We all know the clutch athlete when we see them. The Michael Jordan’s of the world who seemingly will their team to victory. The quarterback who comes through time and time again, engineering winning drives as if they’re routine. The athletes who rise to the occasion, improving their performance when the game is on the line.
Yet, we often make the mistake of confusing the act with the person. We label athletes as “clutch,” talking about how they have the “it” factor; some nebulous combination of inner ingredients that allow them to do the impossible. By confounding the person and the label, we imply that someone is either born with a special ability or not.
If our athlete fails when it counts or doesn’t quite seem to have what it takes, coaches often shrug their shoulders, lamenting the player as a ‘head case’ who let the pressure get to them.
What if instead of labeling athletes, we looked at clutch performances as states, periods where the variables that allow us to raise our game when it counts the most, are present. That’s exactly what researchers did when they interviewed athletes ranging from recreational to world-class. Athletes didn’t have “it” or not. Being clutch was a state, not too dissimilar to the more familiar “flow.” Athletes rated as being ‘clutch’ might be able to enter this state more often than those who don’t, but researchers have found that clutch states have several common characteristics.
1. Appraisal of the situation as a challenge
Whenever we face stress, we can either see the situation as a threat or a challenge. A threat is something we need to protect ourselves from. Something that we aren’t equipped to handle. A challenge, on the other hand, is something that is difficult but within our capacity to deal with. What unfolds in our bodies follows the appraisal. During a threat, a slew of stress hormones like cortisol will be released, preparing us for potential damage. Under a challenge response, adrenaline and positive stress hormones will prepare us to take on whatever we’re facing.
2. A fixed goal
Clutch-state athletes have specific goals related to the situational demands. While we often preach to focus on the process, in situations that demand clutch states, knowing what you need to accomplish, what the end goal is, serves as a filtering mechanism, narrowing your focus and attention on what matters.
3. Complete and deliberate focus
Attention is an amplifier, a type of spotlight that turns the volume up or down on whatever is in our focus. During clutch states, athletes are able to flip the switch, zeroing in on the information that helps them perform, and ignoring that which doesn’t. Take, for example, expert mountaineers who take on the likes of climbing Mt. Everest. Researchers out of the University of Lincoln (UK) investigated the interplay between mental toughness, attentional focus, and decision-making in experienced mountaineers who had climbed summits like Everest. They wanted to understand how focus of attention changed throughout difficult ascents. While their focus bounced around during inconsequential periods of the expedition, during critical periods, climbers reported entering a period of heightened concentration. Their focus and sensory awareness honed in on what mattered so that they could make a critical decision. They were able to tune out information that they deemed irrelevant and remain focused on what would keep them alive and headed towards their goal. As fatigue pushed climbers to their limit and their ability to concentrate waned, they shifted their focus to simple, repetitive tasks. When their mind and body felt completely drained, they focused only on the next step, moving their right leg inches forward, before moving on to focus on the opposite leg. As their oxygen-starved brains couldn’t handle juggling multiple ideas at once, they narrowed in on what mattered.
4. Deciding to increase effort and intensity
“There was a definite feeling of a switching of gears, and ‘Right, okay, things are quite serious here.’ … A feeling of having to take action” a polar explorer reported to Dr. Christian Swann and colleagues when they were investigating clutch states. In their research, athletes expressed that clutch states came about from a conscious decision to increase effort and intensity. They had to flip the switch. How they did so varied, but when they were at the toughest part of their race or performance, they figured out how to choose to increase their effort and intensity.
5. Perceived control
Viktor Frankl noted that when he was in Auschwitz, another prisoner told him that to increase his chances of survival, he should shave and stand and walk smartly. In other words, control what you can. Dr. John Leach believes that bringing some sort of normalcy to perilous situations “requires an appraisal that the person has, at least, some control over his situation, has not accepted mental defeat.” The most powerful weapon against adversity is having a sense of choice. In many environments, from the micro-managing office boss to the dictatorial football coach, we’ve eliminated choice from the lives of those we want to perform well. Often, we do so in the name of ‘toughening’ up individuals. When we don’t have control, we lose the capacity to cope. We were born to choose, so let us learn how to do it. If we believe we have some degree of control over the outcome, then we are more likely to choose to persist, to find a way through whatever adversity we face.
Being clutch isn’t an inherited trait that we are either blessed with or not, it’s a trainable skill. One that can be developed and refined. We can train to experience clutch states by cultivating the aforementioned characteristics.