Self-Confidence & Psychological Momentum

Intimidating golf shots
If you don’t have confidence standing over your shot, it can be hard to pull the trigger.

Self-confidence is a popular topic of conversation at the Golf Academy. In fact, we’re studying it right now in Sport Psychology with Dr. Teri Aguiar. Self-confidence, especially as it relates to golf, is a funny, fleeting thing.

We’ve all stood on the tee at one time or another, confident that we can execute the next shot with which we’re faced with. And then there are other times, maybe a bunker short of the green or a hazard that runs along the right side of the fairway, when we hesitate to pull the trigger because we’re not so sure.

Today, we learned that self-confidence leads to improved athletic performance. That’s a fact, and it goes without saying. But where does self-confidence come from? According to Dr. Robin Vealey’s multidimensional model of sport-confidence, it comes from three sources: achievement, self-regulation, and social climate.

Achievement is the mastery and demonstration of one’s abilities. It’s made up of accomplishments and experience. Self-regulation is the training and preparation that goes into getting ready for an athletic event, and social climate refers to the support one gets within his/her social circle, the quality of the coaching, and trust.

Athletes report a feeling of increased confidence during periods of perceived psychological momentum. We’ve all witnessed it – either firsthand or on television. One play, one shot, or one putt seems to shift the momentum away from one team toward another, and it definitely relates to confidence.

Psychological momentum is a change in thought, emotion, body chemistry, or behavior caused by an event. The key element in this definition is the precipitating event (the play, shot, or putt) that leads to the momentum chain or the snowball effect.

A great example of psychological momentum is Greg Norman’s collapse at the 1996 Masters.

Experienced athletes are better able to recognize and act upon precipitating events, more likely to possess the skills necessary to take advantage of precipitating events, and better able to mobilize defenses against negative momentum. A great example of this phenomenon as it relates to golf happened in the 1996 Masters.

Australia’s Greg Norman had a six-shot lead heading into the final round at Augusta. In fact, he led after each of the first three rounds of the tournament, but Norman faltered down the stretch and lost to Englishman Nick Faldo by five strokes. Norman shot a six-over par 78 while Faldo shot a five-under 67.

As Sports Illustrated reported, “It happened so quickly, it was hard to say what had been seen. A swing buried in a bunker at the start, three straight bogeys in the middle, a Maxfli in the water at the 12th and another at the 16th. Suddenly, Norman’s greatest rival, Nick Faldo, was walking past him straight into the green jacket that had been fashioned all week for Norman.”

Norman had certainly seen Master trophies snatched from his grasp before: from the front to Tom Watson in 1981, from behind to Jack Nicklaus in ’86, from nowhere to Larry Mize in ’87, and finally to Ben Crenshaw in ’95. You couldn’t have blamed him for thinking, “Here we go again.”

That’s psychological momentum, and sufficient research exists to conclude that the concept is real and it’s associated with changes in athletic performance.

Stephen Curry seems to have the "hot hand" every time he's on the floor.
Stephen Curry seems to have the “hot hand” every time he’s on the floor.

Related to the concept of psychological momentum is the hot hand phenomenon, which describes the belief that performance of an athlete temporarily improves following a string of successes. This is like streak shooting in basketball.

While Golden State Warriors’ guard Stephen Curry seems to have the proverbial “hot hand” every time he’s on the floor, one of the best examples of this phenomenon occurred in the 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals between the Indiana Pacers and the New York Knicks.

For all intents and purposes, the game was over. The Knicks had a 105-99 lead over their hated rivals with 18.7 seconds left to play in Game 1… at home. And then Reggie Miller happened.

Miller scored eight points all by himself and then dashed inside the tunnel to the Pacers locker room shouting, “Choke artists! Choke artists!,” a phrase that was splashed across the sports pages of the New York tabloids the next morning.

If a player believes he has the “hot hand,” then he’ll likely be brimming with self-confidence. That night, Reggie Miller’s confidence level had skyrocketed. Indiana wound up winning the series in seven games, and the Knicks have never been the same.



Portions of this post courtesy of Sport Psychology: Concepts and Applications by Richard H. Cox,, and

This article has 1 Comment

  1. You captured the true essence of our discussion on psychological momentum, Dan. And I’m most impressed that you chose to use my colleague Robin Vealey’s model of self-confidence to explain the etiology rather than Bandura’s or Harter’s models. Why? Not because hers is better, but because it shows me you actually read the textbook! I predict you will ace my course, Dan. 🙂 -Dr. Teri Aguiar

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