There is a saying in MMA that a fighter is only as good as his last fight. If he lost his last fight, he will have a harder time winning the next one. Conversely, he will be more likely to win if he won his last fight. The same logic applies not only to fighting, but to competing in all kinds of sports, in politics, in sales, in marketing, in trading stocks, in academic pursuits, etc.
Winning and losing affect your mental state, which affects your behavior and thus your performance. We use to call that state confidence. Psychologists call it psychological momentum. When you win, you gain psychological momentum, making you more likely to win again; when you lose, you lose psychological momentum (or you gain negative momentum), making you more likely to lose again.
What is it about psychological momentum that affects behavior and performance?
According to the efficiency principle, psychological momentum makes you more likely to successfully complete a task better and faster by enhancing your confidence and competence. After winning, you have higher expectations for your next performance, which lead you to exert more effort.
Moreover, winning makes you see yourself as a better performer and others as worse performers. This perception gives you a mental edge. When you beat your competition, you see yourself as superior, and when you see yourself as superior, you are more likely to beat your competition again. (This is not quite ego-phobic, I know.)
Upon tasting the sweetness of victory, winners gain a heightened sense that they can succeed. Instead of resting on their oars and becoming lazy, they are more likely to step up their game. Their mental and physical effort tends to increase.
Nonetheless, psychological momentum can be disrupted. If, for example, you have just won a fight but your next fight gets canceled or you get injured and cannot train for a while, you have to restart your task/training without positive momentum making your performance easier and smoother.
Typically, though, psychological momentum is a shorter-term phenomenon. In fighting, it should be much stronger during a fight than between fights. If a fighter lands good strikes or spots his opponent flinching or running out of gas, his psychological momentum increases, as do his chances to win.
As I have already discussed in another article, deliberate practice explains only 1-26% of the variance in human performance. This means that most of the game is played, besides talent and genetics, by psychology. Winning is not all in your head, but for a large part it is.
Still, being in your head does not necessarily mean being in your conscious mind. Although you may consciously experience psychological momentum as mental strength, is can also be a mere nonconscious matter of increased neural efficiency and reduced distractibility. Iso-Ahola and Dotson (2016) propose that psychological momentum is initially a consciously energizing force that becomes increasingly nonconscious as the performer progressively automatizes his skills.
Now, what can you do when you have a losing streak, when you pile failure upon failure, when your negative psychological momentum increases?
- Work even harder on your skills.
- Practice mindfulness to cool your mind.
- Use visualization techniques, maybe hire a mental coach.
- Try EEG and/or HRV biofeedback training.
Iso-Ahola, S. E., Dotson, C. O. (2016). Psychological Momentum—A Key to Continued Success. Frontiers in Psychology 7(1328), doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01328.