Guest Post: Momentum – Can it be Coached?

I was fortunate enough to coach along side Pete Wilkins at the GPS Rugby Club where we reached the the first Grand Final in 17 years. Pete's ability to turn our defence into a weapon was major reason for our success. I wish him the best in his well deserved promotion at the Queensland Reds. 


In 2010, whilst working as an analyst in the Super 15, I became fascinated by the concept of momentum.

Very rarely will a team in a two-way contest not have a period of momentum, even if it is only brief, and even if they go on to lose the match. They may exert pressure straight from the kick off (before getting overwhelmed), or produce a final flurry at the end of a game already lost (leaving supporters wondering why they didn’t see it earlier).

A winning team or athlete produces pressure in attack and defence to generate momentum, and then maintains it. They establish dominance through this, and ensure that when the opposition enjoy their own period of momentum, they keep it as short as possible before reasserting themselves.

To me, it seemed to be the holy grail of every sporting contest.

In purely statistical terms, we can measure and quantify momentum in the review of games – back to back positives versus back to back negatives, repeated positive involvements, uninterrupted by individual or team errors.

However, the language of commentators around turning points in games, and the references of coaches and players in post-game interviews and analysis, made it clear that momentum was more than just numbers. There is an emotional element attached to it that makes spirits lift, or heads drop; it explains away poor performances, or captures the moment a victory began to firm.

Emotional Energy, Pressure & Performance

News articles in 2012 revealed the England rugby team were developing ways to measure the relationship between emotional energy, pressure and performance. Essentially they were measuring sequential phases of mistake-free rugby. A positive involvement whilst in possession of the ball earned the player or team one point, whereas a knock-on, forward pass or penalty conceded was minus one. According to former England lock Paul Ackford, when England defeated New Zealand 38-21 that season there were five incidences of the All Blacks making two consecutive errors whereas England had none. England’s mistakes were made in isolation rather than compounded by another immediate mistake, whereas in their previous 20-14 loss to the Wallabies their tally was essentially reversed.

All of this painted an interesting picture about the significance of momentum, and different methods for capturing and reporting its impact on matches, but as my own career evolved from that of an analyst to a coach, firstly at club level in Brisbane and then with the Reds in the Super 15, I became more interested in its practical application – essentially, how do we bottle momentum so we can produce it in the future?

There is already an array of existing research around “momentum in sport”, however most seems to focus on Psychological Momentum, discussing either a team’s momentum within a competition (eg. season form leading into finals), or a single defining moment or ‘big play’ in a game that swings the perceived momentum. None of these address the topic of practically coaching momentum. Essentially they all view momentum as a psychological phenomenon that may or may not really exist.

The key questions I came up with were:

1) How do we coach momentum – is it technical or tactical?

2) Can we predict and therefore pre-empt the opposition's period of momentum in order to better prepare for it, or even prevent it?

3) How do we make the opposition's period of momentum as short as possible (ie. shift the momentum)?

Dictionary Definitions

Not the most scientific starting point, but the dictionary definition of ‘Momentum’ provided some useful detail in identifying practical coaching lessons and opportunities for creating an environment for success.

In physics, momentum is, “A measure of the motion of a body equal to the product of its mass and velocity, also called linear momentum.”

From this, we establish that momentum is the sum of several components working together. These components, for example our game elements, must be coordinated to drive the body in the same direction. Therefore we can’t coach our game elements in isolation – they must support each other and planning must go into how we link scrum to phase play, kick to kick chase, attack to defence. Do we run our training sessions as 30 minutes attack, followed by 30 minutes defence, with set piece to finish – or are we moving back and forth between them, ensuring our players can adjust to the transitions between these mindsets and skillsets?

In philosophy, momentum is, “An essential or constituent element; a moment.”

Our lesson here is that every little piece that goes towards creating momentum is crucial to the final product. Our coaching must include attention to detail. This may be technical, such as the position of hands when catching and passing; or tactical, such as designating which players we want leading our kick chase. In the recent test match between England and Australia at Twickenham, was it a coincidence that England had two of their tallest players standing as defenders one and two, in line with Will Genia’s right foot, at the defensive ruck that lead to a charge-down and try (and big “momentum shift”) for the English?

Finally, momentum is described as, “The impetus of a physical object in motion; or the impetus of a non-physical process, such as an idea or a course of events.”

So, generating momentum requires impetus and energy (substitute these words for effort and work rate), and momentum is not purely physical – it can be a succession of events or something psychological.

There isn’t time here to discuss the details, but close analysis of the dictionary definition of the word ‘Pressure’ is even more revealing. It talks about physical force, proactivity, continuous effort, urgency and an atmosphere of stress or distress – all with significant connotations in Rugby Union and sports beyond.

Momentum Changers

In Rugby League, there is a microcosm of the game’s momentum in each 6 tackle set. The Canberra Raiders team KPI’s have previously included: set completion rate; missed tackles; frequency of a slow play the ball; metres gained in the first 3 tackles; and dominant tackle percentage. All of these are momentum changers and there is huge significance placed on generating or preventing repeat sets as statistically these often lead to points being scored.

Fellow Rugby Union coaches will have their own ideas about the game elements that create or hinder momentum in a game, but my own brief list includes the following:

Positive impact on momentum: field position; quick, usable ball from breakdown; points scored; dominant tackles; turnovers won.

Negative impact on momentum: inferior set piece (scrum, lineout, restart); turnovers conceded (handling errors, breakdown); missed penalty kick at goal (the psychological blow of not turning pressure into points); linebreaks conceded; poor kicks or charge downs; injuries; missed tackles; penalties conceded (and reasons why); yellow card / red card.

What stood out for me from a coaching perspective is that many of the elements in the positive group are team efforts or the culmination of several moments of success. In contrast, the majority of those in the negative group are the responsibility of individuals. Therefore the negative group is easier for us to measure and ultimately to control.

In practically applying this at club level, we would review games by scoring players against the elements in the negative group, calling them “Momentum Changers.” We were concentrating their accountability on the areas they can individually control, as well as placing emphasis on things that are changing the flow of games.

Conclusions: What to Coach

Different coaches may see importance in different game elements, but I would encourage everyone to look at their own sport and identify these momentum changers, and significantly which ones you can coach and hold each other accountable for. They may not necessarily be the big ticket items we traditionally spend our coaching time on.

Obviously there will be variation between sports, for example Rugby Union may be different from Soccer and Tennis in that you don't have to have the ball or be scoring points in order to have momentum. But there will be common themes, and also knock-on behavioural (ie. emotional) effects. How often as coaches do we see that when momentum starts to shift, the team losing it starts to reduce communication, or they start to complain about refereeing decisions?

There is also value in studying old games and identifying changes in momentum. Regardless of the scenario, what are the common themes? What was the momentum turning point? What was the reaction of the dominant team as momentum shifted?

The modern elite player is proficient at using video software to analyse their own performances, or preview an upcoming opponent. But their focus is almost always on the highlights – the clips of missed tackles, line-breaks, or tries. Everything is looked at in isolation, rather than as part of the bigger system, and as such very few have a good understanding of the flow of a game, or the pressure points and momentum shifts within a contest.

Taking all of this into account, and returning to my initial questions:

1) How do we coach momentum – is it technical or tactical?

  • Coaching momentum is both technical and tactical. Coach outstanding execution in the “Against Momentum” game elements: set piece, avoiding turnovers (handling skills, general play kicking, attacking breakdown), penalty kicks at goal, injury prevention, tracking and tackle technique, and measures to avoid conceding penalties.
  • Our base game and game plan must be simple enough to ensure everyone is working cohesively so we can generate momentum
  • Coach excellence in the small details so these can be achieved continuously and pressure can be constantly applied on the opposition
  • Ensure players demonstrate energy and urgency to produce impetus and ‘collective will’ (and reward those players with selection)

2) Can we predict and therefore pre-empt the opposition's period of momentum in order to better prepare for it, or even prevent it?

  • There is an obvious change in atmosphere in games – look for it!
  • Identify symptoms of distress in our players, such as a drop in communication, or getting distracted by the referee’s decisions
  • There are also physical symptoms of being under pressure – look for fatigue, injuries, etc 

3) How do we make the opposition's period of momentum as short as possible (ie. shift the momentum)?

  • Small details contribute towards changing momentum, rather than the ‘big play’ – keep doing the basics well and trust the momentum to shift
  • We don’t have to have the ball to start changing the momentum
  • We must communicate more than the opposition
  • We must not react to refereeing decisions

Originally from the UK, Peter Wilkins has worked for Queensland Rugby since 2007. Having held the roles of Regional Rugby Manager and State Education Manager at QRU, he progressed to the position of Performance Analyst with the Queensland Reds in 2011 & is currently the Assistant Coach. 

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