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Psychological Momentum in Sports: NBA Teams That Come from Behind Do Not Garner More Overtime Wins

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Teams that come from behind do not have a greater chance of winning in overtime, according to Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) researchers in a study published in the Journal of Economic Psychology debunking theories of how psychological momentum in sports and in life lead to success.

‘People talk about momentum as an indicator for success in business, sports and politics,’ says Dr Elia Morgulev from the BGU Department of Management, Guilford Glazer Faculty of Business and Management. ‘However, after studying close to 900 tied games with fourth quarter comebacks over 11 National Basketball Association seasons, we found that regardless of momentum, teams with the home advantage and more season wins were more likely to succeed in the five-minute overtime.’

Dr Morgulev, along with Professors Ofer Azar and Michael Bar-Eli of BGU’s Department of Business Administration, Guilford Glazer Faculty of Business and Management, are the first to analyse the effect of fourth quarter comebacks on overtime performance to address the larger question of whether or not recent success creates enough psychological momentum to make a positive impact on subsequent team and individual performance.

Contrary to common beliefs, the researchers found momentum did not carry over after the end of a tied fourth quarter to help teams win in overtime, regardless of the size of the previous score gap. What did make a difference in improving a team’s likelihood of winning was both home advantage and the balance of power between the teams – measured by the difference in teams’ season wins.

‘These findings raise questions for future research,’ says Professor Bar-Eli. ‘Why don’t we observe momentum in situations where success should lead to psychological and physiological gains?’

Bar-Eli raises the following questions:

  • Could the momentum of a comeback team be offset by a more aggressive, focused and motivated team that feels it was robbed of its win and must now go into overtime?
  • Could the comeback team be so exhausted that they lose momentum?
  • Could releasing tension during even a brief break before overtime cause a team to relax because they feel they’ve achieved their target of not losing and then lose any potential momentum?

Dr Morgulev, who is also the head of physical education studies in the nearby Kaye Academic College of Education says: ‘These findings are also relevant in the education field as current pedagogy is obsessed with promoting the experience of success. They often neglect the importance of obstacles and failures in building character and fostering inner motivation to overcome and prevail.’

Ultimately, the researchers ask: Why do people tend to associate NBA comebacks with psychological momentum, even though data does not support it?

‘It seems intuitive to expect a comeback team to benefit from momentum,’ says Professor Azar. ‘So perhaps when a team that closed a gap in the fourth quarter does win in overtime, it stands out more in people’s memories and reinforces a common belief over time.’

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