SOCIAL media and, by extension, many modern online media outlets, has such a voracious appetite for entertainment now that any level of localised drama can go viral in an instant.
Last weekend, the big GAA hit on social media was Dave McCarthy’s electric commentary on the closing moments of Blarney’s epic comeback victory over Ballincollig in the Cork Premier Intermediate hurling quarter-final.
McCarthy had reason to be ultra-excited because Blarney struggled for the vast majority of the match. Behind by nine points with less than 10 minutes remaining, Blarney somehow found a way, swamping Ballincollig with a deluge of scores before Pádraig Power landed the winner.
Blarney’s desperate late surge came when they needed it most, but they also created an irresistible momentum that Ballincollig were unable to halt.
The disappointment was all the more acute for Ballincollig in that they started the last quarter well. But it was still another case of one team seizing momentum after a water-break, and another team being swallowed up by that same momentum.
There was a similar pattern earlier that afternoon in the Ballyhale Shamrocks-James Stephen’s Kilkenny county semi-final. A Colin Fennelly goal put Ballyhale 2-8 to 0-6 after the first water-break. But then James Stephens hit nine unanswered points to lead by one at the break.
Ballyhale edged a classic but in a TV interview afterwards, TJ Reid lamented the pressure they put on themselves in that second quarter. Reid said that while Ballyhale had targeted building on their lead after the water-break, they had become ‘complacent’ and had taken their ‘foot off the gas’.
Even a team with Ballyhale’s experience could switch off in that position but some trends have shown the considerable impact water-breaks – and how teams react after them - are having on games; one of the standout moments in this year’s Cork senior championship was Newtownshandrum’s 11 unanswered points after the second water break against Bishopstown to win by three points.
The water-breaks mean that games are now effectively four-quarter affairs. It’s like teams having two ‘time-outs’, which are as much about implementing tactical and strategic changes than hydrating.
After Shelmaliers won the Wexford county hurling final in August, Simon Donohue spoke about dealing with water-breaks. “In the semi-final, Glynn (Barntown) were kind of giving us a good bating in the first quarter and the water break came at the right time and we regrouped,” said Donohue.
“But in the final we were on top, the water break came, we had a puck-out and they got a goal straight off it and it could have changed the game. You have to prepare for water breaks now. It’s a kind of a mental thing. It can work for you or it can go against you.”
Sport psychologists have spent decades examining both perceptions of psychological momentum and links to performance and outcomes. The concept appears to divide opinion, with some researchers dismissing the phenomena as a mere performance label or cognitive illusion that is nothing more than the expected ups and downs that occur in sport.
Research evidence clearly shows that athletes’ perceptions of momentum do exist, and shift in response to gaining or losing ground in competition. There is also evidence to suggest that changing perceptions of momentum are linked to changes in athletes’ thoughts and feelings, which could influence performance.
Some academics still regard it as nothing more than a trick of the mind but the effects of momentum show up in several ways. A 2014 study of rowers found that overall effort exerted decreased more during times of negative momentum than it increased during times of positive momentum.
A study on soccer published in 2018 looked at whether scoring a goal just before half-time benefited teams more than at other times. The results were conclusive. “We do not find any evidence of an effect of timing toward the end of the half,” the researchers wrote. “The performance in the second half of teams scoring late in the first half is very similar to the performance of the teams scoring at other times in the half.”
Sports psychologists and coaches condition players to focus on the next ball, the next task, but researchers looking at how psychological momentum affects athletes’ performance have found that momentum matters and that negative momentum matters more than positive momentum. That is, the negative effects of having momentum against you outweigh the positive effects of having momentum on your side.
In his book, ‘The coaches guide to sports psychology’, Rainer Martens describes how changes in momentum occur because of the ebb and flow of psychic energy among the individual or teams playing.
“Often,” writes Martens “athletes will let go of their negative psychic energy, which may be a result of their concerns about winning, when they see they are almost certain to lose.”
Just as athletes can condition their bodies to increase their physical energy, they can also condition their minds to increase psychic energy.
Players can thrive when that energy is directed positively but the trends have also underlined the lessons for coaches and managers. As well as the water-break allowing the time to impart messages, make tactical adjustments and reinforce statistical targets to ensure teams don’t switch off, it also provides the opportunity to mentally prepare for either generating momentum or arresting it.
Because when teams flick that switch after the water break, and the energy turns, teams can either surf that momentum or be swamped by it.