Creative Leadership

The National Championship, OU Football, and the Importance of Momentum

I originally wrote this post last year, when the Oklahoma Sooners (where I received my M.A. degree) lost in the Fiesta Bowl.  This year, they lost in the BCS national championship to Florida.  I’m re-running the post, because the concept is really important for you and me.  Momentum is an elusive term, and can mean different things to different people. It’s most often used in sports when the ball “bounces your way” or a shooter gets hot, or things just seem to all fall in place.

It works in business, non-profit, and personal affairs as well. John Maxwell has written extensively on what he calls “The Big Mo” and how important it is to take advantage of momentum when it happens. Maximizing your momentum in a business or organizational moment is a critical key to success. How you manage momentum when sales skyrocket, the market moves your way, competitors make mistakes, and great things happen can have an impact on your company for years. But there’s another side of the issue that I thought about when I watched Oklahoma lose to Florida in the Orange Bowl.

I lived in Oklahoma for 12 years, received my Master’s Degree at OU, and have enjoyed OU football for a long time. An old friend is Steve Davis, who quarterbacked OU to back to back national championships in the seventies so I’ve had the opportunity to see the inside of the program from time to time. But one thing that’s always bothered me about OU football is how little they seem to understand about momentum – especially when it doesn’t go their way.

OU definitely knows how to take advantage of momentum when it does go their way. They now have the NCAA record for most points in a season, so when momentum happens for them, they can take advantage of it and run up the score.

But when the ball doesn’t bounce their way, OU often falls apart. Two years ago, it happened at the bowl game with Boise State when OU lost to a school no one had ever heard of, and last year to West Virginia. In fact, I think OU has now lost 5 bowl games in a row, and while I’m not a football expert, it’s interesting to notice that OU rarely if ever comes from behind to win. It’s either win big or lose control when momentum shifts.

The truth is, there are many times in our lives when momentum doesn’t happen for us. No matter what we do, competitors do better than us, our team makes mistakes, the market crashes, or other bad things happen, and everything seems to spiral out of control. The truth is, anyone can do well when the ball is bouncing your way, but what happens when it doesn’t? Can you turn momentum around? Can you still win – even when nothing seems to go your way?  It’s an especially interesting question considering today’s financial situation around the country.

I think you can, but it’s tough. Here’s four key issues you have to master to make it happen, and if you can control these areas, I believe you can turn the tide on momentum:

1) Discipline. Discipline can stare down failure, because discipline keeps your emotions in check. What usually happens when you lose momentum is everyone gets emotionally out of control and things go down from there. I was lobster diving in the Pacific a few weeks ago (yes, in December) with Pastor Bayless Conley from Cottonwood Christian Center here in Los Angeles. It was my second trip with Bayless, and this time we took the boat to an area particularly infested with kelp. Kelp is like an underwater forest, and it’s really thick. And especially since we were diving at night with only a flashlight, it can be very dangerous. When I went into the water, everything was fine at first, but before long, the kelp started wrapping around my legs, my arms, and finally my neck. Suddenly, my ability to swim was restricted, and since we were snorkeling, when I started to get pulled under, I began to panic. The more I lost control of my ability to swim, the more my emotions started to run away with me. I had to fight to control those emotions, and literally will myself to stay in control. I forced myself to relax, floated to the top, and there Bayless and another friend freed me from the kelp. It was a sobering moment, but a terrific lesson in how the power of mental discipline can keep your emotions from getting the upper hand and the situation from getting out of control.

2) Do your homework. I was really impressed the other day with an interview with New England Patriots Tom Brady. Brady wasn’t particularly outstanding in college, was drafted low, and sat on the bench for awhile in the pros. But once he got his chance, he’s become what many believe to be the best quarterback in pro football. In the interview he said his secret is preparation. He spends so much time watching films of the other teams, studying their moves, and understanding how they think, nothing surprises him on the field. Alfred Hitchcock is said to have prepared his movies so well, that when he actually got to the set he was bored, because he’d already worked everything out. Nothing beats doing your homework, so that if the momentum shifts, you’re ready, and can stick to your game. It’s never a shock when you expect something to happen.

3) The power of focus.
When momentum shifts to the other side, there are plenty of distractions. Fans go crazy, your team loses confidence, critics come out of the woodwork, noise happens, and much more. When you lose momentum, distraction takes your eye off the goal, and you start making mistakes. The ability to stay in focus, and keep your eyes on the prize are often what makes the difference and turns the tide.

4) Experience.
Having been there before matters. Last night OU’s brilliant Heisman winning quarterback was no match for the more experienced quarterback from Florida. Today, particularly in business, we have a tendency to toss out the older people and focus on youth. But the truth is, those older employees (as long as they’re not set in their ways) have seen a lot of water under the bridge, and not much scares them anymore. The value of an experienced team is powerful, and few things help you keep your head, stick with your game, and overcome a sense of failure more than people who have done it before. Value experience inside your organization.

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  1. all great observations and one more thing i notice in athletics, especially basketball where the momentum can change rapidly and decide the game.  when the momentum is going against you, a good coach calls time and pulls the team aside for a moment.  i think usually to regroup on what they are doing, but also to try and break the other teams momentum.  but when you have the momentum, the coach usually lets it run hard.

  2. There's a lot here to think about Phil.

    I waited a bit to respond on this to get my thoughts together because it ties into several things I've been exposed to and comtemplating from the world of Organizational Leadership and Corporate Psychology.

    Momentum is one of those intangible things that happens that is hard to measure but you know when it is happening.  It's a psychological thing that sports illustrates very well.  It's when the team smells success, sees the path clear and suspends fear and disbelief and works together to make the most of the opportunity and as you mention, about the only thing the opposing team or coach can do is call a time out and talk their team through to change something in their execution or energy levels and put a halt to it, or hope the other team catches their breath and suddenly has doubts.

    In an organization there are some other factors though and the only way I know to put what this triggered for me is in the negative, in terms of what can kill momentum in ministry whether media driven or otherwise.

    We're entering into a very critical time in terms of generational groups and the dynamics of them working together.

    You have the silent generation – age 61 and older

    the Baby Boomers – about age 40 – 60

    Generation X – about 25 to 40

    and the Millenials – 24 and younger.

    The population sizes of these groups are not even.  The Boomers are the larger group and the Millenials are the second larger group.

    The mindsets are very different in general between the groups.

    As the Silent Generation moves into traditional retirement and the Boomers are filling the dominant roles, and Generation X'rs are in short supply (a real impact of Roe Vs Wade and abortion by the way ….) the dynamics of organizations are being stretched as the available job force is forcing reliance on younger workers who are very different in their views of work, loyalty and it's becoming a real challange for organizations to maintain corporate knowlege and a stable base of workers.

    Talk about a momentum breaker!

    Many organizations I think, are missing the big picture and what is happening here.

    It affects ministry and media organizations as well.

    Hope that's not too greart a tangent but that is what this triggered for me.


  3. Very good Phil – but one other thing. In most of what we do either in business, or life its about how we work as part of a team – few of us are islands. One thing therefore that I have noticed (to use the sports analogy) is how critical it is to have a leader on the field – someone who can motivate, encourage, discipline and make changes necessary. The coach on the sideline can only do so much its the leader on the field that’s critical. That person can change things in an instant, read the game see what needs to be done and make it happen. We need to find and nurture those leaders as they are the ones that when its all going bad can change it round. Perhaps one of the problems is that the big man in charge (the coach on the side line) doesn't like people questioning his authority or changing things as plays develop – therefore they squash the leadership on the field instead of realising how valuable this is. All the time you’re totally relying on someone on the sidelines rather than in the thick of it – you'll fail. Phil – glad you got out the Kelp!!

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