The Magnus effect

Blair Walsh: Was his missed field goal in the Vikings’ loss to the Seahawks an example of the Magnus effect? Photograph by Jeffrey Beall.

Blair Walsh: Was his missed field goal in the Vikings’ loss to the Seahawks an example of the Magnus effect? Photograph by Jeffrey Beall.

Among the teams vying for the American and National Football Conference Championships next week, you won’t find the name of the Minnesota Vikings. That’s because the Vikes’ placekicker Blair Walsh missed a crucial field goal – in part because the football wasn’t lined up properly – against the Seattle Seahawks, who know a thing or two about how the ball bounces. (Last year’s Super Bowl. Marshawn Lynch on the one-yard line. Russell Wilson is told not to hand him the ball. New England Patriots win. Just saying.)

In the Vikings-Hawks game, Walsh kicked the ball – something he’s done successfully probably 98 or 99 percent of the time. Although instead of it veering one way, it went the other.

The Magnus effect: You expect the ball to curve one way, but it heads in another direction. It’s a common phenomenon in ball sports like football and tennis and a common metaphor as well.

How many moments in life are manifestations of the Magnus effect?, Quinn Novak, the troubled quarterback at the heart of my upcoming novel “The Penalty for Holding,” wonders as he watches a World Tennis Day match with his secret lover at Madison Square Garden. (The scene reunites us with some of the characters in “Water Music,” the first novel in my series “The Games Men Play,” who reappear in a later novel in the series, called appropriately “The Magnus Effect.”)

Sports, it seems, are always throwing us a curve. Serena Williams will be in action at the Australian Open, which begins Jan. 18. But the memory of her losing to Roberta Vinci in the semifinal of the US Open in what appeared to be her inevitable march to the Grand Slam hasn’t dimmed. Novak Djokovic will be back in action, too. He was on track to win his first French Open last year after he demolished perennial champ Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals. But Stan Wawrinka robbed Nole of his dream. The Magnus effect.

Or is it? Sports psychologist John F. Murray has written a great deal about the role that training the mind plays in winning at sports and life. After the Vikings’ loss, several sportswriters noted that the Vikings may have been a better team than the Hawks but the Hawks had more experience in recent postseason play.

Yet even with training and experience, what role does the unconscious play? You tell yourself not to be nervous but unconsciously you may be, and that causes slipups that you might not otherwise make.

Or is it a question of fate and luck and what we perceive to be a good or bad performance is nothing more than the fulfillment of destiny? This is what Quinn wonders as he and his team, the once hapless New York Templars, prepare for the biggest game of their young lives.

Part of what Quinn concludes is it doesn’t matter if there is such a thing as fate. You have to play every day as if destiny is in your hands.

Knowing all the while that often the only thing you can control is your reaction to how the ball bounces.