, they freeze up; they have been drained of the vital positive energy required to be at their best.

The only way to control momentum and the flow of positive energy is to detach yourself from it completely. Detach yourself from the game, detach yourself from the crowd, detach yourself from the result. Be you. That way you can objectively see what’s going on, and act accordingly.


MOMENTUM SHIFT… Stefan Campbell’s penalty against Tyrone was a lesson in momentum and how it shifts in matches. Teams must try to control momentum

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