We hear so often about ‘momentum’ building through the championship. But what does it mean? We talk to economists, academics, athletes and coaches to find the answer
Momentum in the Six Nations – is it real?
On the eve of the Six Nations, all that is incredible and terrible about supporting your country lies in front of you. Expectation. Baseless hope. Triumph. Disaster. Ceaseless wind-ups. Bragging rights torched before your very eyes.
We are addicted to it all.
And because of it, you understand why certain legends of the event give us comfort. Because no matter how much unknown terrain stretches out to the final round of the competition, there is refuge to be found just on the other side of game one. Or failing that, once you do start winning, the world can eventually transform.
“The Six Nations to me has always been about momentum, and you need a bit of luck as well,” former Wales boss Warren Gatland recently told The Telegraph. You may remember the three-time Grand Slam-winning coach predicting that should his charges defeat France in their opening game in 2019 they would win the tournament. Which they did.
But what is momentum? Seek to get a Six Nations-friendly definition of it and you find yourself wrestling with rivalries (historic and modern), tables of data, prevailing popular myths, sports psychology and even realities created within team rooms. And that is before you consider that teams can exchange the upper hand within collisions, within halves, within matches, within the tournament itself as we all career towards the ultimate outcome.
And as you dig further into the questions of whether so many elite teams can wrest any momentum for themselves, you begin to wonder which ladder to take to get out the hole…
THE NUMBERS GAME
When we talk of momentum in sports to any degree, inevitably you spill into whether the ‘hot hand’ is a fallacy or not. Consider the best free-throw or three-point shooters in basketball – surely any streak could be explained by ‘momentum’, right? The idea is that the shooter gets into the zone draining shots and that they have built up so much steam that the next success is now more likely.
It is, as one academic tells us, the “greatest bar stool argument” for people in their world. This is the realm where beefy sports starts and economists collide, baby.
“I like to use the Tortoise and the Hare example to describe momentum,” says Aaron Blanco, who in 2018 wrote his PHD thesis, Sports behaving badly: an economic study of momentum.
“At one point the hare had momentum because he was running faster than the tortoise. At another point, the tortoise had momentum because the hare was asleep. This was largely what my research was about: how far does one competitor need to be in front before they choose to work less?
“As you can tell, it’s important to make the distinction because when the classic commentator comes on and states “they’ve got all the momentum now”, are they saying one team is pulling away, the other team is falling behind, or both? What’s important here is that, under this definition, the hot hand can cause momentum. If my success directly causes me to work harder and incur more success then I’ll pull away from my opponent.
“To continue this discussion in more economic-y lingo, it is best to talk in terms of effort. Economics chooses to define momentum in two ways: strategic and psychological. Strategic momentum is the result of two teams choosing to exert some effort based on what they think their opponent will choose.
“For example, if I’m losing a match I may choose to throw in the towel (exert no effort) thinking I can’t win halfway through (classic “tanking”). If my opponent realises this ‘tanking’ strategy then they too may choose to exert a lower effort but still enough to win the match. In this strategic scenario, both players are working less but the result is momentum because one player is exerting relatively less than prior.
“Psychological momentum is the result of winning and losing. I win so I am pumped up and work harder = more effort. I lose and I am disheartened so I work less = less effort. The result is momentum. The great question(s) that have plagued economists and sports fans is: 1. Does momentum exist? And 2. How do we disentangle the strategic from the psychological?”
The role of the sports economist means you get to study human life through the prism of our favourite pastimes. At least that’s according to Alex Krumer, professor of sports economics at Molde University College in Norway. And weaving nimbly between a few academic papers he sends over, he goes further into exactly what Blanco begins to explain on strategic momentum and psychological momentum.
With the former, he talks about motivations through sets of a tennis match, in a manner somewhat akin to ‘losing the battle to win the war’. Or simply losing. And then we get on to the issue of incentivising performance within team outings in the Davis Cup, when ranking points were introduced for individual matches in 2009. Certainly Test rugby is no stranger to discussions of motivations through match fees – or bloodying the nose of the higher earners.
But it is when talk turns to psychological momentum that those invested in the Six Nations may pay attention. Even beyond the passion play is the idea of wins leading to more wins. In his paper Psychological momentum and gender, Krumer includes a line: “Psychological momentum is the tendency of an outcome to be followed by a similar outcome not caused by any strategic incentive of the players.”
Within this, Krumer and colleagues look at events from the world of elite judo, where losers in the quarter-final rounds went into repêchage bouts for the right to compete against athletes who dropped straight in after losing semi-finals. This is the road to the bronze-medal matches. By the nature of this set-up you essentially have someone who just won a match competing against someone who just lost. Importantly, there is no strategic consideration: lose and you are totally out of medal contention.
Krumer and colleagues adopted a general view that losing semi-finalists should be better competitors than losing quarter-finalists. But what they found was that those who had won in the repêchage had a higher probability of winning than those who had lost the semis.
This was more likely, they found, in male competitors than female, but it is something to take note of. Now look at another Krumer paper.
In First in first win: Evidence on schedule effects in round-robin tournaments in mega-events, they assessed two Olympic wrestling events as well as the group stages of FIFA World Cups and UEFA European Championships. With the football, they looked at how important match one was for the chances of progressing beyond the group stages; to be a success in the table.
From all the teams who won their first matches in the competitions to go through (68 out of 87 victors first up), it would equate to around a 78% probability of getting out of the group.
“Obviously if there were 87 winners, then there are 87 losers,” Krumer says. “Only 17 times out of the 87 losses in the first round, they qualified (to get out of the group). So that’s my answer to how important winning a first match is: Extremely important.”
He does caveat that there were obviously draws for some teams in the first round too. It’s also devilishly tricky to disentangle psychological and strategic momentum. Motivations and strategies change even within matches.
There are other elements of this that have to come into play as well, not least the calibre of your opponent and the context of the time – something we are all acutely aware of in a sport coming out of a global pandemic to play its flagship tournament at a time of year when the word Dreich achieves its capital D. We have all stared at the Six Nations schedule, plus there is also the bonus points system to contend with.
On the breakdown of the schedule, well, as you can imagine, looking at ‘runs’ of matches can also present fresh pastures for economists.
We received a note from Kevin M Kniffin, who wrote the paper Within-series momentum in hockey: No returns for running up the score with ice hockey player Vince Mihalek. In it, they sought to find whether there is momentum from one game to the next within a two-game series, looking at 458 double-ups over time.
As he tells Rugby World: “In a nutshell, we find that momentum across games appears to be an artefact of team quality. Teams that are very good tend to win consecutive games and once you take into account that some teams are better than others, ‘momentum’ seems more like an artefact rather than something more fundamental or real.”
But what if you find smaller such artefacts from game to game on the way to something greater?
A MATTER OF CONFIDENCE
“To get off to a good start and to win a big game like that, it’s naturally got to give this squad a huge sense of motivation,” says Sean Cronin, reflecting on the match to kick off 2018 – a Grand Slam year for Ireland – when Johnny Sexton dropped a goal in dead time in Paris to snatch a first victory of the campaign, against France. Ireland would go on to beat England away, as well as Italy, Wales and Scotland at home.
But while Cronin explains that a big win should be celebrated, that heart-stopper at the Stade de France also served as confirmation that you’ve been doing the right thing for all those tough weeks beforehand. As he adds: “Not only does the result build confidence but if you put in a performance, you know that with the work you’ve done pre-tournament, you’re on the right track. Now you’re building nicely and (have faith in) the coach’s plan as you’re moving forward for the rest of the tournament.
“So there are a few different factors that build into momentum and confidence. You get wind that as a squad you’re doing the right things on and off the pitch.”
Cronin tells Rugby World that from win one you have to acknowledge three things. First, that other opponents have watched, in detail, exactly how you just won that game. Second, that the team can always improve. And third, that players must always individually consider what they can do better. As our economist friends would say, don’t relax and exert less effort.
But ultimately, Cronin adds, senior players and coaches will play a big role in ensuring everyone moves on from this point.
Continuing success can come down to an array of different leaders within your group, believes Katrien Fransen, an associate professor in leadership and coaching at KU Leuven in Belgium. While task leaders can help direct performance on the field and relay tactical messages, there are also motivational leaders who can help direct emotions during competition. There are the social leaders and jokers who help out off the field, as well as external leaders who can act as something of a public face, for those outside of the team.
Where things really get interesting is when Fransen is asked if a savvy group of team leaders – within a competitive side – could foster an illusion of confidence, to any degree.
Related: The role of the team joker in rugby
“I think so but I think it goes both ways,” Fransen replies. “We’ve done a longitudinal study in soccer, where we measured team confidence before the game, at the break and after the game. What we saw was that team confidence before the game did not really impact the team performance in the first half. But with team confidence at the break, it did significantly impact the team performance in the second half of the game. If everything goes well it impacts your team confidence, but it can also be the other way.
“We did a couple of experimental studies, where we set up basketball teams to check if leaders can actually impact the confidence of their team-mates. So we took teams of five players – they didn’t know each other before – and they had to perform a shooting contest. Basically scoring as many free throws as possible.
“We put in there one research confederate, just one of the players of their team, and we instructed the leader of the team to either show very high team confidence or very low team confidence. We ensured that both team leaders performed exactly the same, making half of their free-throws, so it just came down to behaviour and team confidence.
“What we saw in the experimental condition was when the leader showed high confidence, team confidence would increase and interestingly also performance. So they would score more free-throws when their leader was highly confident compared to the other condition. What we saw (on the negative side) was that confidence of the other players significantly deteriorated and their objective performance or the number of free throws that they scored also went down.”
Picking your leadership group isn’t that easy though. As Fransen explains, sometimes who the coaches think are the best leaders might not be who the athletes think are the best candidates. Ideal leaders may appear as obvious choices over time, but if you need to quickly reshape your leadership group, big decisions need to be made.
Fransen and the Leading Insights group in Leuven have done work on shared leadership mapping analysis, and have asked athletes to anonymously rate their peers to help identify prime candidates. But overtly allocating roles could be tricky and handing the keys to the wrong people can certainly prove costly.
As we delve deeper into the concept of momentum, it becomes increasingly clear that for any perceived good, there is also the bad. A few years ago Dr Ruud den Hartigh, associate professor of talent development and creativity at the University of Groningen, found himself yearning to know more about how athletes change over time. How their morale can spike at certain points, or they fall into a negative spiral mid-match. He began looking into changes not only within contests but also over careers.
As den Hartigh tells us: “What we have found consistently – and it also fits research in psychology – is that a negative cycle has a bigger impact than positive momentum. In particular, in those instances where you feel you’re doing well, you’ve taken the lead, you’re almost there and then the opponent starts to come back and takes the lead.
“Those are the toughest, psychologically. They are the periods when you see that the efforts, coordination, motivation and confidence can spiral down. And we didn’t see this work the other way around. Positive psychological momentum is a bit more difficult to build up.
“If you speak about elite teams, they should practise to deal with negative scenarios to avoid or at least delay such a negative psychological momentum. But overall, across different sports, the tendency is that negative psychological momentum develops more easily.”
Just maintaining the good buzz, too, ain’t easy. It’s one of the reasons why Grand Slams are so feted – to keep up that level of performance, to maintain that team confidence, to ride out the rough patches, for five championship matches, truly is lightning-in-a-bottle stuff.
Of course, success is not just about Grand Slams. And maybe more should be made of the title winners who lost that first game.
STRIKEBACKS AND DISRUPTIONS
In an initial email exchange with den Hartigh, he talked about how movement toward a desired goal can elicit positive psychological momentum, but that those who lose the first time out of the gate can actually step up the effort levels the next time out. A strikeback. Negative momentum can build up if the results keep going that way, den Hartigh says, but there is a tendency to try and respond. And crucially, in the Six Nations, we are talking about teams that are capable of matching each other when they are on it.
In 2020, England won the Six Nations but only after losing their first match to France. Simon Amor was an assistant coach at the time and reflecting on the period, he considers how the team talked about momentum in the Six Nations, though more in terms of matchplay.
“In 2020 it was very much about the importance of momentum in the game,” he says. “So for me, it was very much around, once you get momentum how do you maintain it? And how can we find that with specific teams: where was the opportunity to do that?
“I remember we scored two tries against Ireland through kicks into space in the 22, just in behind. So it was recognising we had momentum, that there was space in behind to exploit with that kind of kick. If you didn’t have momentum initially you wouldn’t create that space to then score those tries. That would be an example of creating the right opportunity but that wasn’t there against other teams because of tactical reasons.
“And then it’s about how not to lose momentum, or how do you get momentum back? For England, we had some brilliant kicking options and some brilliant aerial people that were probably some of the best in the world at that time. So we had the ability to regain momentum once we’d lost it, through disorganisation, which was a good tactic then.”
The idea of wrestling back control is powerful. Particularly considering den Hartigh’s assertion that coming from behind can break another team. Imagine the hammer blow going on in the competition after you lost it at the death? Now think of the teams who make winning at the endgame a habit. Amor remembers a period during his time with England Sevens, when they won several games, stealing wins after the final hooter. It’s a trait Harlequins now seem to be the masters of, while Leicester never give up the ghost either.
But according to Amor, who was also with England in 2021, your key players need to be able to identify what is really going on in a match, in real time. They need to know when it’s time to turn disruptor, before your rivals have the ascendency.
He says: “The best way of describing it is in three parts. One, you’ve got momentum, fantastic, you’re winning. The second one is: it’s disrupted. It’s a mess. No one’s got it. The third one is the last thing you want, which is the opposition having momentum in any part of the game.
“That was probably something it was difficult to coach as well. Because it’s this one you’ve got to feel through experiences and a team going together in different situations. So the more times a team is together, and recognise when it’s in momentum, when it’s not, when it breaks… That’s pretty key.”
What this talks to is setting specific targets in real time, and responding to them efficiently. It’s a tough ask, considering how a game of rugby union can ebb, flow and fracture, with so many moving parts and constantly changing conditions.
Carmen Colomer is the director of sports science at the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, but has worked as an analyst for the Melbourne Rebels and the Brumbies, and co-wrote Performance Analysis in Rugby Union: a Critical Systematic Review in 2020. In an email exchange, Colomer tells Rugby World of our central question: “First, one would need to define success. If success is purely winning the game, then this is not always the result of the ‘better’ team scoring more points. Luck often plays a big role in many try-scoring opportunities.
“My research uses a systems approach to analysing player behaviour and events that result in try scoring opportunities. In this sense, success could look like the nine and the ten moving in a synchronised fashion during a high meters-gained phase. Or perhaps, the appropriate entropy (variability) of the 15 as he penetrates the defensive line in the opposition’s half.
“One thing I will say is that winning begets winning. It’s easy to get used to winning and do whatever it takes to win the game when you don’t know how to lose.
“Another consideration is how the game may change in the second half following the coaches’ change of strategy to adapt to the opposition’s defence, etc. This may impact momentum.
“In terms of what elements have to be successfully executed: set-piece and the following three phases seem critical based on my research so far. Further, these cannot be isolated as one-dimensional events. These events have to be contextualised to the area of the field, points differential, home or away stadium, weather… These factors all influence the necessary tactics to execute these events.”
Rugby, like life, is complex and ever evolving. But you cannot be scared of it.
If we consider a core of teams as on a similar footing in terms of ability though, and if we put stock in the idea that the positive is harder to build or maintain than the negative, what an underrated ability it then appears, being able to calmly steer through errors, disciplinary lapses, officials’ decisions you fundamentally disagree with and injuries.
What’s that line about being luckier the more you practise? According to Cronin, in 2018 there were few stones in the country the Irish set-up hadn’t looked under. They had prepped for a whole host of hardships.
Related: Inside The Team Talk in Rugby
“Have you prepped for (troubles) on the training pitch?” the hooker asks, when calmness comes up. “Say you have a yellow card and you’re five metres from your line, who do you put in at flanker to have an eight-man scrum? Have you addressed all the scenarios off pitch? That’s how you deal with the pressure of those situations the best: through preparation.
“Say you’ve had a couple of knock-ons or you’ve got turned over at the breakdown. Do you have some core plays that everyone, whoever’s on the pitch at the time, knows can get us back in the game and to get ourselves back into rhythm? Those are things that, in the modern game now, the top, top coaches have prepped for and they’ve got the point across to their players.”
Ultimately, there was trust in 2018. There was player buy-in, and when Sexton needed to be replaced by Joey Carberry, or Peter O’Mahony was carded, they buckled down on the processes.
And that raises a final point about momentum in the Six Nations. If there is fanatical belief in the system and it is supported by a respected shared-leadership group, and that very system tells the players that they are continuing to make forward progress, surely few words could puncture that.
Asked whether he felt that in 2019 on the way to a Welsh Grand Slam, back-rower Josh Navidi says of momentum: “Yeah, it’s crazy how much it makes a big difference, especially in the Six Nations.”
And that’s it. The Six Nations is crazy. And enraging. And bewildering. And the stuff of bar-stool arguments. In the end maybe it doesn’t really matter whether momentum is real or not, but that people in the middle of it all believe in it. It’s something else to interrogate.
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