Momentum in Team Sports


Photograph by (Tres) descamarado (2006) (Flickr Creative Commons image)

A weekend of watching televised sport renewed my thinking about momentum in sport. I thought I might illustrate my post with some images from Flickr.

I think about momentum as a wave (perhaps from my reading of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) and have been contemplating for a long time now the role of probabilistic approaches to sports performance. I like the idea of a wave as it suggests tidal change.

The Wikipedia article on Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi notes that his concept of flow involves “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”


Photograph by Mike Baird (2007) (Flickr Creative Commons image)

Some years ago (1990 in fact!) I was thinking of writing a paper entitled ‘Do coaches need a Gamelan rather than a Gameplan?’ I had seen a Gamelan in action at the Dartington College of Arts and what attracted me then was the characteristics in this description:

Varying forms of gamelan ensembles are distinguished by their collection of instruments and use of voice, tunings, repertoire, style, and cultural context. In general, no two gamelan ensembles are the same, and those that arose in prestigious courts are often considered to have their own style. Certain styles may also be shared by nearby ensembles, leading to a regional style.

So … whether it is jazz or gamelan music … it seems to me that athletes and coaches can have an active engagement in performance by being sensitive to rhythms. I think there are three types of rhythms in team games:

  • Negotiating
  • Driving
  • Chasing

I believe that in all three rhythms probabilistic behaviour can optimise the opportunity to drive a game and amplify that driving process. The enormous temptation when chasing, I believe, is that players seek possibilistic outcomes and abandon risk management. Clearly some teams do have a once in a lifetime experience but winning teams are able to counter most of these challenges by applying principles and probabilities. In most team games there is ample time to manage risk and probabilities so that the outcome is under your control independent of conditions and officiating.


Photograph by Jim Frazier (2005) (Flickr Creative Commons image)

(Note: Jim Frazier’s Flickr Profile can be found at and the Surfing in Chicago picture can be found at

I hope to return to this post to add some more about Martin Lames‘s idea of phases in games and Clive Ashworth‘s notions of figurations.

Professor Tom Reilly


I wrote this post in June 2009 and have added to it since then. In December 2010 I included some information shared by Frank Sanderson (including a eulogy for Tom). On 11 June 2011 I received news of the Tom Reilly Memorial Lecture at ECSS 2011 (TomReillyMemorialLecture) and have included a message from Tim Cable at the end of this post.

Frank’s eulogy:

At Tom’s funeral, we were overwhelmed and humbled by the sentiment of everyone to “do something”, something to honour him and everything he stood for. So that’s exactly what we have done, and with the support of his wife Jill, we have created the opportunity for everyone who was inspired by him in some way, to honour his memory.

As you know, Tom was a major and enduring influence on the studies, research and careers of innumerable people. He was totally dedicated to supporting his postgraduate researchers to such effect that many hold key positions around the world and are established and respected figures within sports science and related disciplines. Many tell us of the debt of gratitude they owe to Tom for his unstinting support, friendship and wise counsel.  He also collaborated with international researchers to great effect, establishing lasting friendships and raising the profile and influence of sport and exercise sciences.

In recognition of his passionate support for bringing on the next generation of Sport Scientists, LJMU has launched the Tom Reilly Memorial Fund (Tom Reilly Memorial Fund) with a view to raising £150,000 over the next three years to provide support for PhD students here at LJMU working in the areas of Tom’s research interests.

I read with profound sadness of Tom Reilly’s death. I received a number of emails yesterday following Tim Cable’s message on the Liverpool John Moores’ website. The text of Tim’ message about Tom is:

He was a very private man who was universally respected and admired by all.  He was a deeply compassionate and loyal man, profoundly interested in the development of others before himself.  His intellectual powers knew no boundaries, providing deep insights into the worlds of philosophy, literature and the use of English language.  But, outside his family, his passions were science (particularly kinanthropometry – on which he completed writing a textbook in the last week!), Everton, Everton, Football  in general (many codes but mainly the round ball shape) and Ireland.  He was a voracious reader and writer and his motivation and dedication to acquire and disseminate knowledge appeared endless.

He applied his bountiful energy in the realm of academic leadership, both within and outside this institution.  He was the first ever Professor of Sports Science in the UK, and helped forge the rich heritage of sport and exercise scientific study at Liverpool Polytechnic, LJMU and beyond. As his reputation of excellence grew, his influence extended nationally and internationally, leading many initiatives and effecting change in policy and practice in many esteemed organisations.  Perhaps the most profound legacy has been his mentoring of staff and postgraduate students (his self-titled “Liverpool Mafia”) that now exert significant ripples of influence across all walks of society, but particularly within HE.  In this way, over the years, he has been responsible for germinating the seeds of our young discipline.

But despite these powerful academic credentials, Tom will remain in my mind as a very warm, intensely caring and very humorous individual, whose eye always had a twinkle.

Tim’s final sentence is my memory too … particularly the ‘twinkle’. My last opportunity to spend some time with Tom was in May 2005 at a conference in Hvar. We had some time to walk and talk on a beautiful evening at the end of the conference. Our conversation started with a discussion of the Everton teams of the late 1950s and 1960s. I had gone to Everton games during this period with my cousins and marvelled at the ability of Gordon West, Alex Parker, Ali McGowan, Brian Labone, Tony Kay, Brian Harris, Jimmy Gabriel, Howard Kendall, Colin Harvey, Alan Ball, Bobby Collins, Dennis Stevens, Johnny Morrisey, Derek Temple and Roy Vernon. Tom recalled all these players too, had a story about each of them and we had the most wonderful discussion filled with laughter. (I told Tom that many years later as my career in performance analysis started I read his PhD and synesthesia took over recalling those days. That night in Hvar we even got round to discussing the prodigious throwing skills of the lady who threw toffees into the crowd at Goodison Park.)

On our walk back to the conference hotel I asked Tom to consider writing about his remarkable career. My interest has always been in qualitative research and I thought Tom’s story would be a wonderful biography to share. He and I had paths that crossed without knowing including his time at St Mary’s College and his work with Vaughan Thomas. A THE article in 1997 had captured briefly some of his early work but there was much much more to share. My point to Tom was that his wonderful insights would help a new generation of students locate their practice in his synoptic vision. I encouraged him to consider this phase of his career as a time for synthesis. I had hoped that by the time we got back to the hotel I had persuaded him. His parting word was ‘Maybe’ as left with the twinkle in the eye that Tim recalls so poignantly.

There will be many celebrations of Tom’s life and career. He touched and inspired many many people and was one of those unique men who are able to define and transform a generation.




Message fro Tim Cable (11 June 2011)

We would like to drive your attention to

The Tom Reilly Memorial Lecture at ECSS Liverpool
Thursday 7th July, 7.30pm in Main Auditorium (1A)
Professor George Brooks, University of California, Berkeley
“Three Decades of Research on Lactate Metabolism: A Conversation with Tom Reilly”

In 1980, Tom Reilly visited George Brooks at the University of California, Berkeley for 6 months as a Research Fellow. It was a learning experience that was to form the philosophical approach upon which Tom’s academic career was based. At the time, George was leading the world in Exercise Physiology and Bioenergetics, changing the way we thought about lactate metabolism and inspiring numerous students through his writing, into the world of sport and exercise sciences. The academic and research insight that Tom gained provided the impetus and energy that infused a passion for Sports Science and provided a platform for the publication of over 900 articles and 15 books. More importantly, Tom witnessed at first hand, expert mentorship of postgraduate students, and it was this experience that led to the hallmark supervision of numerous postgraduate students that Tom was famous for, and which he extended to the development of the Young Investigator Awards for which this College is renown.

Some 30 years later, Professor Brooks remains at the cutting edge of our discipline, producing hypothesis generating work that will challenge the minds and future direction of many aspiring scientists. George has published over of 300 papers that have amassed in excess of 10,000 citations, as well as revising his groundbreaking text on Exercise Physiology and Bioenergetics a number of times. Like Tom, he has mentored many students that have gone on to independently exert their own influence in Exercise Science.

What was also born out of this visit of the 1980’s was a common bond and powerful friendship. It is therefore only fitting that Professor George Brooks present the Tom Reilly Memorial Lecture at ECSS Liverpool 2011.

This promises to be a highlight of the Congress.

We really look forward to seeing you in Liverpool..