Is momentum in sports real or mirage?

The Atlanta Falcons had momentum in the first half of this year’s Super Bowl game. Suddenly it vanished.

The New England Patriots took the momentum in the fourth quarter and carried it over to the end of the game in overtime.

Old Mo is fickle. One minute, it’s with you. The next thing you know, it vanishes like a puff of smoke. One can only wonder if the outcome would have been different if Atlanta had won the coin toss for overtime.

Momentum is hard to quantify and scientifically difficult to prove. As a former athlete, basketball official and longtime sports fan, I know it when I see it. The challenge is how to get it and keep it.

Kevin L. Burke, a sport psychology professor and consultant at Queens Univer­sity in Charlotte, N.C., wrote an article titled, “Does momentum really exist?”

“I have often argued people do not recognize momentum until after it already has happened,” Burke said. “Therefore, momentum is most likely simply an ‘after-the-facts’ explanation for the outcome of a game.

“For example, when a team is said to have momentum it is because they’ve had several good plays one right after the other. If coaches knew what specifically started momentum, then they would obviously try to make it occur as often as they could. Yet, it is difficult for scientists to predict and for coaches or athletes to cause momentum to happen. This provides support for the theory that momentum may be an ‘after-the-fact’ explanation.”

What does that mean?

There isn’t a valid scientific method for finding answers to the question about momentum.

Burke says it’s obviously not practical to ask athletes and coaches during a game when a momentum change is occurring, and spectators often disagree when momentum actually changed.

“In the sports world, momentum will continue to be an important factor in performance as long as ‘Mo’ exists in the sensations of coaches, athletes and spectators,” said Burke.

Count me in the group that believes momentum is real. A big play happens and suddenly a team plays harder with an extra sense of purpose and urgency.

In basketball, a dunk doesn’t automatically result in getting momentum, although it depends on timing and circumstances. Players and coaches realize that a dunk is only worth two points. However, not all dunks are created equal. I’ve seen a few that appeared to lead to a change in momentum, leading to more intensity on defense.

Still, the so-called experts say, “Not so fast,” and discount momentum as reality.

Can anyone discount the fact that the Patriots were dead in the water before taking momentum in the fourth quarter?

Did the Patriots’ momentum cause the Falcons to panic and make questionable play calls late in regulation, instead of rationally running the ball, using the clock and kicking a makeable field goal to put the game out of reach?

Once the Patriots tied the game and won the coin flip for overtime, did anyone really think the Falcons had a chance to stop ‘Old Mo’?

So how does a team change momentum? If it were that easy, everyone would do it. Or, is it more a matter of playing hard and eventually good things will happen to you?

Researchers say there’s no quantifiable evidence that momentum exists. “In our evidence, we see that momentum is really just illusory,” said Kevin M. Kniffin, a postdoctoral student at Cornell’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management.

To that I say, “Bah, humbug.” I agree with what I read in an article from The Sports Quotient.

“Momentum does exist in sports. Momentum can be the most important factor in a team’s championship run, and yet, it remains such an under-appreciated aspect of the world of sports.”

Hillsboro resident Joe Klein­sasser is director of news and media relations at Wichita State University. You can reached him at Joe.Klein­sasser@wichita.edu.