Friday, December 16, 2011

Shang Zhou Shoulda Dropped the Gloves

[Forgive me if I’ve done this one before.]

There is an old joke that says every Arabic word has four meanings: the first is the common usage, the second is the exact opposite of the first, the third is something pertaining to a horse, and the fourth is so unspeakably vulgar that no one will tell you what it is. English word-formation is a cruder than Arabic, so we don’t have quite the same richness of meanings inherent in individual words, but we make up for it with a propensity for metaphorical usage: we take words that have one definite meaning and use them to describe something else that is utterly different but feels similar. For example, ‘venomous’ technically refers to an animal which uses a poison to attack, but we often use it to describe to people who use words to deliberately hurt the feelings of others. Totally different actual situations, but they share a common tone, and so we’ll transpose words from one to the other. English has a lot of these kind of metaphors built into it.

Another such example is ‘momentum’. Momentum is, originally, a physics term: it refers (and I’m being loose here, so don’t no physics-people come to my house and kill me in the dead of night) to the principle that objects in motion tend to stay in motion, until the energy of that motion is absorbed by some other object or redirected by some other force. However, we use it to refer to all sorts of things that are not physical objects. In the common usage, a political campaign can have momentum, or an idea, or a hockey team.

But hockey momentum is rather like the second meaning in the joke above- it means almost the exact opposite of what physics momentum means. Or, if not quite the exact opposite, something very different indeed. In physics, momentum is not readily changed. A boulder rolling down a hill can be slowed by friction or break against a concrete wall, but it can’t just get knocked back up the hill by a toothpick. Hockey momentum, conversely, is an incredibly whimsical force. Capricious, even. A team can have tremendous momentum, huge momentum, even- as the commentators will sometimes say- all the momentum, and then one bad fight, one bad penalty, one wonky goal and suddenly, hey, now the other team has all the momentum. Hockey momentum turns on a dime. If physics-momentum worked like hockey momentum, wrecking balls would occasionally just bounce off buildings like the Nerf variety and some days I’d be able to juggle sledgehammers. Not always, of course. Just sometimes.

Now, I’m not saying that the phenomenon hockey analysts use the term ‘momentum’ to describe doesn’t exist. It certainly does. It’s one of those things that, if you were feeling analytical, you could probably break down and demonstrate with things like shots and hits and offensive zone possession time, but really it’s just the general perception that one team is playing significantly better than the other. Sometimes a game is so closely balanced that it’s difficult to discern who is truly superior, but other times one can totally eyeball that shit. The subtle gradations of the game are difficult to see, but dominance is pretty obvious, and so when a team has obviously dominated and still goes to intermission with the score 0-0, we’ll say, yeah, but they’ve got the momentum.

In fact, momentum is one of the more useful concepts of in-game hockey analysis because it is one of the few traditional commentary terms that refers to (as Chris Boyle would say) process rather than result. A team that has momentum is a team that is executing their game plan successfully. They’re setting the pace and the tone. They’re getting the kind of plays they want. There’s a shade of moral approval, even, in crediting a team with momentum: they’re playing hockey right. It doesn’t matter if they’ve gotten more goals or less goals or no goals, they can still have the momentum. The assumption is that sustained momentum will equal goals eventually, but it doesn’t always work out that way, and everyone knows it. In fact, saying that they have the momentum is often a way of praising a team that hasn’t had quite the scoring success one might expect given their efficacy in the major areas of the game.

So I would never suggest that hockey analysts give up talking about the idea of momentum, but I think we need a new term for it. 'Momentum' is a terrible metaphor for this idea, it conveys completely the wrong thing. Hockey momentum isn’t a powerful force that’s difficult to change; it’s a transient state of grace that's difficult to achieve and harder still to hold. We need a different metaphor. I’m going to go with 'The Mandate of Heaven'.

The Mandate of Heaven is a concept from Chinese political philosophy which is sometimes compared to the European notion of the Divine Right of Kings. It is, in actuality, nothing like the Divine Right of Kings except insofar as it is an ethical principle pertaining to notions of just rulership, so you can just throw out that sad attempt at cultural universalism right now. The Mandate of Heaven basically says this: If you can take power and hold it and keep everything more or less orderly and pleasant for everyone, than you must be blessed by Heaven, and therefore you have the right to rule and nobody should challenge you. However, if you suck at holding power and things go to hell and there’s starvation and lawlessness and children disrespecting their parents and dogs and cats living together and whatnot, then obviously you are a crappy ruler and Heaven no longer endorses you and people have a right to overthrow you and put somebody in office who can do the job right.

The Mandate of Heaven doesn’t have any predictive power nor is it a mystical quality that rests in any one person or bloodline. An emperor could have the Mandate of Heaven today and lose it tomorrow to some upstart shoe-shine boy with an army, if that upstart shoe-shine boy had a superior knack for governance. At a basic level, it’s just a term that recognizes a state of being: an emperor who is empiring properly, keeping folk fed and educated and reasonably unraped and unpillaged considering the era, gets to have the Mandate of Heaven. An emperor who is starving and abasing the people, or allowing an unacceptable rate of raping and pillaging, doesn’t have the Mandate of Heaven. The bad emperor might still stay in power for a short time through force or luck, but he’s not legitimate, and like as not the horrific conditions he’s creating will eventually lead to his downfall.

Which is exactly the kind of thing we want to say about hockey teams when we say they have momentum: they’re doing well, they’re doing what they ought to be doing. They are the oughtta-be winners of this game. They are the legitimately superior team. That state of being is not permanent, it exists only so far as they keep up their dominance. The opponents could easily take over, if they do something to muck up the flow of the game and then start playing better themselves. Exactly like the Mandate of Heaven.

And honestly, wouldn’t it be way more awesome for commentary? All this talk about momentum is shitty metaphor and even if it wasn’t, it’s been done to death. It’s boring. It’s clichéd. I, for one, would much rather hear things like:

“Bob, the Habs really stole the Mandate of Heaven with that 5-on-3 penalty kill,”

“Indeed, Jim, it’s like Han Liu Bang killed the white serpent out there, all Canadiens now.”


“Well, Jim, the Panthers have a stranglehold on the Mandate of Heaven so far tonight; what do the Lightning have to do to turn this thing around?”

“Bob, somebody on that bench has to step up and make like Zhou Gong on their asses, otherwise this thing is already over.”

See? How much better is that? Within two months hockey fans everywhere would be thinking much more accurately about the variability of dominance in the game AND have learned a ton about Chinese history. It’s perfect.


Dirk Hoag said...

Thought-provoking as always!

First, in physics terminology, the description you use in the second paragraph more properly fits Inertia. Momentum is a numerical measure, the product of mass and velocity. A light object moving quickly could have the same momentum as a heavy one moving slowly, for example.

In hockey terms, I tend to think of momentum as a function of team confidence. So much of decision-making in the game is almost instinctive, and if a player lacks essential confidence, he may not go after a 50/50 puck aggressively, or attempt to thread a pass to a streaking teammate for fear of a turnover. When players work together and are making those aggressive decisions, however, they can build upon one another and drive the overall flow of play.

E said...

well, i was more thinking of the law of conservation of linear momentum than momentum properly, but of course you're correct. does that change the underlying idea that, in order to be completely reversed, momentum would have to be counteracted by an equal force? feel free to correct/educate me, it's been a long time since i made a study of physics.

i would agree that it is related to confidence, although there are varying opinions on whether being confident creates momentum (i.e. playing well), or having momentum (i.e. playing well) creates confidence. there is, after all, such a thing as overconfidence, which can lead to bad risks, which is one of the reasons teams sometimes lose the mandate of heaven. (hehehe)

Stephan Cooper said...

While confidence might be a factor I think what we're talking about here is more related to what gets termed in both competitive games and warfare as "having the initiative." This is something that is partly psychological and partly positional/territorial.

It essentially boils down to which side as the greater freedom to choose their actions while their opponent is forced to react. In the larger sense who has the initiative will correlate with who is the stronger side but in the smaller sense its something that can be shifted with relatively minor events.

moregreen said...


Serge said...

I always think that momentum is a certain point of the game wherein a particular team is at its peak, and during these times, timeouts are usually utilized by the opposing team as a means to hopefully break that.

pay per head demo said...

It is impressive that they have all those things behind the Arabic Language. Even if it is a joke it should have some true on it.